Christian Eede On Actress’ AZD

In Darren Cunningham's fifth album as Actress, following a period in which many thought he had retired the project, Christian Eede finds the producer sounding refreshed and more open than ever before

Three years ago, Darren Cunningham, better known as Actress, released his fourth album. Ghettoville was a record that set off widespread speculation that it may in fact be his last, not least owing to Cunningham’s own typically evasive allusions to retirement expressed in the album’s downbeat central theme of death and an epilogue poem attached to the press release announcing the album.

Some years later though and Cunningham is back, and introducing a new persona in the process on AZD. An artist who has long been considered vague in his intentions, despite each record of gorgeous, hazy techno having arrived accompanied by grand, overarching concepts, AZD notably finds Cunningham in an immediately more humorous and seemingly open place than before. The album’s title, pronounced ‘azid’, is a play on his childhood nickname of ‘Daz’ for example. A series of secretive tapes arrived via Ninja Tune in the run-up to the album’s announcement under monikers such as THAT KNIGHTSBRIDGE OG, the material contained within carrying titles such as UBER SPLIFF TO GATWICK – it doesn’t take much detective work to hear Actress’ hand in these releases. He also describes album track ‘RUNNER’ as a re-soundtracking of Blade Runner, adding: “It’s from the deleted Fade Runner scene where AZD in a Peckham Cafe realises his barber has over the years etched a faded scroll into his head using early ‘80s African synthpop as a vexing serum.”

What’s more, speaking recently to Chal Ravens for Dazed, it’s a sentiment that Cunningham appears keen to set out himself. He proffers that AZD represents something of a break for him from those first four albums which, as he puts it himself, “relate to death, decay, the metropolis, the undergrowth”. That’s not to say that a number of cornerstones of the Actress experience don’t remain in his new iteration. Still present are the dusty, illuminating synths heard across his past output, a sound that is one of the most preeminent of any electronic music producer operating today. It’s one which Cunningham describes himself in that aforementioned Dazed interview as like “extreme patenting” as he continues to magnify just how distinctive it is. Also still out in full force are the ambiguous track titles that never quite fully let you into Cunningham’s mind, opting to give glimpses of the concept that lies at the heart of AZD rather than revealing its hand outright.

The Detroit techno influences of luminaries such as Juan Atkins, Derrick May and others can also be traced once again through much of the album’s tracks, and frequently more plainly than ever before. Closer ‘VISA’ calls to mind the digitally rendered arpeggios of some of DJ Stingray’s more melodic early work for example. This is perhaps somewhat ironic given Cunningham’s view that “the traditional form of dance music, using snares and using very familiar sounds, is quite obsolete,” casting back once again to his recent chat with Dazed. The case could certainly be made that AZD contains some of Cunningham’s most traditionally dance floor-friendly material to date, even if his music has never quite sat completely comfortably within that territory before. Arriving last month, lead single ‘X22RME’ (pronounced ‘extreme’) laid the foundations for what was to come. While the track’s video clip, the first glimpse into what AZD might offer, opened with a 30-second glitch-ridden wall of wistful synths and violins, in fact lifted from album track ‘Faure In Chrome’, the main body of ‘X22RME’ assumed a somewhat straightforward four-to-the-floor beat pattern – imbued with flickering arpeggios and distant, lulling pads. Sure, it’s not a peak-time party-starter, but it stood in stark contrast to the smog that hung over Ghettoville.

Elsewhere, ‘FANTASYNTH’ unfolds slowly, built around ghostly loops drawn out across its five minutes. The recurring synth patterns burrow their way inside your psyche like only the most hypnotic, characterful techno can. The same can be said of ‘UNTITLED 7’, which brings to the fore Cunningham’s recent flirtations with orchestral collaboration, having worked alongside the London Contemporary Orchestra last year. The payoff arrives at the three-minute mark with the introduction of a blunted kick drum, synths ricocheting off the beats like laser beams, ascending and descending. Just when it seems that things have got going, it quickly drifts away, occasionally out-of-time drums tripping over themselves, the imperfections and fade-out ensuring that dance music traditions remain at arm’s length.

A clear dichotomy has always permeated Actress’ work, and it’s one that remains even as he moves away from the grey hue that has shrouded much of his past work and towards decidedly brighter fare. While there has long been a futurist focus in Cunningham’s outlook as a producer, his sound, seemingly by choice, has always carried a distinctly lo-fi tinge – an underlying hiss that has only served to add to the murk of records like Ghettoville and R.I.P.. This could very well be a mere result of Cunningham’s choice of tools, having recently admitted that he has “kind of gone backwards in terms of making music,” confessing to a deeply-held respect for those producing electronic music in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the equipment and software available to them at the time. He opts to use “software that’s like the early version of Max/MSP, the beta version,” he says, rather than whatever fancy new tools money can buy today.

All this sits at odds then with the futurist focus that seemingly lies at the heart of AZD. Nostalgia still evidently figures in both Cunningham’s thinking and creative process, even with the central concept that the music contained within sounds like ‘chrome’. It’s a colour or texture that often signifies coldness, and thereby human dissocation and the associations with futurism that come with that (as Adam Harper posits in this 2014 piece for Electronic Beats). At times, the futurist lens can come off ham-fisted, not least on ‘DANCING IN THE SMOKE’, a rough sketch built around samples that repeat the words “the future, the future”. It’s a reminder that music that aims to pronounce its futurist qualities can all too often fall victim of the clichés we’ve had ingrained in us through various facets of popular culture. Often music that is consciously futurist can come off as little more than a quaint self-parody, this track in particular being an unfortunate example. Perhaps though, it’s just another knowing dimension of Cunningham’s newfound willingness to show his cheeky side on record.

AZD fares best when the human influences in Cunningham’s work are most pronounced. Visual artist and graffiti writer Rammellzee is sampled on ‘CYN’, the result of Cunningham’s attempts to seek out the black artists whose work he felt weren’t quite being covered. The fractured samples figure as yet another example of Cunningham’s ongoing obsession with radio interference, in which various incongruous, dissonant elements come together almost as if by accident, competing for equal footing. While Cunningham recently eulogised Rammellzee and American artist James Hampton for their strongly-held desire to protect their art and maintain some semblance of secrecy, he still astutely gives us something to bite at, merely in name-checking said artists and his appreciation of their ideals, and the sonic signposting of his choice of samples.

What’s more, some of the album’s finest moments come in Cunningham’s embrace of orchestral suites, coming off the back of that aforementioned collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra last year. Aside from the strings that guide ‘UNTITLED 7’ just a minute into the album, ’Faure In Chrome’ reimagines Gabriel Fauré’s ‘Requiem’ across six gorgeous minutes. Parts of the composer’s arrangements are heavily processed, underpinned by harsh glitches that come off like an AOL dial-up internet connection circa 2000. It still bears hangovers of the producer’s past work, not least in the digital interference that runs throughout, but the elements are far less cloaked than before, the serene strings emerging above all else.

Where Ghettoville perhaps saw Cunningham stretch his stimuli to near breaking point, travelling too far down an ever gloomy, disengaging path, AZD arrives like a jolt of energy, welcoming some much needed colour into his oeuvre, despite what the record’s somewhat oblique central theme might have you believe. While Ghettoville wasn’t quite the grand act of retirement many expected in 2014, it certainly appears to have been the impetus for a regeneration of sorts, allowing Cunningham to step back and reconsider where exactly he was going. AZD certainly reaps the rewards of his reinvention with Cunningham’s sonic and personal horizons broadened, emerging from an intense period of dense fog.

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