Darren Cunningham, the electronic artist better known as Actress, creates his sound in a studio overlooking a large portion of London. Working throughout the day, Cunningham sees how the light shining down on the city changes, how the landscape morphs into what he calls a “chrome mirror.” It’s a visual transformation he’s tried to capture on Actress’s newest album, AZD.
Perhaps no figure looms larger than Cunningham in defining the role of avant-garde electronica at a time when genre conventions threaten to atrophy club music into something exclusively consumable. The work of Actress is a blend of minimal techno, warped hip-hop, and experimental house bathed in a signature haze that almost dares the listener to dance. Cunningham called his second album, 2010’s Splazsh, “r&b concrète”; songs like “Bubble Butts and Equations” satirized convention with outré blips and rumbling bass. Two years later he followed Splazsh with R.I.P., a meditation on death, ostensibly not dancefloor stuff, but dancefloor music all the same.
With AZD, Cunningham looks to prove that his bravura doesn’t just exist within the realm of music as traditionally understood: It’s a work that asks to be
understood on visual terms. “For me, the ultimate aim is to have my music somehow out of the club and into the art gallery,” Cunningham says. On the cover of AZD, the staid, angular geometry that’s dominated Actress’s album artwork is replaced by a deep black background and a photographic rendering of two hands: one (human, black) reaching into view to caress the other, made of gleaming chrome, an element that suffuses AZD.
Cunningham felt his debut, Hazyville, and previous album, 2014’s Ghettoville, were “described as this sort of gray tone,” he explains. “If you go from this grayness, what is a more refined version of gray? What is the complete other side of what gray could be? To me, it was chrome, straight up. The way it takes in light depending on how it’s shaped; that’s where I’m at right now.”
The album kicks off with a series of tinny beeps, but when the music begins to kick in, AZD becomes a work of subtle, almost reticent beauty, with a brazen
disregard for traditional song structure. Cunningham’s mastery of anticlimax grounds “UNTITLED 7,” a song that features a three-minute-long intro, before drums emerge, as if bouncing off steel warehouse walls. The four-on-the-floor kick we’ve been craving teases us for a few bars at the end. “THERE’S AN
ANGEL IN THE SHOWER” begins as a hive of sounds held together with piano strings, hinting at a bona fide IDM jam that never quite materializes. The album’s high point, “X22RME,” layers hermetic club techno over the sway of Eastern-tinged orchestral strings and ends in a multilingual conversation featuring Cunningham pontificating about language and communication.
“I guess the time period between Ghettoville and AZD was just a three-year development period,” he says. “It wasn’t me sitting on my ass, like, scratching my balls. It was a lot of work away from the noise of having to present something, or having to be in the season of touring or playing shows and talking about what it
is I’m doing. There has to come a switch-off point where you come back to the essence of what your work is about, to legitimize it, to actually focus on figuring out where the next steps are in your creative trajectory.”
Whatever AZD is — a new iteration of the Actress persona, an electronic masterclass, a foray into the art world, an expression of id — the years since his last album have been a time of artistic evolution for Cunningham, embodied in the gray/chrome aesthetic scheme. Where the murk of Actress’s previous work seemed to flatten or obscure song elements, like a vacuum sucking up color, the bright and shiny brilliance of AZD flips the paradigm: It reflects its surroundings, amplifies them, retaining every detail within its reflection.