Ninja Tune/ Inertia
AZD (pronounced Azid) is the fifth album from Actress, aka British producer Darren Cunningham, an IDM artist capable of creating soundscapes that range from floor-filling dance tracks to intricate, beatless instrumentals of profound, delicate beauty. A key to the Actress vision is a minimalist and atmospheric layering of moving sound elements, with an attention to detail in the production that brings a bright gloss to the melodies that sit atop the beats (if present). Indeed, it is Cunningham’s proven ability to find open-ended, intriguing melodies that keeps the Actress project vibrant nearly a decade after the first album Hazyville was released in 2008. The bright gloss of the high-end sounds suits the delicate and organic feel of the melodies that arise from the grainier, dirtier soil of the underlying beats and static-like ambient noises that tend to permeate the tracks.
After a three year gap when we thought another Actress album may never come (Cunningham himself mooted 2014’s Ghettoville might signal the end of the project), AZD brings to fruition many of Actress’ disparate techniques and styles into a satisfying whole. But as with previous efforts, despite the lock-step of some of the beats and precisely repeating motifs, listeners can be expected to be taken on a journey that doesn’t always follow a straight line. The artwork of AZD features a highly polished chrome robotic hand on top of Cunningham’s, evoking the ghost in the machine, similar to how Actress draws on both heart-tugging melodies with laser-sharp beat science to achieve its ends.
AZD sees Actress return to more toe-tapping form after the murky, darker experiments of triple-LP Ghettoville. Following the back-to-back critical success of breakout album Splashz (2010) and the more tone poem-styled R.I.P. (2012), Ghettoville frustrated many fans who were not expecting to be taken down the dark back alleys of a dystopian world painted largely in blacks and greys and with few signs of the more driving, danceable tracks of the previous albums (although when the rays of sunshine did manage to penetrate the gloom, they were more beautiful because of the overall darkness).
This kind of sudden change of direction ‘mid-art’, however, has been characteristic of Cunningham’s approach at several levels. Track sequences on albums appear to be thoughtfully arranged, even if they don’t necessarily follow a linear path and change widely from album to album, such as R.I.P.’s short melodic tracks on the first half, concluding with some of Actress’s best beat-driven tracks on the second half. Zooming in further, tracks within an album can range from monolithic slabs of sound to others where at the conclusion it is difficult to recall the beginning owing to the introduction of numerous musical and percussive elements that gradually morph the track into something quite different as it moves along.
After the short bright opening instrumental Nimbus, the album begins with a series of tracks locked on to repetitive beats, basslines and melodies. Untitled 7 presents contrasting ascending basslines and staccato laser-beam like loops for over three minutes until a steady 4/4 beat kicks in, but the beats only linger for a minute before the melodies break up and the track fades away. Fantasynth and Blue Window follow, also drawing from a simple pallet of a steady beat, simple bass line and open-ended melodies that tend to loop and fold over on themselves. These two tracks barely seem to change for their duration, but it’s a testament to Cunningham’s ability to conjure such interesting and beautiful patterns of interlocking melodic and rhythmic ideas that you hardly notice the time passing. Indeed that is part of their charm – you can visualize the loops like a Mobius strip, endlessly cycling around to please the ears – and eyes for the synaesthetically-inclined.
The album takes a swerve in direction with CYN dropping the boom-bap with a Rammallzee sample, the first human voice heard, care of the late pioneering hip-hip artist. This opening jolts the listener out of the previous locked groove-style tracks, but then just as CYN begin to gain momentum, it slowly begins to ice up with cold synth lines encroaching until something quite different emerges with squelchy glitches eventually taking over, leading to a disoriented and meandering finish.
The pace picks up again immediately with single X22RME, featuring a banging four-on-the-floor drum beat, multiple looping interlocked melodic lines and a heavy white noise wash, like static, a recurring motif of many Actress tracks which has the effect of sealing off the rest of the world so you are completely submerged in the music. As with CYN, those icy synths begin to infuse the atmosphere and eventually the whole thing breaks down again, succumbing to its own bemusement of sound elements then (somewhat) regaining its momentum before stuttering away with a stomping beat and finally breaking down again with another vocal sample, this time addressing philosophies of meaning and language, significant concerns of Actress.
Runner features one of the funkier basslines, replete with fat snare and shuffling hi-hats; several different melodies with contrasting sounds and timing weave in and out of the track, making it a highlight where many of the Actress compositional techniques are at work to arrive at a simple yet sonically intriguing and danceable number.
The introspective Falling Rizlas provides another short beatless instrumental break before a trio of three longer and ambitious tracks. The more experimental and certainly more abrasive and dissonant Dancing in the Smoke lurches forward with a halting beat and features some seriously demented Hammond organ-style stabs, as if robots were all that remained on Earth and were sampling human sounds for nostalgia and getting it quite wrong. These sounds are not exactly pleasant to the ears or danceable, but have enough disruptive ideas and drive to entertain. The beatless Chrome in Faure is positively cinematic with its melancholic strings and yearning melodies, and coupled with the squelches of a transitor radio-sounding electronic noises, sounds like a last band of human survivors trying to make contact with any life forms after some global disaster. The result is one of the most poignant tracks on the album, and showcases Cunningham’s ability to work the emotions.
In There’s An Angel In the Shower there’s again a pleasing amalgam of sounds that combine into an emotional, and somewhat danceable, whole. Here the cinematic strings and beeping, squelching sounds eventually join with a solid beat, all with the white noise like static underneath enveloping the senses and opening the listener up to hear the new elements come in. A hard-hitting snare and repetitive synth stab kick in for a spell, but then abruptly stop, allowing the track to succumb to its own entropy – the ever-slowing beeping sounding like a dying patient’s heart monitor. Cinematic stuff indeed.
Closing track Visa continues with a melody of strings over a fast-paced beat punctuated by a bright slap of a snare drum, but gives way to a lilting melody that swirls above the percussion, eventually spiralling and teetering more crazily until the track, and album, fade away. The journey now complete, never mind where it has led.
After the changes in the direction of recent albums, AZD can be seen as a kind of stabilizing of forms in the Actress project for Cunningham, especially in comparison to the artistic statement-like throw down of Ghettoville. But rather than eschewing parts of his older techniques and sounds, Actress embraces all of them on AZD, a showcase of a master producer re-energised, bold and confident. AZD sounds very much like an Actress album, but this joy in repetition is something to cherish from a producer that follows his own muse and stylistic inventions, be it melodies, basslines or glossy production. With his ear for heart-pulling tunes and finely crafted productions, Actress delivers one of the year’s IDM highlights on AZD.