Cunningham adds yet another impressive release to an impressive inquiry in the politics and philosophy that are implicit in music.
Experimental techno producer Darren J. Cunningham’s fifth album under the Actress moniker, AZD, is a meditation the very form of electronic dance movement. His fourth album, Ghettoville, took influences from musique concrete and melded it on to a club music backbone, effectively blurring the supple edges of body-driven dance music until it became nightmarish and dystopian. Enjoyment of Ghettoville hinged on the listener’s ability to manifest empathy. It wasn’t an easy album to listen to by any measure, but in the right mood and mode of thinking, it created an atmosphere that mirrored the tragic situation in low-income sections in urban centers. Electronic music has always been a stronghold for Otherness—whether it be race, gender, or sexuality—and in this way, Cunningham’s music as Actress continues the thread, both in practice and the clear intellectual strain of his sonic juxtapositions.
Rather than make music that explicitly refers to a situation in the real world like on Ghettoville, Cunningham makes an inquiry into music and sound itself on AZD, actively creating music that’s minimal and, at its best, pleasurable, but he takes apart these elements just as quickly as he puts them up. His approach at times is reminiscent in spirit of The Caretaker or William Basinski, who sample existent pieces of music and let these samples actively decay as they repeat over and over again. Rather than taking on preexisting pieces of music, Cunningham crafts his own within the tradition of techno music and continues to warp and rip them apart so you can actively hear the construction and deconstruction as it occurs. A fine example of this is the almost-nauseating repetition of “UNTITLED 7” which features a fat bass synth arpeggio providing a spine throughout with tinkling bells and other horn-like synths punctuating it. Then, about the third minute into the song, Cunningham adds percussion, and it becomes a club tune full-stop. This is essentially the album in microcosm: a deft, repetitive slab of techno that walks in and out of its own grooves. It’s a distancing move that again underscores Cunningham’s approach. By teasing the easy pleasures of the genre throughout, he ingratiates you to his music, but through abstraction and disintegration, he makes you yearn for what you’re “missing”. It’s a fascinating move that takes on a grander meeting in the record’s last section, which foregrounds Cunningham’s more abrasive experimentation.
After the early pleasures of “UNTITLED 7”, the hip hop inflected “CYN”, and the beautiful Eno-like vista of “FALLING RIZLAS”, Cunningham makes a shift for the record’s last third with “DANCING IN THE SMOKE”, which takes these same sonic influences, but warps them into a harrowing and almost totalitarian zone of pure discomfort. It’s a palette cleanser with some of the filthiest sounds of 2017 as synths that sound like screaming engines clash against a creaky voice intoning “Dance” while another mechanized voice repeats “Future! Future!”. The rest of the album follows suit in this discomfort, ending with “VISA” which is full of facile, empty glee like James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual songs. The aesthetic shift during this last third is jarring—even compared to the other song’s relative comfort—but the point still holds: Cunningham seems actively engaged in how the form a music is created in holds sway over its function. The form here is electronic dance music, but the function is absolutely foreign to the tie-dyed affluence that is seen at the large tentpole festivals like Hard. Cunningham’s work here reclaims electronic dance music by breaking it down, thus calling into question its commodified seamlessness. With AZD, Cunningham adds yet another impressive release to an impressive inquiry in the politics and philosophy that are implicit in music.