Actress, Karma & Desire, Ninja Tune | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, January 27th, 2021  


Karma & Desire

Ninja Tune

Dec 03, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

When it comes to experimentation in electronic music, there is little ground that British musician Darren Cunningham, aka Actress, isn’t willing to break. Whether it’s making music alongside an AI collaborator (as heard on 2018’s Young Paint) or creating a literal musical robot out of synthesizers and other musical hardware, Cunningham has always continually pushed forward into the ethers of what electronic music can be. Working with the London Contemporary Orchestra in the mid-2010’s provided yet another way for him to artistically expand, this time by using organic instrumentation as a means of fusing it with his signature brand of mutating, jittery electronic beats. Cunningham’s latest release, Karma & Desire, sees him blending together facets of all his past creative endeavors into a cohesive and poignant piece of work.

Accompanied by the release of a very David Lynch-esque short film directed by Lee Bootee in which artists Zsela and Yves Tumor appear to be spies with trench coats and briefcases, Karma & Desire still retains the opacity of Cunningham’s previous work, leaning into ambiguous thematic explorations that are familiar territories for him, namely “love, death, technology, [and] the questioning of one’s being,” as he wrote in a statement regarding the album’s release. Yet this is the first solo release where he truly delves into producing with organic instrumental textures, frequently utilizing the piano while emphasizing a certain instrument in particular: the human voice. Several songs feature singer/producer Sampha’s high-register crooning as it is chopped and screwed over moody piano melodies. The voice is used at its most alluring in the song “Angels Pharmacy,” in which artist Zsela soothingly repeats cryptic mantras over ominous synth tones. The vocals that are featured on the album don’t give straightforward answers into any particular song’s meaning, but instead provide a fragmentary Rorschach test to be subjectively deciphered by the listener.

Karma & Desire functions as an amalgamation of Cunningham’s body of work, taking inspiration from both the club and the concert hall and exploring their in-between states. His penchant for conflicting, discordant melodies that end up creating a haunting harmonic Gestalt can be heard on “Reverend,” which starts as a beautiful piano ballad and ends with jarring lo-fi hip hop production. “Save” features a menacing and recurring piano motif that is intermittently interrupted by orchestral strings and what appears to be a deconstructed club beat, and the minute-long “Fret” sounds like a malfunctioning printer with cathedral bells stuck inside of it. Many songs sound as if they could be in a replacement soundtrack for La Jetée, creating sonic viscera that is cinematically soporific and even apocalyptic at times, typically staying at a point of dreamy, half-conscious stasis throughout their run time, but never ceasing to be unpredictable. 

Cunningham provides a lot to chew on with his latest release and gives no straightforward answers, much like the redacted documents featured in the short film accompaniment. One shouldn’t expect anything less from the musical enigma himself. (

Author rating: 7.5/10

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