The British producer Darren Cunningham, operating under the Actress name, is known for making cerebral electronic music. For his latest album, R.I.P., he was not about to lighten up. On the contrary, R.I.P. pushes Cunningham’s subtle yet heady sound into the realms of the mythological and the Biblical; of, as the title suggests, life and death itself.
Even for fans of electronic music, R.I.P. is a challenging proposition. Eschewing smooth digital textures, Cunningham instead crafts his tracks from analog sounds. The results are rich and ephemeral at the same time, each composition coated with a layer of analog fuzz that lends a womblike, insulated quality. Yet all 15 tracks flow together, cut from the same sonic cloth. And what an epic cloth it is, stretching in theme from primordial nothingness to temptation, down into Hell and, finally, to “Caves of Paradise” and beyond. The listener is left to imagine his or her own journey, as there are no lyrics to provide interpretation.
If this concept sounds daunting, be not afraid. R.I.P. is at its most basic a beautiful electronic album, as rewarding as it is challenging. The influences of forebears such as Pole, Boards of Canada and even Steve Reich are audible, and it doesn’t take a PhD in ancient history or Biblical studies to appreciate the gentle slow-motion music box arpeggio of “Jardin” or the quiet patter of white noise that obscures the electronic pulse of “Raven”. Thinking of the confusion in Eden while the dissonant, warped “Tree of Knowledge” plays in the background only enriches the experience for those who are so inclined, but R.I.P. has plenty to offer independent of conceptual coherence.
There aren’t a lot of beats. In fact, only on the 13th track, “The Lord’s Graffiti”, do traditional house music sounds like a 4/4 thump, hi-hat hiss, and towering synths come into play. On most of R.I.P., Cunningham is content to forgo beats altogether and let the wallpaper do the talking. The individual compositions are cyclical, as well, so once a track establishes itself, little changes. In lesser hands, this approach would flirt with monotony or, worse, New Age. But Cunningham’s sounds are so carefully sculpted, each atmosphere so meticulously created, the results are entrancing. Whether it’s the bright, sunlight-through-the-window synth arpeggio of “Ascending” or “Caves of Paradise”‘s dub bassline that in more traditional contexts would qualify as “groovy”, R.I.P. always offers some sound or detail, however slight, that holds one’s attention. Amid the devious drama of “Serpent”, that detail turns out to be a flanged, New Order-like guitar. It’s totally unexpected, and totally appropriate, like much of R.I.P. itself.
This isn’t for everyone, or for every situation or time of day. It’s not something to pump up on the stereo or soundtrack the summer. But what Cunningham has done here is taken sounds that are not unfamiliar in the world of abstract electronic music, and worked them into a continuous, coherent experience that can be enjoyed as well as appreciated on a number of levels. Heady, yes. But well worth getting one’s head around.