Actress: AZD review – a brilliantly twisted, introverted take on dance music | Alexis Petridis' album of the week

The fifth album from one of electronic music’s most admired producers comes with a lot of high-concept baggage, but the music speaks for itself

Darren J Cunningham cuts an intriguing figure in dance music. He’s not the only former professional footballer to try his hand as a DJ, but the West Brom striker is presumably the first one to subsequently establish himself in the world of cerebral post-dubstep techno. His releases as Actress suggest an artist not at home to the idea of wearing one’s intelligence lightly: he seems to wear his like a hi-vis jacket, with trousers to match. He has made work inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and Jamie James’ “anecdotal history of the symphony of science and its counterpoint, the wisdom of music”, The Music of the Spheres. 2014’s Ghettoville arrived accompanied by an epilogue poem: “Spitting flames behind a white wall of silence. The machines have turned to stone, data reads like an obituary to its user.”

For all the reviews that seem to take this stuff at face value – quoting Nietzsche and Heidegger at you and loftily referring to his work not as albums or singles but “audio communions” – there’s occasionally the sense that some of this might be emanating from a man with his tongue lodged in his cheek. In one of his rare interviews, he suggested his working practices amounted to “smoking a lot of weed and seeing what happens”, while tracks bearing names such as Shadow from Tartarus and Uriel’s Black Harp rub shoulders with the noticeably earthier-sounding Doggin’ and Supreme Cunnilingus.

Accordingly, the blurb accompanying Cunningham’s fifth album informs us that AZD is a conceptual work based around the idea of chrome, and references 1950s outsider artist James Hampton, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture, Afrofuturist rapper and visual artist Rammellzee, the notion of the “shadow aspect” in Jungian psychology, Star Wars and the French romantic composer Fauré. As before, it’s not clear how seriously all this is intended. Rammellzee certainly crops up, via a series of muffled samples on CYN, his voice echoing through music that feels like an electro track falling to pieces, its constituent elements slipping out of tune and rhythmic step with each other. And AZD does indeed feature a track called Fauré in Chrome, during which murky samples of strings are gradually overwhelmed by a noise that is somewhere between the ear-piercing synthesised squeals of power electronics and an old dial-up modem.

But Cunningham also claims that a track called Runner – a lovely, hypnotic deep house track with a very Blue Monday-esque synth line, but terribly distorted – is in fact, “a personal re-soundtracking of Bladerunner” – which is the kind of thing serious techno artists have been saying about their music since time immemorial. (Though he does add that this track is intended to soundtrack a deleted scene set in a Peckham cafe.) Elsewhere, he claims to have come up with a means of “linking circuits using various forms of language”; the ensuing explanation appears to suggest that MIDI-enabled synthesisers can somehow be linked to the Ancient Mayan graffiti found in the ruined city of Tikal.

The question of whether or not all this is meant to be earnest, playful, or a parody of the kind of high-minded seriousness with which certain areas of the electronic music world take themselves is an interesting one. But the contents of AZD are strong enough to stand up on their own, whatever you make of the accompanying screeds. Cunningham’s biggest skills are oddly prosaic ones. He has a talent for melodies that snag at you, as demonstrated on the music-box ambience of Falling Rizlas, or Blue Window, on which house music battles to be heard over the sound of tape hiss. He also has an ability to twist the sound of dance music until it sounds private and intimate. Even the album’s most upbeat moment, X22RME, has a strangely introverted atmosphere to it: when the beats drop out, it doesn’t feel like a euphoric breakdown, but rather as if someone’s mind has wandered in the middle of the dancefloor. Dancing in the Smoke does something similar, taking a vocal sample also found on Bizarre Inc’s early 90s rave classic Playing With Knives and relocating it amid off-kilter beats and discordant synths, while, once again, murk and distortion adds a patina of age. The whole thing sounds like a vague but queasy memory of a moment when the night’s excesses temporarily overwhelmed you.

The best thing here might be Untitled 7, which would sound like an old-fashioned, late-80s-style house track, were it not for the fact that the volume levels of the various sounds on it seem to be out of whack – not least those of the rhythm track, buried in the mix until it feels like it’s coming from the room next door. It succeeds in recapturing the alien, disembodied, what-on-earth-is-this? quality that house music had on arrival, before it became a familiar part of the musical landscape. That seems a really clever thing to do; cleverer, perhaps, than all the intellectualising that surrounds Actress’s music.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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