Actress is the pseudonym of British electronic musician Darren Cunningham, a veteran of the genre for over a decade the man behind four well-received LPs, spaced enough apart to allow Cunningham time to develop and hone in on a new idea and give each record a definitive sound. His latest, AZD, feels cold and calculated, whirring with machinery and industrial noises to create a thematically consistent record in agreement with the record’s robotic, metallic cover artwork.
The songs on AZD are more often than not danceable and pulsating, preferring tinkling, minimalist riffs and white noise to huge moments of bass or synths. Such is true on proper opener “Untitled 7”, a good bellwether of the album’s overall sound before fading into the followup “Fantasynth”, which loops pitched up bells alongside a dusty piano hook, all to a pumping, organic backbeat. The track, like others on AZD, develops slowly, becoming encompassed by a subtle but steady stream of snowy noise before ending as mysteriously and unceremoniously as it began, with a simple fade out. “Blue Window” follows a similar formula, changing its hook, tempo and murky, muffled back beat just enough to distinguish itself while remaining firmly within the sonic palette the album paints early on. The cross fading of tracks gives the opening third a DJ set list vibe, which slowly juxtaposes itself to the standalone, more conceptual tracks that appear as the record progresses.
“CYN” is the album’s first detour, going with a heavier, more dynamic arrangement that brings in various buzzsaws, theremins and organs built around intense 90s hip hop and spoken word samples. The song dissipates quickly and is picked up by “X22RME”, which, as the title suggests, is the heaviest song on the record, mixing darker techno with Classixx-like triplet arpeggios before going full-throttle on the fuzz and noise. “Runner” concludes the album’s second phase with a driving beat, insistent synth instrumentation and a flurry of static that masks human conversation, distorting it to sound completely artificial.
The final third of “AZD” begins with the ambient “Falling Rizlas”, a delicate piece of music lacking in a rhythmic beat and featuring synthetic string arrangements and deep bass around snowy chimes. The track is beautiful and serves as an eye of the hurricane before “Dancing in the Smoke” affronts the listener with a hail of glitchy, clashing, squealing synths, ray guns and broken glass. Experimental and occasionally intriguing, the track nonetheless feels chaotic and claustrophobic. “Faure in Chrome” is the album’s climax, a dramatic string piece that features the ingratiating sound of metallic welding and buzzing, not far from the sound of a dentist’s drill into teeth. It sounds like the soundtrack to fatal robotic surgery, and I can appreciate the conceptual nature of the song, which feels related to the story on the cover art, but the high pitched buzzing is just too unpleasant for me to enjoy listening through it. The record closes with the mysterious, alien come-down “There’s an Angel in the Shower” and “Visa”, an uptempo, nostalgic techno throwback that doesn’t make a lot of sense sequencing wise, sort of reminding me of a bonus single or deluxe track tacked onto the album’s end.
I think AZD develops a signature sound early and provides a solid mix of minimalist production and catchy, dancey hooks, but its indulgence into clashing, grating and wholly unenjoyable experimentation on the back end is a huge downer and a strike against the album for me. I think there was a great idea behind these dark, metallic tracks, and I can see a record that does such a concept beautifully, but AZD is not it. The center of the record, while fine, isn’t as strong as the first third, and I think the end truly is a sequencing mishap, as “Angel in the Shower” works better than anything else here as the closer (though clearly Actress felt otherwise). There are good ideas and a deft hand behind AZD, but the record itself feels like a missed opportunity.