Three years ago, a description of Actress’s fourth studio album was posted on the website of its label, Ninja Tune, that began with a cryptic message. It read, “Ghettoville is the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image” and concluded with an unusual, borderline pretentious epitaph: “R.I.P. Music 2014.” This led some to speculate that this would be the final release, that the mastermind behind Actress, electronic musician Damien Cunningham, intended to retire, or at least move along to other projects.
Nevertheless, here we are with AZD, the fifth studio album by Actress, which features on the same website with equally bizarre notes:
“The album is themed around chrome – both as a reflective surface to see the self in, and as something that carves luminous voids out of any colour and fine focuses white and black representing the perfect metaphor for the bleakness of life in the Metropolis as suggested by Anish Kapoors Cloud Gate.”
Lofty, maybe, but still an intriguing way to pitch an album of what, on its surface, appears to be dance music.
Which is all a more than appropriate primer for what unfolds on the AZD. Calculatedly, Cunningham has crafted twelve tracks that evoke, in their own strange and wordless way, a great range of moods. At once contemplative, pensive, and near-unnervingly patient, it is almost as if the listener enters the very mind from which these sounds originated, via the bridge these scary melodies and understated beats build.
AZD is an album largely concerned with repetition. At its best, this is the album’s best strength, but at times it is also its greatest hindrance.
“X22RME” builds around a basically unchanging jungle-ish beat, while introducing multiple layers of electronic textures. The result is entrancing; it grabs the listener by the ears and holds on tight. On the other hand, some songs, like “FANTASYNTH” and “BLUE WINDOW,” follow similar, repetitive structures without ever taking off, receding into the background even when one is actively listening to them, and fading out anti-climatically at their conclusions. Because closer “VISA” ends in similar, oddly abrupt fashion, the album as a whole suffers at times from a lack of consistent pacing.
Still, there’s something to be said for how focused AZD is, even in its less interesting moments. On each song, Cunningham introduces a concept and sticks to it, builds upon it, and resolves it without ever going for an easy ear-pleaser, like a beat drop or infectious hook.
The artist commits steadfastly to this aesthetic, never more compellingly than on “Dancing in the Smoke,” which features dissonant layering and a distant voice calling, “future, the future,” for nearly seven minutes. An unerring digital anxiety pervades this track, creating haunting scenes in the listener’s mind with virtually no lyrics at all.
Such feats are what makes AZD (and the entire Actress discography, for that matter) appealing. Not every song here succeeds, but Cunningham’s commitment to his vision of swirling and idiosyncratic, meditative yet discomforting electronic dance music is admirable. Although far from perfect, this album will surely be a treat for any electronic fan, and especially for those who feared that the prophecy was true, that music had indeed died back in 2014.