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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.