Sidestepping categorisation for over a decade, Actress remains one of the most singular voices in electronic music. With each release, his inward-leaning, dystopian music creeps further and further away from convention. Currently in a particularly prolific period, his most recent releases are both his wildest and his most compelling, and his live sets are equally inspired. It’s a good time, then, to catch him DJ at Manchester’s Gorilla, where he’ll play alongside Martyn, dBridge and more.
Once a professional football player, a career-ending injury led Wolverhampton-born Darren Jordan Cunningham (AKA Actress) to shift his obsession to music. Submerging himself in the dance subcultures of London where he ostensibly studied (he used his university loan to buy sparkly new synthesisers), Actress was born. So too was Werkdisks, a club night turned record label, under which Cunningham self-released his first record.
Actress’ debut album Hazyville landed in 2008 like an alien ship. Heavily distorted and yet obsessively detailed, this disorientating and idiosyncratic record had critics stumbling over what the hell to call it. Post Dubstep? Post techno? Post everything? One thing that everyone seemed to agree on, though, was that it was good. These nods of approval deepened with 2010’s Splazsh, whose neo-industrial obliterations of Detroit techno occupied similarly unique territory.
Like some rare sea creature plunging into the ocean’s darkest waters, Actress withdrew deeper into his introspective musical universe with 2012’s R.I.P. This record saw the producer largely remove his music from the dancefloor, focussing instead on painting pictures. With most of the pictures in R.I.P grainy and elusive, ‘Holy Water’ is the album’s brightest track, featuring crystalline arps which glisten through R.I.P’s dense fog with disquieting beauty. This leads to ‘Marble Plexus’, whose deliciously warped synths flaunt the originality of Cunningham’s textural work. The one-two punch of ‘Caves of Paradise’ and ‘The Lord’s Graffiti’, meanwhile, are there to remind us that Actress can still bring the rave-fuelling fire whenever he feels inclined.
2014’s Ghettoville came next, and featured further demolitions of Detroit techno and Chicago house. A cryptic press release for this album led many to believe that it was Actress’ swansong. This was disproven, however, with the arrival of AZD in 2017. This one came with a lot of conceptualisations from Cunningham. It’s themed, apparently, around the material chrome, whilst also being a meditation on Carl Jung’s Shadow Theory. Oh, and also it’s a sonic realisation of Star Wars’ Death Star. With a feeling that at least some of this is the product of Cunningham’s tongue being planted firmly in his cheek, the best way to experience AZD is probably just to, you know, listen to it.
When you do that, its artistry is abundantly evident. Pushing even more boundaries than its predecessors, AZD is the most eloquent and elegant record we’ve heard from the London-based producer. It also marks a slight reprise of Actress’ dance-floor-leaning music. Lead single ‘X22RME’ is a brightly coloured four-to-the-floor track, which, for fear of straying too close to the sun, he weighs down with an intoxicating blanket of just-out-of-focus string pads and about twenty layers of hiss. The 80’s-gazing ‘RUNNER’ is similarly seductive, featuring a perky ‘Blue Monday’-esque lead line and deep house pads which beckon us towards the darkest corner of the dance floor.
To the relief of some and the dismay of others, the rest of AZD is much weirder. Like a cat toying with its prey, Actress subjects his samples to a drawn-out torture. ‘CYN’, a semi-electro track featuring Cunningham’s current idol Rammelzee, sees him gradually crush and contort the artist/musician’s voice to the point of destruction, before lodging its charred remains between layers of unnerving Aphex-leaning synths. ‘FAURE IN CHROME’, meanwhile, slowly smashes the poignant prettiness of the London Contemporary Orchestra’s string section with uncomfortable, modem-like sounds. When you lose yourself for a moment, these synthetic noises start to sound like glass crystals exploding in slow motion from the shattering string samples. Off-kilter, challenging, and indefinable, this side of the album shows Actress at his most avant-garde.
Whilst clearly taking considerable time, thought and energy, AZD is not the only album that Cunningham’s restless mind has produced recently. ‘FAURE IN CHROME’ from AZD was in fact born of a wider collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra. 2018’s LAGEOS, the result of that collaboration, is a challenging but satisfying album, whose treasures lie in the intersection between the soft orchestral timbres of the LCO and Actress’ angular geometries. This was followed (not even five months later) by Young Paint, an artificial intelligence album for which Actress programmed a “learning programme” to reinterpret his past works. Stepping back for a second and thinking about the vastly different workflows that these three projects must have necessitated, it’s hard not to be impressed by Cunningham’s versatility.
Opportunities to catch Actress live are rare, but opportunities to catch him in the creative zenith of his career are even rarer. As part of Marcus Intalex Music Foundation’s WK:END series on the 23 February, he’ll be DJing at Manchester’s Gorilla, alongside Martyn and dBridge. See you under the arches?