It seems like there’s an increasing trend in UK electronic music at the moment where the focus is to build tension and friction simply through the mixing and mastering alone. While other artists such as Burial opt for battered vinyl textures and stereo drop-outs, Wolverhampton-based producer Darren Cunningham’s (aka Actress) tracks often draw their tension from the fact that they sometimes feel curiously unfinished. Indeed, while this fifth Actress album ‘AZD’ (pronounced ‘acid’) offers up a considerably more sheeny and chrome-plated listen than 2014’s ominous and introverted ‘Ghettoville’, there’s still often a sense that the tracks here are phantoms of themselves, with only a shadowy muted bass presence remaining alongside layers of tape hiss.
In many senses, the start of this album sees things idling more than anything else before gathering its momentum, as ‘Untitled 7’ sends ghostly orchestral synths swelling beneath moody bass chords while a monotonously looping ascending melodic sequence gets filtered into a series of elastic sounding pings, only for streamlined tech-house rhythms to suddenly slot themselves into the track’s last two minutes alongside distorted snippets of vocoder speech. Elsewhere, ‘Fantasynth’ sees Cunningham placing a delicately blurred melodic loop beneath rattling techno snares and echoing background tones, spending the first half of the track building up the various textural layers before seemingly leaving the resultant fusion to speed forward on its own locked groove for the track’s second half.
Indeed, there’s frequently the sense of Cunningham finding joy in repetition more than anything else here, something certainly captured vividly by ‘Runner’s curiously post-Hacienda glide through Balearic bass sequences and gliding house rhythms that have been distressed to the point where they sound like they’ve dubbed off several generations of tape. While there’s a strong focus upon techno / house rhythms here, ‘Cyn’ offers up a sidestep into Funkstorung-esque hiphop that’s one of the biggest highlights here, as the late Rammelzee gets sampled and cut-up against lurching bass drops and spidery percussion, before ‘There’s An Angel In The Shower’ ushers forth what’s arguably this record’s most spectral highlight as eerie faded notes trail alongside feathery ambience atop a insectlike backdrop of skittering techno rhythms and whirring synths reach off into the distance, evoking what’s easily the most nocturnal atmosphere here. While it’s certainly far more immediate and accessible than its foreboding predecessor, ‘AZD’ still often feels like a puzzle box waiting to be deciphered and unlocked.