The hypnotic repetition of the music of Darren Cunningham, who has been recording under his Actress moniker for over a decade now, is key to his explorations of the expansive reach of electronic music. Actress’ musical endeavours have always tested the patience of the listener, almost as much as they test Cunningham himself and his ability to exercise restraint when balancing the subtle progressions of his compositions with the luscious textures he creates, pulling from techno, house, glitch, noise, ambient and other genres under the electronic umbrella. At his best, the artist counterbalances competing layers of electronic detail with great precision, as to actively engage the listener with the development of his pieces. Employing an attitude towards composing that requires such a meticulous attention to detail, however, results in even slight lapses of concentration causing the piece to stagnate. This being said, Actress’ material is typically so well layered and produced that even Cunningham’s more routine and tedious releases are satisfying listens, and the latest project from the musician, AZD, fits this description. As was made clear from the singles teased in promotion of this newest project, the sonic quality of AZD is contoured by Cunningham with the accuracy with which he has consistently treated his projects, and the record stands out as perhaps one of his most well-textured undertakings to date. However, in focussing on the overall auditory experience of AZD, which is undoubtedly a pleasurable one, a significant portion of the tracks on the album don’t live up to the compositional standards set by previous Actress releases, with Cunningham’s usual spellbinding repetition often being allowed to run its course and eventually grow monotonous. With Actress’ brand of minimal electronics, monotony is indeed a risk that can arise from invariability, and this is certainly demonstrated by much of the project’s latest endeavour. AZD, whilst unequivocally beautifully textured for the most part, often lacks the subtle but powerful shading necessary to elevate these compositions past the point of just some pleasing sonic wallpaper and to the dramatic and dynamic mesmerism of previous Actress projects.
On the surface, AZD is an incredibly sleek and polished project. Compared to Actress’ previous release, Ghettoville, whose album cover reflects the sketchbook-like aesthetic of its intimate, disjointed and insightful pieces, this new record is a momentous change of pace, even exceeding the artist’s pre-Ghettoville releases in terms of its glossy veneer, and this is clear from its opening moments. Following the erratic, minimal, glitchy introductory track NIMBUS, UNTITLED 7 establishes a hypnotising motif that is typical of many an Actress piece with a shiny, warbling synth bass line. As far as Cunningham’s usual blueprint of repetitious electronics is concerned, UNTITLED 7 is a prime example of a success story, with the chiming ostinato interacting with a classy but unsettled string arrangement that lurks in the background in a rather perplexing, but no less enthralling, fashion. What’s more, despite being amongst the more texturally sparse cuts on AZD in its first half, the interlacing of synthetic and organic instrumentation crafts a dense and vibrant sound that nevertheless makes UNTITLED 7 stand out as an especially rich composition. During the track’s latter half, as the strings are exchanged for a solid house beat and phasing electronic gurgles, the listener is introduced to the other side of Actress’ techno and house influences, which sees the musician create genuinely danceable rhythms, rather than being solely focussed on interesting electronic arrangements. These two, separate angles to Cunningham’s music are detailed particularly prominently on DANCING IN THE SMOKE, wherein they are actively woven together, rather than simply being juxtaposed side by side, as they are on UNTITLED 7. In fact, DANCING IN THE SMOKE is an apt title, with the minimal techno beat and vocal samples being rather danceable, despite being clouded in the airy atmosphere in which the entire cut is laced. This track is also a fitting demonstration of Actress’ ability to give the indulgent textures of much of AZD a great deal of attention, whilst not ignoring the progression and overall flow of the piece, with the unpredictable electronic embellishments that drive the development of DANCING IN THE SMOKE building on the cut’s winding rhythm intricately and effectively. Indeed, just as Cunningham’s previous output has shown, Actress’ music is at its best when the worlds of detailed texturing and the refined advancement of repetitive techno rhythms are balanced equally, and the most remarkable moments on AZD are no exception.
This being said, outside of a small number of particularly outstanding examples, much of the material on AZD comes across as being unevenly in favour of the admittedly glorious arrangements, whilst the foundations of the pieces themselves seem somewhat neglected and feel structurally lacking as a result. That’s not to say that a large amount of the tracks on this album are woefully underwritten, rather there seems to be a recurring lack of focus that offers little to effectively capture the attention of the listener. It’s rather ironic, in fact, that, in these pieces being centred around the lavish layers of production, their structural oversight can lead to many cuts blending into the background, leaving their impressive texturing underappreciated by the listener. Indeed, a difficult balance to find for many electronic artists is the extent to which their music can be appreciated both in the foreground and in the background, and, whilst the best moments on AZD accomplish this, certain cuts fall short of the mark, particularly some of the longer tracks. The six-minute-long FAURE IN CHROME, for example, sees a similarly successful meeting of synthetic and organic instrumentation as that which appeared on UNTITLED 7, being comprised of sporadic glitchy electronics and the reappearance of the fluttering string arrangements. With FAURE IN CHROME, however, there is a need for the sense of focus and flow that binds a piece like UNTITLED 7 together. In lacking a beat, or any rhythmic structure to speak of, and with the strings coming across as somewhat adrift in how disjointed they are, it’s all too easy for the piece to simply breeze by, with no particular moment striking the listener as more or less pronounced, thus coming across as directionless in its free-flowing continuance. The following track, THERE’S AN ANGEL IN THE SHOWER, which is by far the longest cut on the album at seven and a half minutes in total, suffers from similar problems, but in a significantly different format. Unlike its predecessor, THERE’S AN ANGEL IN THE SHOWER weaves through several passages that are accentuated through the addition of various components, including fluctuating rhythms, and whilst the varying segments bleed into one another rather well, especially with the continuous, haunting piano loop, the individual sections themselves are somewhat overblown, running on for too long with too little of note happening, which can unjustly result in the track as a whole feeling like sonic wallpaper. Of course, it can always be left down to Cunningham to conceive some incredibly compelling sonic wallpaper, and AZD is hardly a dud in the Actress discography, especially as far as the whole auditory experience goes, but compared to previous releases, it is nonetheless lacking with regards to the structural aspects of the record.
AZD once again tests the patience of the listener just as much as it tests Cunningham’s dexterity as a music producer, but his strengths are predominantly translated in the form of his creation of ravishing textures, rather than the compositional prowess demonstrated on previous Actress material. An artist’s ability to balance mesmerising repetition with a fine attention to the subtle evolution of their compositions is often the primary force to make or break a minimalist electronic project and, although AZD is as captivating as some Actress albums to come before it, there are also instances in which the linear, cyclical beats devolve into tedium. The record certainly cannot be denied its enticing aesthetic, however, which is perhaps more slick and futuristic than anything Actress has already released, with the album cover being a perfect conveyance of its sleek vision. In this sense, AZD is much like a pleasant dream, in that it creates many beautiful and fascinating experiences, but drifts by without an apparent direction or purpose.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10