Just outside of Lisbon, in the town of Sintra, there is an eccentric palace built in the Neo-Manueline style. The Quinta de Regaleira, as it is called, is surrounded with a sprawling garden — by far more interesting than the house itself — full of grottoes, stone towers, wells circled by staircases leading down into the earth, statuary, and an astonishing variety of trees and other plant life. If you are there on certain days in spring, the light shines so brightly and beguilingly as to render you intoxicated as you wander aimlessly, the air like a mobile cushion coolly appended to the surfaces of your body, while you pass from one dreamlike milieu to the next.
In the garden you are bound to come across, among other things, “The Terrace of the Celestial Worlds,” “The Initiation Well,” “The Labyrinthic Grotto,” and “The Fount of Abundance,” and through these names, derived from the obsession of Carvalho-Monteira — who commissioned the building of the palace and gardens — with symbols derived from alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians, I arrive at what links this strange and wonderful place to Actress’ latest record for Honest Jon’s, R.I.P. I arrive here because the record is held together, before one even listens to it, by titles evocative of an esoteric garden of Eden locked in a circuit with heaven and hell, doubly exposed, both lost Christian Utopia, and mythological, Ballardian hallucination: jardin, caves of paradise, marble plexus, uriel’s black harp, shadow from Tartarus, tree of knowledge. Darren Cunningham’s world on R.I.P., immersed in the circuitry wiring together death and life, sin and salvation, is one in which to be carried along by invisible strings, to think unforeseen thoughts, to find yourself focusing your ears on details that draw you somnambulantly down living corridors, into dark depths, across accumulations of light.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Cunningham claims the work is an expression of his belief in God, a belief that is inseparable from the belief with which he makes music, becoming almost dead to himself, as he puts it, to arrive at sounds and structures that feel uniquely his own. R.I.P. is certainly his most singular work to date, moving further away from the more overtly dance-music-oriented tracks of degrading materiality that have populated previous long-players, Splazsh and Hazyville, as well as the varied remixes he has made for artists such as Panda Bear, Laurel Halo, Radiohead, and, more recently, Kodiak. R.I.P. still shows him to be obsessed by the beauty of things falling apart, of overly compressed sound worked over until it evolves a sublimity through the grainy space holding it together.
The record begins with a series of more discrete sound worlds: the dream tones of “RIP,” “Ascending,” and “Holy Water,” passing into the more baroque aural space of the beat-driven revolutions of “Marble Plexus” and the beatless plateau of “Uriel’s Harp.” “Jardin” is all micro-movements, glitchy crackling wound through by twinkling melodies finding and losing form, glistening on rising and falling transmissions of hiss. It is, along with the euphoric flotation of “N E W,” one of the most overtly beautiful pieces Cunningham has made, and both of these tracks seem somehow a step above all the new-agey synthesizer spiritualism prevalent at the moment, not only because they are woven into the framework of such a strong and diversely affecting “concept” record, but on their own merits, through their own properties, the lightness of their melodies of a part with the texture of the sounds brought together.
After “Jardin,” the tracks feel more tightly linked, especially, for instance, when the winding, stitched together chaos of “Serpent” explodes into the wild techno fog of “Shadow from Tatarus,” its fog made all the more grainy and opaque by the ascending melodies that cycle through it. “Raven” is an off-kilter vision of flight, glorious but restrained, a rendering of becoming bird that feels almost purgatorial, or, at least, temporary. Its joy is short-lived and always closed in upon by an outside. The two techno revels, “The Lord’s Graffiti” and “IWAAD,” which bookend “N E W,” add a final fold to the record, the former particularly fascinating with its transmuted Youtube-quality sound fashioned into something both body-moving and addressed to spirit.
R.I.P. is a garden of earthly and unearthly delights, a garden perched upon a coin whose faces are good and evil and are sometimes not to be discerned, or to be disregarded. As I listen more and more, I notice details that slipped by on previous encounters, but which now lead me through the tracks in different ways, or I fall back, and from a distance note how the different surfaces of sound move together, before myself falling once more down onto one, and then another, admiring the living worlds Darren Cunningham has fashioned through his bouts of death.
Stream: Actress – “Ascending”