IN MY EARS #23: The Cold Chrome of Actress’ “AZD"
by Josh Feola
Selected track: Actress - “FAURE IN CHROME"
入耳 In My Ears is a weekly music column by Josh Feola 赵识, Beijing-based writer and musician and founder of pangbianr.com
Darren J. Cunningham’s first love was football. Growing up in the West Midlands city of Wolverhampton, the artist currently known as Actress developed an early obsession with the sport, and showed great promise until a debilitating injury ended his professional sports ambitions and set him on a very different path. Cunningham also had an early interest in drawing, and after his football injury he started to get into music, learning to DJ and playing at house parties around Wolverhampton. Oddly enough, his impairment in one field would lead to his advancement in another.
Not long after he began teaching himself to DJ, Cunningham received a grant from the Professional Footballers Association for young athletes who’d suffered career-ending injuries. He used the grant money to move to London and study Recording Arts, by night becoming enmeshed in the city’s legendary underground music scene. In the end, the world of the club held more interest for him than the world of the classroom. He started his own club night called Werkdiscs with some friends, and it morphed into a label in 2004 with his first release under the name Actress. "I ended up buying synthesisers instead of paying tuition fees,” an artist bio on Ninja Tune — the label that has released several of Actress’ albums, including the brand new AZD — quotes him as saying of the switch.
Still, Actress’ music has always come with an intellectual angle. He’s known for including cryptic, esoteric press release texts with his albums. His critically lauded 2014 album Ghettoville, for example, came with an "epilogue poem” that suggested the album would be his last, with imagistic statements such as "Ghettoville is the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image”.
After a three-year hiatus, Actress has now returned from his self-imposed exile with AZD, which is at the same time his most conceptually intriguing and sonically straightforward work. In terms of the sound, much of AZD comes off as more club friendly than much of Actress’ previous experiments in un-quantized, uncanny compositions. His avid appreciation of Detroit techno pioneers Derrick May, Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson is audible throughout.
Beyond the songs themselves, Actress has conceived AZD as a multi-media experience questioning the compatibility between music, humanity, and how each is processed by non-human forms like metal and machines. The album is themed around chrome, both the color and the cold, metallic substance. Some of the album’s more musically adventurous elements have grown out of a collaboration Actress did with the London Contemporary Orchestra, in which he used the orchestra’s acoustic sounds as input and subjected them to electronic processes that render the finished product into something that sounds jaggedly off-putting, like the cognitive experience of human music by a cyborg. This is most evident on the track I’ve selected here, “FAURE IN CHROME”, which the album press release says "sounds like the very institution of classical music being encased in electronic ice and scanned through a high frequency bandwidth.” I don’t disagree. Another album standout, “RUNNER”, is described as “a personal re-soundtracking of Blade Runner” told from the perspective of a replicant.
Actress recently debuted AZD’s live show in London, with this tantalizing description: "a test frame for linking circuits using various forms of language — Midi globalised language, Lyrical language, Tikal Graffiti code and various other Synthesiser language — to create one intelligent musical instrument called AZD... This is the music vitamin of the Metropolis.” I’m not sure if we’ll get the exact same show in Beijing, but I look forward to seeing what Actress will make of this Metropolis.
Actress performs at Douban Music’s Wetware festival on Saturday, May 20 at Tango
Actress - “AZD”
About the author
Josh Feola is a writer and musician based in Beijing. He’s organized music, art, and film events in the city since 2010, via his label pangbianr and as booking manager of live music venues D-22 and XP. His ongoing event series include the Sally Can’t Dance experimental music festival and the Beijing Electronic Music Encounter (BEME). He has written about music and art for publications including The Wire, LEAP, Sixth Tone, and Tiny Mix Tapes. He also co-authors the Gulou View opinion column for the New York Observer. As a musician, he formerly played drums in Beijing band Chui Wan, recording on and touring behind their debut album, White Night. He currently plays drums in SUBS and Vagus Nerve, and also records and performs under the name Charm.
Wetware Douban Music Festival Official Site
English Ticketing - Yoopay