Actress isn't your regular techno producer, if you can call him that at all. The founder of Werk Discs has flitted between electro, hip-hop, house and techno over the past eight years, finding something close to a home in the smoke-filled recesses of some lost Underground Resistance bunker. He's an artist whose restless, unforgivingly manipulated music is just as suited to soundtracking installations as it is bellowing out into a nightclub. Part of the reason is Darren Cunningham's deceptive sense of atmospherics: though his tracks are often submerged, distorted and heavily filtered, there's an obsessive level of detail that seems to lead to dimensions of nuance unexpected from such a seemingly lo-fi surface. It's the reason why 2010's Splazsh was one of that year's most addicting, fascinating albums, yet also one of its most monochrome and uniform. He's a defiantly individualistic voice in a referential musical climate, and even his most obvious influences are twisted into nearly unrecognizable binary code wreckage.
Whereas previous albums Splazsh and Hazyville were primarily oriented around beat-driven tracks that you might classify as techno or electro, R.I.P. looks deeply inward into a withdrawn universe, inhabiting some imagined catacombs between the rhythms of established genres. It's a pseudo-concept album about "gardens, serpents and mythological caves," and it has the careful sequencing of one too. Actress records have always been a bit of a journey, but it's never felt as literal as on R.I.P., which stumbles and fumbles through the dark, finding occasional pockets of light and life.
The record is ordered with remarkable care, starting off slow with the more ambient title track and "Ascending" before coalescing into something recognizably alive with "Marble Plexus." Burying a synth beneath blasts of fuzz-bass and shimmering hall-of-mirrors lightworks, its melody seems to squirm and convulse almost at random. "Plexus" makes for a reflection of the organic composition process of R.I.P, one that forewent software synthesizers and plugins in favour of a more hands-on approach. It's a tactile process that results in an album that feels like it's being improvised live, separate even from previous Actress work which could still feel quantized despite its short-circuiting wires and digitized shrieks.
The album's midsection drops out into its most challenging run of tracks. "Jardin" is an exploratory crawl through a completely foreign sound library. Drums sputter and splatter in attempt to map out some kind of pattern before falling back into the wet earth beneath with a plod. Things pick up slightly with "Serpent" and "Shadow From Tartarus," the latter like the mouldy remnants of electro emerging from the unseen depths.
One of R.I.P.'s greatest feats is those moments of complete man/machine synthesis, where you can practically hear Cunningham's hands at work. He contorts a potential head-nodder in "Tree of Knowledge" into a nauseous bout of vertigo, while the late album techno workout "The Lord's Graffiti" coughs and fluctuates wildly. The album's other strength lies in its pseudo-ambient bent, with the brittle wireframe beats of older work like "Machine & Voice" or "Maze" melting into the mercurial manifestations of "Caves of Paradise," which bounces on a tidal bassline with ominous samples of grunting and chanting.
R.I.P. might be better off classified as an ambient album, electronic music almost entirely removed from "dance"; its very best moment is devoid of the latent afro-futurist impulses that underlie most of Cunningham's oeuvre. "N.E.W" emerges towards the end like cooling blasts of wind seeping out of the broken steam pipes of "The Lord's Graffiti." It wafts dreamily like vintage Brian Eno. This stunning five-minute mirage is displaced by the closer "IWAAD," where a violent kick drum stamps through the fog, carrying with it shards of strings and vocal gasps through a caustic, gurgling inferno. It's a heady end to a heady album, and one that shows Actress can make some of the most exciting techno around even after an album of ambient plinking and plonking. Not that he ever really makes techno. He just makes Actress music, and R.I.P. is the most enveloping and fully developed of his cultivated soundworlds yet.