Review Summary: I am I, and I wish I weren't.
Album-label promotional spiels are often best ignored, or at least taken with but a teensy grain of salt. Rarely are promises therein delivered on, and it’s a bit disconcerting to have the album pre-deciphered. It either gives you the answers
, or auto-fellates; neither are much fun for us. The blurb for AZD
(pronounced “Azid,” I guess) makes it clear that it's meant for multiple interpretations. When one considers the self-indulgence of Darren Cunningham’s last Actress release, Ghettoville
, this doesn’t bode well. Some of the best elements of that release were sidelined by trivial ones; it was impressive how Actress was able to bury himself. But, that was then. AZD
supplants what was widely considered Actress’ swan song, as Cunningham “asserts more clearly than ever his complete independence.
” Opener “Nimbus” bleeps with unmodulated synths and light, pensive tones. It’s premeditative knob-twiddling, like an anxious tic, which contrasts cleverly with the more confident outset of “Untitled 7”. Like the cover art might imply, AZD
is all about contrast: the natural and untampered versus the fine-tuned and gleaming.
Much of AZD
’s contrasts aren’t just in effects or rhythms, but in between preparation and delivery. At times, Actress feels restrained, with something monumental hovering on the tip of his tongue. The payoff often offers little in the way of resolution. “Untitled 7”, for example, begins with an interesting preemption of ascending bass and ominous strings; but, over time it seems to pace back and forth, like a stage performer reciting lines he expects to forget under the limelight. Follow-up “Fantasynth” fares little better, and you’d have to pay me to conjure more than one sentence to describe it (even Pitchfork’s Thea Ballard couldn’t bother). Fortunately, much of AZD
offers far better in terms of progression and texture. From “Blue Window” onward, Actress excels in convincingly blending noises that most tech/house producers wouldn’t consider, like the tribal pattern on “Runner” underscored with subtle musique concrete. “Faure in Chrome” also utilize concrete noises, as a sort of hospital-like grounding of Cunningham’s aching string-fueled reflection. The standouts rival material found on Splazsh
, though the actual beat-making was more impressive on that release. “X22RME” is playful and neurotic, with an insatiable robotic groove laden with a metastasizing synth that seems to dissolve the track from the inside. Imagine the scene in Howl’s Moving Castle
, where the castle seems to keep magically chugging along, despite the dismantling.
steps away from the dancefloor, similar to the ambient constructions of R.I.P.
, and it isn’t until the album’s final third that we truly see the significance in this. Actress is known to be deliberate and, one might argue, almost ponderous in how he paces his work, but AZD
is especially bottom-heavy in concept. Like in an adult store, the best stuff is at the back. The last few tracks are the most contemplative, and “Falling Rizlas” through to “Visa” could make up an excellent EP. “Dancing in the Smoke” is poignant, with out-of-place hype phrases (“dance, my record spins
,” “the future, future!
”) overtop warped, dystopian noises. It’s as though an automated DJ is playing in a war-torn, drug-addled nightmarish milieu. Even a track like “There’s An Angel In The Shower”, despite the pounding four-on-the-floor beat, feels distracted with slow piano strokes and soft twinkling. Its thought process is simultaneously fast and slow.
Ultimately, this thought process dichotomy is what AZD
is all about. There is often a division between where the body is, and an induced mental presence. If you could trace a timeline for a drug like Soma from the film/novel Brave New World
, which is taken as a distractive ‘happy pill’, then AZD
is the dicey prototypical stage where the effects don’t work entirely as intended. In the process, we are torn between yearning for utopian singularity and clinging to a familiar humanity.