For too long in America, electronic music has been boiled down to either fist-in-the-air Day-Glo EDM, or more broadly, what’s commonly labeled as “techno.” But even a slight scratch to the surface shows that there’s much more than that. In the underground, you have artists that are pushing at the margins. Darren Jordan Cunningham, better known by his alias, Actress, is one of those people. For more than a decade, Actress has been the purveyor of a deeply idiosyncratic brand of experimental techno. He’s deeply committed to following his muse, which has created a back catalog that’s difficult to label and on which it’s hard to put a narrative. So it’s with equal parts anticipation and low-burning trepidation that the world welcomes Actress’ fifth full-length, AZD (Ninja Tune).
Cunningham has long followed in electronic music’s grand tradition of deep conceptual talk when it comes to his work. But whether he’s serious or taking the piss, an Actress record will undoubtedly give you a little more to chew on. For example, according to the press release, AZD is centered around the theme of chrome, “both as a reflective surface to see the self in, and as something that carves luminous voids out of any color and fine focuses white and black representing the perfect metaphor for the bleakness of life.” Add in references to the Death Star, Blade Runner, and a sample of legendary graffiti artist, hip-hop musician, and Afrofuturist Rammellzee, and there’s a lot of substance being brought to the proceedings.
The beauty of Actress’ past work, and which is also true of AZD, is that the songs can stand alone without any external context. One thing longtime fans may notice is that Cunningham has shed most of the aggressive production elements of his last album, 2014’s Ghettoville. But AZD is not entirely a total re-embracing of his club instincts. Instead, it’s more of a tentative, and at times, uneasy shotgun wedding of his dancefloor side and his more experimental inclinations. It’s telling that the first drums on the record don’t appear until three minutes into the second song. There are songs that would go down like a storm, such as the Trojan horse of a single, “X22RME,” but Cunningham makes you work for it. Even when it seems like he’s going straight ahead, he’ll throw in a seemingly unrelated diversion before either pulling it together or simply moving on to another idea. It’s not a case of musical ADD, though. Cunningham has a meticulous sense of arrangement. It may not be clear on the “why,” but the “how” is impressive.
What makes AZD a curious listen is that it simultaneously makes perfect sense as a whole, while at the same time making you question how the individual songs go together. It’s a genius move of sequencing, with the record seeming to build to a point, fall away, but then build to another point and fall away again. For example, “Fantasynth” and “Blue Window” make perfect bedfellows, but you’re going to need a breather before you get to the closing set of abstract songs starting with “Dancing in the Smoke.”
During the lead up to his last record, Cunningham stated that Ghettoville would be his last record as Actress. He’s clearly walked that statement back. But if AZD were to be his closing statement, it’s a glorious coda.