Actress' '88' Is a Beautiful Mess of Snaps, Pops, and Glitches
88 is not the most consistent Actress album to date, but it is probably the wonkiest. Parts of it sound like relics from the analog era; others sound like nothing else on earth.
15 July 2020
Is the music of Actress—the brain-child of Darren Cunningham—futuristic or retro? Or just retro-futuristic? Sometimes Actress' music sounds like the soundtrack to some 1980s computer game, with its love of bleeps and bloops and laser sounds. Sometimes the production is so grainy, so lo-fi, so overdriven that it's just plain archaic. Other times, though, it simply sounds too sharp, too twisted, too genre-defying to be anything but futuristic.
Maybe this is what makes Cunningham so great: he's one step behind and one step ahead of everyone else at once. His music takes the lean, clean sound of old school Detroit techno and mashes it up in a melting pot of house, dub, glitch, funk, and everything in between. It's at once a service and disservice to every genre he explores. But don't be misled: Actress is no dilettante. His music may be heady and genre-bending, but it's rarely tedious or top-heavy. His grooves, especially on albums like Splazsch and AZD, are part of what set him apart.
That said, Actress' newest LP has less in common with either of those records and more in common with the abstract compositions of R.I.P. or the bleak, staticky sound world of Ghettoville. In fact, 88 may be Actress' most inaccessible album to date. The tracks here are more sketches than songs—loose, open-ended jams that often feel intentionally half-formed, intentionally short-lived. There are 22 tracks here, and even though Cunningham provided a track-listing prior to the album's release, the album was released as a standalone 49-minute track. That means that, even though we have the track-listing, we don't know which tracks correspond to which sections of the album.
Does this frustrate you? It's probably supposed to. Because of any Actress LP, 88 seems like the one to weed out the true fans from the casual ones, the wheat from the chaff. Aside from the opening sequence, with its straightforward mix of twangy guitar and bass, the first 20 minutes are so left of leftfield they make RIP sound like a pop record. Starting at the 1:30 mark, we get a salvo of clucky, uneven drums, squealing synths, and distant vocals pitch-shifted to a ridiculously low register. The beat here is so slow but so disorienting that the sounds going on around it hardly seem to coalesce. The elements don't really gel together; it's like you're trying to listen to two songs at once. It's an uncharacteristically shaky start for Actress; the experiment doesn't really land.
Things pick up around the 8:30 mark, however. This sequence includes stomping hip-hop kickdrums, retro bleeps and zaps, and a gorgeous MIDI-flute passage. It's everything Actress does well—half-retro, half-futuristic at the same time. From there, 88 is pretty much smooth sailing. The song starting at the 23rd minute unites a bouncy piano melody with a fuzzy, crackling texture that sounds straight out of Ghettoville. At 27:30, we get an ominous two-note bassline and a melody that's created by filtering a similarly fuzzy texture through some subtle delay effects. Tracks like these show Cunningham's uncanny ability to mine melodies from the oddest, most unmelodic of sounds. Unlike so much head-banging techno these days, this is music that sounds challenging to make—not just listen to.
The end of the LP is probably the warmest, liveliest part of 88. At about 43:40, there's a footwork-like drum sequence overlaid with a series of bright, clean synths. The synths have a strangely watery texture; they seem to bubble over as the song goes on. At 47:30, the closeout, we get some gorgeous filter sweeps ascending and descending over an ambient keyboard passage. In comparison to the rest of 88, the last ten minutes are light, buoyant and playful. They're more reminiscent of AZD than Ghettoville. They give a glimmer of life to the murky, painstaking experience that is often 88.
Actress' music has always been weird and unclassifiable, but even by his standards, this LP is far-out. As a whole, the LP doesn't kick, spin or dance—it snaps, pops and glitches. It's something of a beautiful mess. Parts of it sound like relics from the analog era; others sound like nothing else on earth. There are 22 tracks jam-packed in under 50 minutes, and many of them don't even last a minute. The ones that do, however, are generally right up there with Cunningham's best. 88 is not the most consistent Actress album to date, but it is probably the wonkiest.