Scottish producer Actress evokes abandoned spaces, decaying yet futuristic, with skill and precision.
Repetition is a common enough technique in electronic music. It is an essential characteristic of much dance music, certainly and the more minimal forms of techno that mimic it. When taken to an extreme, though, repetition is just as likely to be derided as boring as it is to be lauded for its restraint and discipline. Darren Cunningham has mined, stretched, and questioned the space between the two in much of his work as Actress, and his fifth album AZD is no exception. For most tracks, Cunningham crafts loops of sound built atop a small collection of elements and lets them run virtually unchanged for the duration of the piece. At times, he uses this technique to elevate his work into something truly sublime. The slightest of missteps, however, can cause his productions to devolve into monotony.
In PopMatters' review of AZD's lead single "X22RME", Steve Horowitz wrote that "there is not much here to hook onto except as the background sounds for one's daydreaming while doing monotonous work". And indeed, much of Actress's output perfectly fits the profile of the kind of music suited to studying: instrumental, mid-tempo, and yes, repetitive. Even if you are not a student toiling over a paper, though, there is something about the mechanized flare of AZD that elicits a sharpened focus. This is undeniably brain music, though a central challenge for Actress is producing work that is as comfortable and compelling in the foreground as it is in the background.
Mostly, Cunningham's work is sufficiently nuanced and developed to do so. While "Untitled 7" consists of little more than a five-note linear sequence set in a loop, small embellishments carved out along the way keep things interesting and dynamic, like the addition of eerie synths underlying the production. On the excellent "Runner", a simple techno riff weaves in and out of the mix over a hard, propulsive beat. "Blue Window", meanwhile, is driven more by its melancholy keyboard melody, reversing the compositional balance while achieving a similarly meditative effect.
Much of AZD has a sleeker, more futuristic surface than Actress's usual fare. Beginning with "Nimbus" and ending with "Visa", the album is bookended by what amounts to electronic gibberish, an incoherent stream of bleeps and pings like an old-fashioned conceptualization of robot dialogue. This retro-futurism marks "X22RME" as well, which recalls the '90s heyday of IDM almost to the point of imitation. The album may be at its best when it evokes the textures of industrial decay so often characteristic of Actress's music. Even then, though, AZD sounds more like science fiction than present realities. The complex standout "Dancing in the Smoke" melds hissing noise, laser-like synths, and clattering percussion as if to suggest an alternate history where the machines of the future are imminently dissolving into dust and ruin.
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The moments where Cunningham slows things down and travels outside of beat-driven territory are also gratifying, and help to create a more textured and varied album as a whole. "Faure in Chrome" displaces pieces of Gabriel Faure's "Requiem" in a screeching, digitized context, balancing classical grace with mechanical decomposition. The anxious, lengthier coda "There's an Angel in the Shower" is like wandering through an empty lab after hours, its uneasy, hesitant keys exploring an otherwise clinical atmosphere of automation.
Atmosphere, after all, is one thing AZD has in spades. Cunningham evokes his abandoned spaces, decaying yet futuristic, with skill and precision. He draws upon a wide variety of tools and palettes to construct such sonic imagery, each element carefully applied in subtle modulations on a central theme. There isn't really a low point on the album, though some moments cohere more memorably than others. AZD is best when Cunningham provides the contours and shading necessary to make his tracks feel like more than indefinite conceptual loops, when the details of his worlds become tangible and clear. At such moments the album asserts itself powerfully, and avoids the threat of dissolving into its own ether.