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SPIN Essentials

Actress, ‘R.I.P.,’ (Honest Jon’s)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 15, 2012
Label: Honest Jon’s

Anyone who’s ever made electronic music knows what it’s like to get locked inside a loop for hours — admiring its contours, spellbound by its minute fluctuations, hearing changes that may or may not even be there. You start to hallucinate a little. Time dissolves.

The London producer Actress, a.k.a., Darren Cunningham, a maker of hypnotic, immersive, counterintuitive beat music, knows the feeling well. In 2009, he told FACT that he typically gets “deep into” the recording process: “Like, don’t disturb me if I’m making tunes. I’ll come out and I’ll be totally dazed from it all, like holed up in a room, standing up dancing, sitting down, not really doing anything, just listening to a loop for four hours straight.”

R.I.P., Actress’ third album, perfectly captures that sensation of static cycling. The difference between Cunningham and most of the rest of us is that his loops are actually worth returning to, long after the weed has worn off.

This is music about — and for — staring at screens. Bathed in YouTube hiss, the album’s 15 sketch-like tracks flicker like animated GIFs. Shuddering with the hesitant movements of buffering video, R.I.P. luxuriates in waiting, but waiting without expectation — pure downtime, no-time, Zen-like, serene. (The New Age harps and dripping water sounds are particularly appropriate.) If Takeshi Murakami hadn’t claimed the term already, you could call this aesthetic “Superflat”: Using grainy synthesizers and even grainier digital effects, Cunningham sculpts the equivalent of a 2D world, with melodies and drum patterns spreading out like the spurs of an ant farm or the tendrils of a screen saver.

R.I.P. marks a continuation of sounds and ideas that Actress has pursued since 2008, when he released his debut album, Hazyville, on his own Werk Discs imprint. The spindly, spongy funk therein was modeled after left-field floor-freakers like Moodymann and Dabrye (as well as chillout-room misfits like Oval), but gunked up and squashed flat, left somewhere between lo-fi and no-fi. Blurry and suggestively indistinct, Hazyville fit in with the era’s nascent craze for blurriness, but its strangely unemotional quality was the opposite of chillwave’s Technicolor nostalgia trip. 2010’s Splazsh, for Honest Jon’s, followed in similar fashion, with a slightly heavier emphasis on club music’s muscular cadences. It was fuller and bass-ier, but it still surfed on digital chop.

R.I.P. is more focused, but just as elusive. Flitting between muffled techno and crinkly, incidental drift, it distills Cunningham’s previous work into a highly volatile set of variations upon a theme — but a theme that’s been erased, written over, torn up, and melted down until there is no point of origin, just a garden of forking paths.

Partly, that focus results from there being fewer discrete sounds here than ever. A few tracks, like the beat-less “Glint” and “R.I.P.,” are stitched together out of little more than bell tones and grain delay; “N E W” sounds like an organ fugue remixed in the style of Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room,” with contrapuntal phrases piling up and pooling together into a liquid body of reverb. On “Shadow From Tartarus,” deep chimes trace a slow-motion Shepard scale over a gravelly bass line reminiscent of Suicide — at least, if their amps had been covered with barnacles.

The elements may be minimal, but they’re never clean: Hiss and static leak out of every pore, forming a thin crust over the music, a dirty veil that runs counter to contemporary electronic music’s pristine ethos. Even the heaviest, most technoid cuts feature little in the way of conventional percussion, aside from flat, dull kick drums that stretch out like skipping stones. Instead, we get carefully hammered white noise and sometimes outright empty space. On “Raven,” a pulsing, high-pitched fizz stands in for hi-hats; “IWAAD” applies extreme gating effects, restlessly deploying the mute button on a blown-out synth-and-voice loop to create a negative image of techno, with silence in place of beats. “Ascending,” likewise, feels like the drums have been sucked out with a surgical vacuum, as heavy side-chain compression attacks a bell-like synthesizer melody and creates little dimples in the music where you’d expect the beats to fall, like perforations in a worn strip of ribbon.

Categories like “techno” and “ambient” fly out the window as R.I.P. proceeds along its maze-like path, as churning pulses give way to wide-open clearings unmarked by beats or even obvious meter. The title track’s eerie, striated tones spin like two loops tumbling out of phase; the glassy synths of “Glint” trip up and down the scale untethered to any metronome. “Tree of Knowledge” is just slow-moving chords and a chattering that might be crickets. That’s another of Cunningham’s tricks: to loop a clicking noise until it sounds like a thousand snapping, pivoting sprinklers. On “Uriel’s Black Harp,” they provide the backdrop to a plucked, meandering melody, like The Hissing of Summer Lawns meets Blade Runner.

Actress’ music may display all the gritty hallmarks of digital lo-fi, but it never wants for sonic fullness: Played loud on good speakers, the bass can prod your innards as probingly as the most subwoofer-obsessed dubstep. Still, R.I.P. rewards background play just as much as concentrated listening, if not more so — Cunningham himself has admitted as much. It sneaks up on your peripheral audition; it gets under your skin, missing sounds and all. Comfortably numbing, it’s an album for our distracted era — a jumble given meaning through repetition. And, perhaps fittingly, the album is well suited to listening habits shaped by computer playlists; I re-sorted its playing order according to track length, from shortest to longest, and discovered an entirely new way through the maze. This is no catacombs, though: Like the afterlife, R.I.P. promises a passage to infinity, one unsteady loop at a time.