by Preston Radtke
House devotees got quite the shock when Darren Cunningham, AKA Actress orbited out of retirement to produce AZD, a back-to-basics record for the UK-based composer. Much less apocalyptic and heavy than 2014’s Ghettoville, the record finds Actress focusing on rhythms and moods previously realized on 2010’s Splazsh and 2008’s Hazyville. Actress merges elements of R&B, electronica, and outsider house to form a sound reminiscent of such giants as Aphex Twin and Oneohtrix Point Never.
Album Structure: Shuffle is Advised
Actress has long mastered the art of the album layout. On many of his previous releases, the handoff from song-to-song was unnoticeable and natural. However, AZD features many awkward and clunky transitions. Additionally, many tracks on the record when repositioned would transition smoother and more efficiently. For instance, the song “FANTASYNTH” is a classic sounding dance-ready piece featuring house and some disco elements. Unfortunately, the song ends rather abruptly without any sort of musical resolution or natural regression. As abrupt as the song’s conclusion is, that conclusion could have been made more effective by a proceeding piece featuring similar beats and rhythms. Instead, the following track, “BLUE WINDOW”, is a slow-rising, Orb-esque ambient piece that rather exposes “BLUE WINDOW”’s relative aggression and converse aesthetic. These mismatched moods and awkward transitions do not allow the record to acquire any sort of overarching theme or sentiment. AZD instead feels like a fractured collection of 12 singles compiled from previous Actress releases.
Meaning: A Change of Style with Blemishes
On Ghettoville, Actress projected a more grim and Armageddon-esque sound that completely shattered previous Actress constructs and traditions. Gone were the days of edgy dance floor experiences, replaced with moody synth-driven textures that promoted contemplation instead of jubilation. Though a welcome and obvious throwback, AZD still carries certain Ghettoville elements that intermingle with classic Actress textures. In many cases though, the moody synthetics do not mix well with the uptempo house beats. In many cases, it seems as if the songs themselves are fighting each other. “THERE’S AN ANGEL IN THE SHOWER” is perhaps the most perplexing track on AZD. The song begins with downtempo ambient synthetics that promote a sense of despair and emptiness. Further into the song though, a steady house beat appears that doesn’t match the tenor and mood set earlier in the song. The result is a disjointed and awkward piece that lacks direction and purpose.
Samples: WE WANT MORE!!!
Actress historically has been rather conservative with inclusions of audio samples and media clips. Traditionally, Actress has relied more on synthetics and textures with less emphasis on sound bytes and audio cuts to forge his message. AZD differs because it’s the first time in Cunningham’s career that the samples were truly effective and artfully engrained in the pieces. “CYN” is the most complete and well-mixed song off the album. The song opens with an apparent DJ calling out to his audience, followed by a steady yet dynamic house beat. Additionally, the piece includes hypnotic and trippy synths that only shove the listener deeper and deeper into the song. Throughout “CYN” the DJ’s opening refrain gets repeated sporadically, adding incrementally more energy and punch to the dance piece. Conversely, the song “X22RME” operates as a slower version of “CYN”, with a hint of noir. However, at about the 4-minute mark the song cuts to a young British male translating the words of a woman speaking in the background in what sounds like Japanese or Korean. His translations are eerie, yet applicable to the song and album at hand: “Just makes me wonder. Everything. Everything has different meanings. It has one state of meaning, but can be determined in so many different ways.” From that moment on, the song feels more mysterious and significantly more haunting. Sadly enough, that is the extent of samples on AZD. More samples would have made the album more accessible and infinitely more understandable for the listeners. Often times, electronic music relies heavily on individual listener interpretation for meaning assignment. Nonetheless, from a sound and context standpoint, AZD would have greatly benefitted from more sampling.
Other Members of the AZD Family:
Tim Hecker: Love Streams
Blanck Mass: World Eater
All images from NinjaTune
The tracklisting and order on AZD is as frustrating as it is confusing. A composer so experienced as Cunningham should know better than to allow awkward and rough transitions between songs. One may wonder if these transitions may be intentionally rough; however, the album’s meaning and message is so buried and inaccessible that the transitions come off as sloppy and clunky, rather than artful and effective. 5
AZD lacks an instrumental identity and consistency so does not produce a tangible and well-defined meaning and aesthetic. Uptempo, space ambient, and drone music all on a single album do not mesh well to produce an understandable conceptual experience. 4
Though this album desperately needs more samples, the samples it does have are extremely effective in promoting sentiments and moods. Never before has Actress so seamlessly woven sounds of everyday life into his pieces to so drastically alter or invigorate his compositions. 10
Preston is a Emerging Media and Design major. His favorite things include: Seinfeld, the band Sleater-Kinney, denim jackets, and traveling. When he is not writing for Byte, he’s working on his thesis dealing with transmedia in music marketing, working on his very amateur novel, and spending way too much money on restaurants.