On his first four albums, English producer Darren Cunningham in his work as Actress has created a cutting-edge sound, earning a leading place within the global Experimental Electronic community. In particular, R.I.P., his third album, received rave reviews from critics and established a loyal fan base. Ghettoville, his fourth record, was less widely loved, even in its horrifying depiction of dance decadence. After that, there was some speculation and talk that Cunningham would end the Actress project—until the surprise announcement for AZD (pronounced “azid”) early this year. Compared to his previous work, AZT is a sterile, gleaming machine—deliberately void of the semi-organic power of Actress’s previous work. This lifelessness may be AZD’s most artistically interesting element. It gives the record a certain unique slightness, which is only compounded by Actress’s basic ambient subtlety. Unfortunately, AZT’s inanimate sound may also be its worst fault—listening to it is like watching dance music itself die—or, at best, become completely automated.
Take the lead single, the album’s sixth track, “X22RME”. It opens with a drum break, an industrial snare sound, and a thudding 4/4 beat. There’s a lot of white noise from lo-fi processing on all the instruments and more added noise on top of that. On paper, coming from a dance producer, that description sounds like an abrasive, demanding track. If it came out in the early ‘90s, it would be a Coil song. But the drum break is quiet, filtered, and subdued. The snare has the weight of black smoke. The kick’s dull repetition feels more like a tension headache than a drum beat. The song’s synth parts are consistent with this percussive vision: its arp synth (which might as well be lifted from R.I.P.’s “Holy Water”) moves between its three chords without the slightest interest in musicality—only utility. The slow fade-in of wash synths doesn’t signal humanity or emotion or life entering the soundscape (as they might conventionally, as the electronic equivalent of a violin); they sound like steam rising from the machine’s process. The song resets for a bridge about halfway through—the chords move up a fifth; the steam starts descending. The track moves back to its original loop before a coda featuring two overlaid vocal samples, one speaking in Japanese and one speaking about materialism in English. The song has very little of the traditional dance build-up and tear-down, though its structure implies something like that. Instead it seems almost completely indifferent to the idea of progression—it rotates around its few momentary loops, and things happen, but that’s about it.
“X22RME” is quite representative of the rest of the album in its lifeless subversion of dynamic expectation. Tracks like “FANTASYNTH”, “BLUE WINDOW”, and “RUNNER” all take this same kind of reverse-Daft Punk approach to music: if Discovery was about revealing the human side of electronica, this is about exploring the inhuman (or post-human).
Some of AZT’s tracks, however, are, when taken in light of the rest of the album, complete bangers. “DANCING IN THE SMOKE”’s staccato percussion and glitch elements, while certainly not abrasive, at least grab the listeners attention for a few moments. “VISA”’s shuffling melody is about as club-ready as any of Actress’s older work. “CYN”’s Hip Hop samples and near-Gabber kick make it a standout track, and its haunting chrome sine wave synth moves between these danceable elements with a ghostly grace completely its own—only topped on AZT once.
Which leads us to the album’s best track, “THERE’S AN ANGEL IN THE SHOWER”—the album’s second to last song and its longest by a full minute. The song’s first two minutes are completely beatless and almost arrhythmic—the Four-Tet-y plucked melody line doesn’t adhere to the song’s grid mapping; neither do the water drop samples or the oddly glitching high-hat sample—but they loop in a kind of trance until a beat finally develops. It’s a subdued, low pass disco beat, much in like with the kind of lifeless percussion earlier in the album. But at about the 3:30 mark, a pitched snare sample enters—it’s clearly not an isolated snare because its pitch comes from other instruments in the sampled song. Consequently it completely stands out among the rest of the track’s droning ambient elements. It’s like the machine is breaking. The snare exits after a minute, and the rest of the song swells, as if naturally covering up the wound made by the snare’s rupture. This swell is the album’s only legitimate dynamic shift, which continues for about a minute until a complete fade-out. It’s undoubtedly the best song on the album just because of this jarring, derailing snare sample. It’s a subtle move, but it’s at the center of the album’s longest song—it must be essential.
Overall, the album’s premise is interesting, and occasionally, Actress executes it in ways that are immediately stunning and fascinating. Ultimately though, AZT just isn’t as enticing as much of his previous work, in part just because of how much his sound design has obliterated and toned down almost every instrument. This makes for a difficult listen—Actress is clearly onto something artistically, but it doesn’t always translate into musical results. Regardless, his ability to make compelling electronic music goes unquestioned, and we anticipate more excellent output from him in the future.