Actress: Splazsh
Honest Jon's Records

Darren Cunningham describes his Actress sound as “black world wizardry” and that's probably as good a description as could be coined to characterize the shape-shifting material captured on his second album Splazsh. Cunningham has been an active member of the UK's underground music scene and has connections to Kode9 (Cunningham DJed at Hyperdub's early club nights) and, through his own label Werk Discs, to Starkey and Zomby, among others, so it's no surprise that the Actress sound is forward-thinking and explorative.

In many ways representative of the album's character, “Hubble” is an enigmatic and mercurial nine-minute slab of disorientating sounds. A laid-back tech-house pulse functions as a steadying force for keyboard patterns, voice fragments, and video game strafings that perpetually swim within a blurry and multi-layered mix. There's a loose, adventurous sensibility at work, one unconstrained by convention and receptive to the workings of an idiosyncratic muse. Traces of multiple genres—house, techno, grime, dubstep, funk, soul, electro, et al.—surface without Cunningham expressing particular allegiance to any one of them. “Lost” initially plunges into a delirious maze of its own design before a soulful vocal line ("you can see me…") enters, which Cunningham also repeats until it becomes as dizzying as the track's originating elements.

Coming after such genre-defying pieces, “Always Human” jars—not unpleasantly—with a funky, vocal-based stab at deep house, though it's a treatment that's obviously more experimental than the genre norm. The labyrinthine “Senorita” likewise offers a dizzying spin on vocal house, whereas “Maze,” driven by synthesizer pulsations, undertakes a moody foray into kosmische musik. Subsequent tracks range as widely: the suitably untethered “Let's Fly” grounds its spacey flourishes (meandering strings, gravelly voice fragments, etc.) with a minimal house pulse, and “Supreme Cunnilingus” and “The Kettle Men” present exercises in stuttering electronic treatments and hammering machine-heavy electro-funk, respectively.

While Splazsh is murky and raw (fittingly, he chose Hazyville as the title of his 2008 debut album), it's also largely free of the radiant analogue synth dimension one hears in much of the material issued recently by Hyperdub and Planet Mu artists. Ultimately, however, the album is so stylistically diverse, one needs to absorb its contents in full in order to develop some general impression of Actress's oblique vision and panoramic style.

June 2010