Darren J. Cunningham -- co-founder of the laudable Werk Discs label -- finally releases his long-awaited and long-hyped full-length album as Actress, and it's a good 'un.
The turn-of-the-century London-based Werk label first busted out of the LP ghetto in late 2005, and has since pumped an increasing amount of wherewithal into its compact disc division. It turned out to be a smart move. There's no arguing with a purist that the sound of a vinyl record will clobber that of an equivalent CD any day of the week, but not everyone owns a phonograph, and digital music-on-the-go is an understandable priority for our generation of go-go-goers. Werk's recent stable of high quality CD releases put the imprint on the electronica map, first with the warped ragga of Disrupt's Foundation Bit, then with the wonky dubstep of Zomby's Where Were U in '92?, and finally with Lukid's Foma, an instrumental hip-hop dream that imagined what would happen if Flying Lotus drank Koushik's psilocybin Kool-Aid at the pool party by mistake. As dubstep and this stripe of J Dilla-influenced downtempo resurged simultaneously in 2008, Werk became a bellwether almost overnight, its preferred musical trends and preferred medium of distribution the secret recipe for its success.
Hardly an "it" in reality, Werk is the duo of DJ/producers Gavin Weale and Darren J. Cunningham, the latter of whom is also known as Actress. Cunningham had been threatening to release a full-length album of Actress songs after his No Tricks EP in 2004 put a spell on the small clutch of people who heard it and they clamored for more, but notwithstanding some scattered remix work for Alex Smoke and Various Production, it's only now that fans' patience has paid off. Cunningham seems to have begun conceptualizing and constructing these songs ever since he closed the lid on No Tricks, which would go to some length to explain why Hazyville isn't the lazy victory lap Cunningham now deserves to take. Assiduous, adequately deranged, and nicely realized, Hazyville carries the weight of a singular record years in the making.
Following in the tradition of Werk albums before it, Hazyville attempts to tackle another genre currently enjoying a renaissance: deep house. The supple, narcotic groove inside tracks like "Doggin'" and "Mincin" reference the sound of a soulful Detroit propagated by Kenny Dixon, Jr. and Theo Parrish, whose back catalogues were exhumed not long ago. As it turns out, though, Actress's version of deep house isn't very deep at all. Portishead figured out on Third that, in certain cases, punching up the treble and the compression could invoke feelings of dread and paranoia more effectively than the classic bassy undercurrents employed by groups like Drexciya. Hazyville is a far cry from a horror soundtrack, but its brittle and uncommonly rubbery textures can leave us feeling out of sorts, bewitched and bewildered. It's a testament to the music that despite the cloud of hype hanging over the record and the hallowed place it holds in the Werk catalogue, it still has a peculiar out-of-nowhere aura about it, the tendency -- with its eerie black-and-white cover art as a visual reference -- to provoke a reaction of "what is this thing?" in us.
I'm reminded of Boards of Canada's weird and wonderful Music Has the Right to Children, wherein the melodies lulled us into a daze while the drum programming demanded that we wake the hell up. Hazyville works on two very similar levels. Globs of soothing, static-flecked drone pulsate and worm their way through the bottom of the tracks, and they might have worked as straight ambient were it not for the computer burps and vocal fragments popping sporadically out of the fray like whack-a-moles and the harsh rhythmic cracks that recall a teacher smacking her pointer against the desk. At high volumes, Hazyville becomes downright disciplinary, its stentorian impulses tempered only by the half-lush melodies chilling underneath, and the effect is oddly exhilarating. Not since Third has an electronica record turned punishment into such an appealing -- even sexually titillating -- sensation through the nature of its sound alone.
It's of some note that the nature of Hazyville's sound doesn't really change over the course of its 11 (reasonably short) tracks, and after so many repeated listens the experience can move from galvanizing to wearying. Imagine how you'd feel just after being shocked with 200 volts for the tenth time and you'll get the idea. The song structures also tend to stagnate, with Cunningham repeating bar after bar of music until he decides to stop tape. And it doesn't take a synaesthete to see that Hazyville lacks color, its tonal palette largely consisting of varying shades of gray. But within this limited framework Actress works magic, and Hazyville's drawbacks are, if anything, symptomatic only of his considerable focus and how much time and effort we as listeners decide to devote to it. There's no denying that Cunningham discovered a fascinating texture and a grip of idiosyncratic sonic flourishes and ran with them as far as they could go. "I Can't Forgive You" sports a rare rhythmic pattern that can only be described as a slurp. The sensual, crackling melody that bulges within "Redit 124" provides a subtle counterpoint to the frequent synth punches as explicit as pelvic thrusts. "Mincin" puts it all together, the drum programming and tuneful elements coalescing into a propulsive and icy-hot groove that Cunningham could have kept playing until kingdom come.
And that's pretty much all there is to it. Hazyville -- less than 45 minutes in length -- sticks around just long enough to make its point and bail. It's a tempting proposition to return to it again and again in order to see through it, understand it more clearly and catch its charms. Therein lies the trap. Hazyville is obfuscated by design -- heck, Cunningham gives this away in the album title -- and as much as we may believe we can see beyond the triangle on the cover (and hear beyond the music's surface features), we're not gonna. So the amount of enjoyment we garner from it could depend as much on how we choose to treat it as it does on the music itself. Taken on its own, however, Hazyville is a clear winner and a fitting analogue for a label that's always been short on quantity but long on quality.