Album Review: Actress masters the art of experimental songwriting with AZD

Actress, AZD, Darren Jordan Cunningham

A well-placed melody can turn noise into a memorable motif. The most chaotic and jumbled sounds can suddenly be given a direction solely based on how the track is produced, even though the composition itself has no obvious chorus or structure. Experimental instrumental compositions, in particular, often lack the repetition for catchy hooks.

April 14

Actress‘ newest effort, AZD, thoroughly dissects this concept with the use of recognizable patterns in the context of a complete stream-of-consciousness song structure. Darren Jordan Cunningham’s approach to songwriting isn’t based on a pop formula of intros, verses, choruses with repetition and a bridge to tie it all together. Instead, it’s based on one theme that is thoroughly explored throughout the song’s duration. Actress displays a massive understanding of experimental songwriting with the amount of diversity he applies to one track while not compromising complexity, sound or artistic vision.

Actress has already made a name for himself within minimal techno by adding elements of outsider house, IDM, ambient, glitch and even musique concrète to an otherwise extremely scarce and simple track. A pulsing bass drum will often take the forefront of a song, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the most interesting aspect to listen to.

On AZD, Cunningham is able to make listening to one melody for more than five minutes incredibly interesting, which is not to be understated. Especially within ambient and atmospheric genres, artists will merely hope the listener enjoys the sounds long enough to sit through the entire duration of the song: Ctrl+C and ctrl+V; two simple keyboard commands that have plagued electronic music since musicians started created on laptops.

What is Actress doing exactly that sets him apart from the rest? To put it succinctly, he understands that the focal point doesn’t have to be the most complex aspect of the song.

Take guitar solos, for example: During a traditional solo, the rest of the band will drop into a simple groove while the lead plays face-melting, tremolo-picked arpeggios. The band, or the groove, takes a step back while the spotlight is 100-percent-focused on the complexity and energy of the current solo instrument. Actress embodies the antithesis of this music philosophy and instead proposes the spotlight should be given to a simplistic, repetitive hook, while the complexity stems from intricacies and layers of the production.

Even within the realm of simplicity, Actress explores the full potential of any given idea. On “Dancing in the Smoke,” the two main themes are the vocal samples and the beat. Even though these concepts are repeated, they still transform and constantly evolve. This song uses string arrangements, dense-sounding synths and some sounds I can’t even put my finger on. This makes the track sound incredibly eclectic, but also aimless, and if there was nothing else to it, ultimately uninteresting. This huge problem to an otherwise great song is fixed by merely adding an ever-changing beat with familiar samples scattered throughout.

The motif of this song is not stagnant, despite it being repetitive. The beat and samples slowly start to abandon the production and bow out of the spotlight. The song then deconstructs itself into one of Actress’ most experimental in his discography, using elements of noise-heavy sampling to eventually abandon the song structure completely. Experimental music makes crazy dissonant monoliths of sound all the time, so it shouldn’t be something I offer mass praise for, but the execution of a stream-of-consciousness theme that slowly evolves into this cacophony really gives it a structure that most experimental music lacks. It’s the difference between telling a concise story to an incoherent rambling.

This musical philosophy is applied throughout the entire album in a multitude of ways. Sometimes, the motif of the song will be bleeps and bloops that create a concise melody. Other times it will be an ambient synth part that offer a familiar atmosphere throughout the song. No matter what gets the spotlight, Actress slowly and deliberately morphs it into a living, breathing aspect of his music, even though the production backing it up is usually more complex.

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