I listen to lots of electronic music these days – almost more than any other genre. But I didn’t grow up with it in any capacity, nor did I have any friends of acquaintances in high school or college introduce me to the stuff. I found the genre on my own in the early 2000’s, thanks to the Pacifica radio station in Houston, and I latched onto it only because of my passing familiarity with hip-hop and growing appreciation for pop music.
Even then, I had to lots of research and exploration without much of a guide, map, or compass. That often meant spending money on records that looked vaguely intriguing or came with the recommendation of the one record store clerk in North Houston who had any familiarity with electronic music.
Suffice to say, children – discovering music used to be fraught with financial peril before streaming services arrived on the scene.
How I wish I could have happened upon a record like AZD in my early 20’s! On his fifth release, Actress has created a superb introduction into the sounds, ideas, tropes, and key influences in 21st century electro.
Culling from a varied sonic landscape that includes Flying Lotus, Four Tet, Nicolas Jaar, Jlin, Johnny Jewel, and Helena Hauff, this twelve-track project on Ninja Tune gurgles with glitchy blips and beeps, and does so with fantastic focus. Syncopated arpeggios dance with frenetic energy atop lush string swells before retreating inward before the mood goes over the top.
This is sexy time music for grownup goths.
It’s gloomy, insular, steamy, and brooding – but without getting mopey or whiny. The melody lines are alternately creeping and off-kilter which creates these muted sensations of ecstasy delayed, especially when paired with whirring sound effects and synth pads. The emotional tension is then ramped up further by the rhythmic interplay between the thick basslines and drum patterns: even when a tune pulses with a traditional four-on-the-floor beat, the syncopation at play gives you the impression of wonky shifts in time signature.
AZD can be split into three distinct sections:
- Tracks 1-4 = moody, downtempo electro with pop ideas and motifs that combines trap beats, minimalist R&B, and maximalist jungle
- Tracks 5-8 = mid-tempo grooves packed with ‘80s-inflected kitsch akin to Moby working with S U R V I V E to create the soundtrack for Stranger Things
- Tracks 9-12 = dark, aggressive soundscapes with an expansive vision, as if Burial was developing industrial post-punk score for a dystopian movie.
Admittedly, I find the middle third to be less interesting than its bookends, as tunes like “Cyn” and “Runner” find Actress running on what passes for cruise control in his oeuvre. The songs weren’t bad, per se, but he creates far better music on this record. Tracks like “Fantasynth,” “Dancing in the Smoke,” and “Faure in Chrome” crackle with intensity, heft, and depth as they first disorient you and then draw you in deeper, like a spider capturing its prey.
And guess what? AZD all makes sense as a complete musical thought!
There’s truly something here for nearly every sort of electronic music fan, even as Actress refuses to dumb down his aesthetic or ideas for the uninitiated. I would have loved to have located such a record almost 15 years ago: it forces you to jump into the musical deep end, while still promising to provide a sonic life preserver when you need it.
So, whether you’re interested in a sturdy introduction into what’s been happening in electronic music this decade or you’re a long-time fan looking for a glimpse into the future of the genre, I heartily recommend Actress’ AZD.
Despite all of the cliches you might have heard about the place, Adam P. Newton actually enjoys living in Texas – most of the time. He currently creates and curates content for a marketing agency, and in his limited free time, he writes a memoir about his journey through music called “Explaining Grownup Music to Kids.”