The charismatic Actress returns with AZD, his fifth album apparently inspired by the material of chrome and obscure outsider art. But look past the lofty theorising, advises Piers Barber, and you’ll find an exquisite album soaked in pure fun and richly addictive grooves.
Darren Cunningham has spent his career carefully ensuring his Actress releases are reviewed alongside an accompanying barrage of heavy intellectual musings. AZN, his fifth full length release, is no different, with the artist detailing his indebtedness to, among others, the notion of Jungian psychology’s ‘shadow aspect’, Chicago’s Cloud Gate sculpture, and outsider artist James Hampton, a black janitor who built religious art out of scavenged junk. Most of all, it’s an album apparently influenced by chrome, a material relevant, in Cunningham’s words, “both as a reflective surface to see the self in, and as something that carves luminous voids out of any colour.” Quite.
Actress is certainly a reliably interesting story. A former professional striker with West Bromwich Albion, Cunningham’s career took a dramatic U-turn when a recurrent serious injury and an escalating fascination with Octave One and Fingers Inc. diverted his attention to electronic music. All subsequent releases have been accompanied by significant mystique and theorising: 2014’s Ghettoville, for example, is Actress’ existential crisis, a record he apparently produced when “acutely aware of the simulated prism that required breakout”.
It’s all heavy stuff, and reviews of his music tend to end up eye-rollingly high brow, as critics attempt to reach the same level of intellectual clarity apparently achieved by their subject. Yet, as Alexis Petridis points out in his excellent AZD review, it’s actually pretty difficult to tell to what extent this dense theorising is earnest or delivered distinctly tongue in cheek, intended to turn heads and create conversation. My suspicion is that it’s a heavy dose of the latter. After all, it must be hard gig being an electronic music critic – having some weighty sleeve note copy as backup certainly helps fashion interesting reviews capable of differentiating one record from the another.
Yet beneath it all, of course, is often deceptively simple music of sumptuous quality, addictive grooves and straight-up compelling beats. AZD is no different. There’s a lot of fun in this record: it’s twisted, teasingly layered and occasionally indecipherable, yes, but relentless good fun nonetheless.
Take ‘RUNNER’, an infectiously funky deep house roller punctuated by bouncing synths and a skipping rhythm – a “personal re-soundtracking of Bladerunner,” in Cunningham’s words. It’s addictive and, put quite simply, sounds absolutely great. Club-focused tracks abound (there are certainly more here than on Ghettoville); take first single ‘X22RME’ or ‘DANCING IN THE SMOKE’, a squelchy rhythmic masterclass, which prominently features the stern robotic vocal instruction “Dance, hear my record spin.”
Thick characteristically Actress-y fingerprints are smeared throughout. ‘CYN’ sounds like 1990s hip hop radio played deep underwater in some distant enchanted lake, and with its title of ‘NYC’ spelled backwards and inclusion of rapid samples of Rammellzee, a New York hip hop hero, it constitutes a classy twisted take on modern city life. On ‘Faure in Chrome’, stunning strings played by the London Contemporary Orchestra are gradually subsumed and distorted by what sounds like a overworked dial-up modem dangerously spluttering and squealing out of control. It’s a quintessential Actress treatment of French romantic composer Gabriel Fauré’s ‘Requiem’: the final cut is a genuinely breathtaking piece of music.
AZD is a triumph. It’s unusual, inspired, and imaginative, but threaded throughout with untainted flavours of pure groove and rhythm. Spend time with it, look past the often wearisome intellectualising, and get lost in one of the best records of the year.