Darren Cunningham broke from his solitude by collaborating with the London Symphony Orchestra for LAGEOS, and doesn't return to his previous state for his follow-up Actress LP, Karma & Desire. He works with other instrumentalists, calls up real live vocalists for the first time, and applies their input in a variety of ways. The producer seems least hands-on with "Public Life," a searching solo piece played by pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell that sounds like it was recorded in a drafty attic rather than a clinical studio setting.
Actress - the nom de plume of Black Country-born producer Dean Cunningham - first caught mainstream(ish) ears with his incredible 2010 collection Splazsh, and then delighted those same ears with his 2012 set R.I.P., both of which evoked electronic pioneers from Cluster and Harmonia to Oneohtrix Point Never, Autechre and Aphex Twin. His habit of releasing an album every 18 months or so continued ever since, culminating in this new album, Karma & Desire. The recurrent themes throughout his work - artificial intelligence, and the tension between the cosmic and the terrestrial - are here again, and actually feed into the overall thematic structure of this new album.
Ever play with a mercury maze? The odd '70s and '80s toy requires you to manoeuvre a glob of mercury through a plastic maze. Inevitably, the slippery bead would get stuck in some obscure corner, break apart and send you back to zero.
This frustrating, tantalizing experience strikes me as a decent metaphor for Darren Cunningham's music. Over 12 years and six official albums, he's rearranged the elements of Detroit techno, '80s NYC rap and electro into singular hypnagogic vignettes that glide, gleam and then break apart just as you get a handle on them.
Actress has been something of a force of nature within electronic music and club culture. His latest album Karma & Desire brings out the different iterations of his sound into something more introspective. Where his previous solo album AZD (2017) focused on the life-as-chrome and machinic selfhood, this album is trying to think in terms of organic viscerality through ideas of reincarnation and karmic action.