Friday, June 04, 2010

Actress' measured performance

Boomkat’s 14Tunes Actress pack is a fine hub for those after an overview of Werk label boss Darren Cunningham’s oeuvre while he basks in praise for his new album, Splazsh. At £6.86 it’s so cheap to say ‘Go On Then’ and download the lot but, ever the frugalite, I chose a selection from the selection. Tailored to my own preferences of course but indicative enough. I already had the Paint, Straw and Baubles ep, the precursor to the Honest Jon’s album. I used the downbeat-yet-futurist title track on my recent mix more to punctuate bigger statements before and after it; I also struggled to get to grips with Zomby’s gloopy rmx of that (did he sample the queasy bass rushes of one of the tunes on his hardcore tribute mix?). The final track Maze seems inspired by the bleepy tones on the Zomby hyperdub ep itself, but with what sounds like the snatched sounds of men working out maintaining the uneasy momentum.

That said I don’t think there is a lot of stylistic variation within Actress’ work, even though he swims across house/techno and occasionally garage waters. As with so many other modern producers, there is a reluctance to construct a narrative (the fabled rave journey) or draw defined shapes (in contrast with the clean lines of his cover artwork) and a reliance on rhythmic ticks disturbing the linear progression, incidental bleeps and snatched vocals sung or otherwise. Even the technoid Ghosts Have a Heaven, which threatens to head for the packed dancefloor of a main-room eurotechno club, drops back from that intent by having its main synth line drop in and out of the mix with minor pitch variations. With top end percussion working to deny the overall impetus, it’s a wobbly, dulled thud.

On Hazyville’s I cant Forgive You a mumbled voice drops in and out between the techno break (which a tick tries to dequantise in vain) and the synth line is usually little more than a snatched note above that de rigueur vinyl fuzz. Another voice appears occasionally strangulated. It’s a playful take on early 90s chill-out but if it had been around at the time would have probably irked the listener.

With construction rhythms and Chicago shakes, Always Human works dat booty, sounding like B-side Moodyman in the process though voices and the synth lines are only that little bit fuller. Perhaps wary of a wider statement, it’s gone almost as quickly as it establishes its full content. The so-called Prince tribute Purple Splazsh, also off the new album, employs a full loop against snatched samples from the symbolised man and rhythms that deliberately never get going.

The Neu Haus So Glo Mix rmx of Joy Orbison’s Shrew Would Have Cushioned The Blow is simultaneously the most modern, and strange and effective – ‘house’ in execution but with only a low-key synth line and female vox as the traditional sustainers. The rest is a continuous interruption over the nine minutes of little ticks and other vocal samples to keep the main reverbed pulse going. It's neat and play wells to those with attention deficits.

Overall Actress has a very modern sound but it’s not something you can easily take to your heart or have an emotive response to. You could call it coffee table techno for its lack of impact but I’m not sure who you would be impressing if you played it to the never-raved. With little to shout about either in indignation or praise the latte sippers are unlikely to remark on the muted references to house and techno’s past glories in these sometimes underwhelming or seemingly inconsequential songs.

However, it’s just messed with enough to avoid the dreaded ‘sophisticated’ tag and it’s the very lack of dancefloor cliché, deficit of overplayed standardised synth lines and unwillingness to dramatise the rave experience that makes it very 2010. It’s faint praise I know but that seems appropriate for this type of output. With ‘happy’ or ‘euphoric’ now discredited and ignored ciphers, perhaps Cunningham can use his materials to make something out of this incidental downplayed approach to make something more uneasy or disturbing.
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