Review: Actress, “AZD”

Finding both sites I wrote for had already reviewed Actress’s great new record AZD, I impulsively decided to submit it for consideration to the Emerald, the paper I wrote for in college. They decided not to run it, so I’ve uploaded it here. (It’s short because the Emerald word count for reviews is between 450 and 550, as opposed to the 500+ and 600+ of Spectrum Culture and Pretty Much Amazing respectively.)


The key thing to know about Actress’s fifth album AZD is that it’s an Actress album in the way Splaszh and R.I.P. were and not in the way Ghettoville was.

Though it has its defenders, Ghettoville was largely viewed as a disappointment, and indeed it lacked the brain-bending sound design and club-schooled sleekness of the predecessors that made the young Brit Darren Cunningham famous. It was leadfooted, industrial, and too minimal to sound truly psychedelic; in other words, it didn’t play to Cunningham’s strengths. He threatened to abandon the Actress project after the album, and the time seemed ripe.

AZD, by contrast, feels like the platonic ideal of an Actress album – or, at least, a good one. The elements here will sound instantly familiar to fans. Lengthy, ominous ambient interludes that slow the action down to a crawl. Vaguely Eastern scales played on snaky, winding synths. Whispery minimal techno drums coated in a light mist of static. 

And, of course, those noises. Though Cunningham waxes high-minded when he talks about his work (his press releases for his magnum opus R.I.P. were filled with references to John Milton, the guy whose work the professor from Animal House would have rather gotten stoned than teach) the sounds he makes are stupid, lizard-brained Looney Tunes ones that sound spectacular in an altered state. Perhaps the only other producer whose oeuvre contains more sounds nobody else in history has made is Ricardo Villalobos, the Chilean wildchild who perfected minimal techno last decade.

To be fair, AZD doesn’t quite hit the highs of Splaszh and R.I.P., but not because of anything that indicates Cunningham’s lost his touch. The problem is, simply and harmlessly, that it’s too bottom-loaded. The first seven tracks pass by in a ticklish blur, but the pacing hits a roadblock during the steamy, six-minute “Dancing In The Smoke” and keeps trudging along through the equally long noise experiment “Faure In Chrome” and the even longer (but quite pleasant) “There’s An Angel In The Shower.” The album builds serious momentum early on, but it never leads to any kind of satisfactory payoff. 

It’s also a bit disappointing to realize Cunningham works best in a comfort zone rather than when he’s out on a limb. Ghettoville was his first true experiment, and it fell flat; coming back with the closest thing possible to a meat-and-potatoes Actress album feels like an admission of failure. AZD doesn’t revitalize the project so much as prove Cunningham knows what he’s good at, and even if it feels a bit safe, it’s still a formidable entry in the Actress canon that will be remembered with the best of his records.