In spite of its focus on atmosphere, Darren Cunningham’s first LP as Actress was not a comforting record. Even the gloomiest of dubstep producers aim for structural elegance; Cunningham’s compositions, on the other hand, obfuscate the subtlety of their own design by indulging in aesthetic paradox and stylistic misappropriations. Whereas Burial’s mutilated vocal samples still held to melodic shapes, the dismembered snippets on Hazyville’s “Again the Addiction” were tuneless and sonically jarring. While The Field’s relentless, myopic repetitions served to hammer away any objections to his wide-eyed visions of bliss, “Crushed” traveled an abbreviated version of that same path only to end in dark insinuation.
Splazsh isn’t the same animal as Hazyville. It’s not as— well, hazy as its predecessor, not as focused at evoking and maintaining a single mood. I don’t think we should read its embrace of a wider range of discrete styles and textures as a weakness or a compromise. This album travels a lot, but Cunningham isn’t a cheat; he doesn’t try to evade his audience or himself. To the contrary, Splazsh is an example of electronic music at the highest level: insidiously inventive and mind-altering, maintaining an aura of mystery without sacrificing groove, patient and slow-burning yet rich with detail and variation. Evading both the latent monotony of dance music and the neurotic inhospitability of what used to pass as IDM, Splazsh carves its own identity in a world where, for most, identity is an empty obsession, a dream that never comes true.
When I say “identity,” I don’t mean “style.” Style is superficial. Identity is in the DNA. It’s not the information; it’s the glue that holds the information together. In the lean, brief, lively house tracks “Always Human” and “Let’s Fly,” the style is the familiar drum patterns, the damaged high-pitched vocal samples, the faithful repetitions. But the identity is elsewhere. In “Always Human,” it’s the third act addition of the video game sounds and the voice from Space Invaders. In “Let’s Fly,” it’s the intrusion, the points where the main organ sound is undermined by the slow-motion synth string pads that stealthily fade in from silence, damaged by distortion and compression, playing in the wrong key.
While Hazyville bore its inner tension within every track, Splazsh spreads it out. Some tracks generate interest through their architecture, building intricate musical structures from the bottom up. “Lost” builds from a fuzzy, throbbing shuffle through layers of out-of-context vocals and twinkling chord loops; “Maze” overlays a hypnotic, robotic 80s techno bassline with sporadically phrased beeps that sound like broken cell phones. They make sense as wholes, in time, because of how they are put together. But other tracks — such as the Prince-esque garage-on-codeine mood piece “Purrple Splazsh” and the paranoid, hyperactive “Wrong Potion” — don’t build up to anything and, structurally speaking, don’t go anywhere. Their arrangements sound haphazard and accidental, and, most strangely of all, they aren’t any weaker for it.
While Cunningham’s music shares several traits with other modern UK producers, as well as with stateside beatmakers like Flying Lotus — traits such as huge sub bass sounds, overexposed video game noises, overtreated vocal samples, and the dizzying pulse of sidechain compression — he applies his effects with such subtle variation of context and purpose that you almost feel moved to forgive every other guy who misused those same effects as crutches, as shortcuts to novelty or individuality. Splazsh evokes mood on a larger scale than Hazyville, increasing possibilities by stepping up production technique and stylistic variety, but it continues to focus on music’s effect on the mind by allowing technique to undermine and contradict itself.