Beat-centered electronic music’s most interesting days are likely still ahead of it. Kraftwerk’s robo-pop and Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4 long ago provided the primordial soup for the later, more austere and experimental European versions of techno and house – which themselves subsequently spawned a plethora of subgenres – and the noteworthy music being made today still feels like a transitional form in the evolution of “dance music.” I use quotes because it’s difficult to recognize anything with a persistent 4/4-based beat as anything but dance music, even as the best recent extrapolations of this tradition deprioritize danceability in favor of deepening the textural field. Actress, the project of Werk Discs label head Darren Cunningham, does its best to ring in these interesting days, like a doomsayer plotting The Rapture.
Actress can’t be criticized for being lazy. The palate of sound here is expansive, even unorthodox at times. Putting to work every kind of noise you could think of – dub echoes, laser squiggles, slurring sludge, fractured voices, bass rumbles, innocent chirps, and so on – Splazsh is a feast for the ears. With its level-headed rhythmic repetition, this is more indebted to techno and its descendants than house, and the melodic content is pushed while fancy compositional dynamics are more or less ignored over the span of a song. Although the beats are fairly simple and continuous, there is often a contraption-ness to them which makes them sound like they are constantly being tripped and reset, crunchy and 3-dimensional, a windshield being continuously wiped clean in Sisyphean determination. Lead track “Hubble” exemplifies this style on the album, and is all psilocybin-induced eternity, the sounds you hear while lying on your back watching the leaves on trees and hearing your own circulation and respiration. “Maze” is Berlin techno slowed to a crawl, with a cycle of robo-bleeps, a simple minor key synth repetition, and a thinly propelling arpeggio, and it comes off almost like a ballad. Both tracks achieve a meditative glory that sinks in slowly.
As much as Actress sounds beamed down from another planet, there’s also a sense of the canonical on Splazsh. The treble-heavy repetition of “Let’s Fly” hearkens back to the pinging beauty of Göttsching’s previously mentioned E2-E4. The patchwork filters of “Supreme Cunnilingus” are a slightly harsher update of Fennesz’s crayon box perusing “Before I leave”. The ethereal interlude “Futureproofing” could be a Susumu Yokota ambient piece. The slightly menacing “Bubble Butts and Equations” sounds something like The Black Dog remixed by Mouse on Mars. And “Always Human” rattles along with the swaggering obtuseness of current garage and grime.
At turns sensuous, woozy, ecstatic, and cerebral, the goal here seems to be a trance-y effect within a no holds barred electronic framework. Overall, Splazsh is simply a dangerous sounding record, as Actress never settles into a comfort zone, and playfully raises a feeling of doubt and uncertainty by bastardizing established genres for his own forward thinking, slow-burn vision. Electronic music fans historically break into loyal camps, with my BPM or time signature being better than yours. And Splazsh is evidence that the future of electronic music is still bright, as it continues the shift away from the rhythmic obsessions and genre purities to the overall field – stretching perceptual depths over a horizontal axis with smatterings of the vertical color of sound.