Actress - AZD
There’s this scene in the 2014 film Ex Machina where a programmer sits down and attempts to interview an artificial intelligence from behind a glass blockade. The programmer is struck by the interaction in a way that resembles romantic infatuation. He’s caught off guard. He even blushes. And later in the film, the programmer falls in love. It makes sense; the A.I. was built to resemble human perfection, its beauty and innocence so painstakingly crafted. When the A.I. displays its own vulnerabilities to the programmer, it nearly resembles human life; only ballerina-like precision movement and a digital grid taking up half its head keep the machine from fully imitating reality. The newest album by Darren J. Cunningham, who produces experimental electronic music as Actress, is colored by this attraction to faultless beauty as well as its emotional distance. Just a few songs into AZD it becomes clear that the rusty, lumbering machines occupying his desolate Ghettoville have been replaced by something much brighter, more elegantly crafted, and finely tuned. Lynchian drones giving way to whirring mechanized windup dolls.
In an interview with Fader, Cunningham stated that the album was developed through technological parameters, explaining, “What was in my head was this Willy Wonka-style elevator, which is basically loads and loads of buttons [and] he knows exactly what every button does apart from one”. With this eye toward pristine aesthetics, Cunningham used equipment based upon its design as opposed to its sound, deploying a creative method akin to Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Toss off all well-worn methods of creation and begin from scratch. And you can hear it. On previous albums, tracks contrasted with each other to bring out their distinctions in mood and sound, whereas on AZD, everything exists within the same general texture – delicate, symmetrical, and metallic. Take for example, “X22RME” or “RUNNER”, each of these tracks plink along with high frequencies and nearly sound motorized with their commitment to an unchanging rhythm. Instead of dropping you into immersive spaces, AZD’s songs are structures. An art installation plastered in white halls.
Tonally, the album is not an optimistic one. Ghettoville was the sound of a crumbling post-apocalypse, whereas AZD is the sound of technology, having long replaced human life, falling into the very same pitfalls of the race they eradicated. It’s a strange kind of sadness. If this sounds like a stretch, just listen to “FANTASYNTH” and try not to imagine two sentient sequences of code dancing in perfect, ticking unison. Or “FAURE IN CHROME”, which evokes the tragic horror of the death of one intelligent life form at the hands of another. Even when vocals are sampled, they sound like diced audio files used in irony among beings far too advanced for that level of communication.
Still, this futuristic eeriness is one to gawk at as opposed to wrap yourself in. The limitations Cunningham employs ultimately distance the listener, creating such a cohesively stripped back sound that it often feels like a film score. Music to complement an image as opposed to the product itself. While the sound design is certainly gorgeous, there isn’t much to actually grasp on an emotional level. It’s speaking to a deus ex machina from behind a glass blockade. And maybe that’s the point. Actress albums have always toyed with the listener’s patience – just listen to the opening track of Splazsh or, hell, all of Ghettoville. Perhaps the new stressor is showing us some neat machines and then slapping our hands when we try to play with them. Still, we spend an hour with these pieces; seeing how they operate, examining their insides and their interactions with the world, but God, at some point you’d just like to see Actress drive the knife in already.