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December 11, 2017

Even crowd-pandering can’t dull the brilliance of Actress’ ‘AZD’

(Actress Official Facebook Page)

In just under 10 years, Darren Cunningham has solidified a fascinating career under the pseudonym Actress. The British techno artist has jumped around a number of labels and worked with both Damon Albarn–the mastermind of Gorillaz and lead singer/songwriter of the iconic British band Blur–and Adult Swim.

He has danced around all kinds of techno in his discography, making his style hard to pin down. It falls somewhere between the disjointed sounds of glitch, the minimalist fundamentals of ambient house and has a strong core of electronica from which all his ideas flow. It’s been three years since 2014’s well-received “Ghettoville,” and Cunningham’s newest album, “AZD,” shows him stepping forward with confidence, while occasionally struggling with his more crowd-pleasing instincts. Cunningham’s genius gets spread thinly on “AZD,” but that doesn’t mean that the album is without moments of absolute brilliance.

Opener “NIMBUS” is about as off-kilter as a track can get. While it still keeps the tiniest shred of a melody, it certainly sets you up for the left-field techno of “AZD.” This left-field sound certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. “UNTITILED 7” has trickling electric melodies above softer, synthetic strings. The leading synth drives the track forward a bit too much into monotony, but just as that feeling of boredom sets in, the harmony kicks out and gives way to low, muddy bass.

“FANTASYSYNTH” takes far too much pleasure in sounding like a traditional techno track, but is just off enough to keep you on guard. “DANCING IN THE SMOKE” has vocal samples and a variety of off the wall synths that play around in the picture without any regard to time signature.

Cunningham does a wonderful job of slowly incorporating elements that are subtle enough that you barely notice them, until they’re used to springboard a track into its inevitable climax. “FAURE IN CHROME” is a beast with a beautiful, bright synthesizer at its heart. While the syncopated melodies featured earlier in the record return, it’s almost as if the two elements are struggling against each other. The fight becomes more aggressive as the track goes on, giving the track a massive scope not too unlike that of a classical symphony.

Cunningham is playing a lot; not within just the techno toy box, but with the fundamentals of the genre itself. He’s always in complete control–like a conductor–bringing in all kinds of unique harmonies and having them leave and come back when needed.

On “AZD,” released April 14, Cunningham dons the techno glove, while also putting himself in the stylings of EDM, a genre he completely dismantles. In that way, “AZD” is a daring, almost experimental album. It’s for those who listen not necessarily to groove, but to be entertained by clever originality.

The contagiously fun closer, “VISA,” is one of the few tracks on “AZD” that could possibly be danced to. And really, that’s where the album has its biggest flaw. While “AZD” absolutely has standout tracks, where Cunningham shows his talent and knowledge, around half the album falls into this trap where it seems that Cunningham feels the need to make something more accessible. He ends up having one foot in higher concepts, and one foot in tedium.

Each of these more accessible tracks are not only formulaic, but show very little diversity over their lengthy run times. Tracks like “BLUE WINDOW” and “XX2RME” begin with their melody already established and with some bound-to-be-interesting harmonies. But any novelty they have are lost as they keep lapping around a track that just grounds the melody into blandness. It might not even sound that monotonous, but half of these weaker tracks reach an exasperating, 5-minute runtime.

The album is at least paced well. The first few tracks give an aggressive, off-kilter allure. The album then takes its deepest dive in quality, only to bounce back in the second half and climb up triumphantly to leave you with something special. You can very well take the best on offer here and skip over the several misfires.

The opening tracks are genuine curiosities, while the closers are some of the smartest techno offerings in months, standing with the giants of last year. The music world is waiting anxiously for Actress to drop a more no-holds-barred project that will demonstrate the control and restraint that’s often missing from such a maximalist genre. Cunningham may have no interest in such a project, but his obvious abilities here inevitably leave the listener anxious and wanting more.

Matthew Joseph can be reached at mejoseph@umass.edu.

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