Darren Cunningham has long embraced the idea that IDM, for all its illogical structures and non-linear progressions, is in fact actual dance music. Though the Wolverhampton, UK producer behind Actress has rarely indulged in anything as straightforward as a pure house or techno record, he’s often employed the influence of Detroit techno or Chicago house as a catalyst for something far curioser and more experimental. The tempo drops, as on the dubbier echoes and space drift of 2020’s Karma & Desire; it picks back up again, much as it did with the astral throb of Dummy Corporation. But the persistent pulse at the heart of Actress’ music is what keeps it alive and moving forward.
On LXXXVIII, Cunningham isn’t so much interested in moving the needle on the spectrum of I to DM—neither his most accessible album nor his most willfully abstracted—instead finding shades of nuance within the most cerebral and corporeal approaches to dance music. It’s what he’s made his name on over the past two decades—that and creating an air of obfuscation about his intentions. But in its darkly fluid movements and generous use of both open space and fizzling flickers of pop music, LXXXVIII is rife with fascinating contradictions, the likes of which result in some of his most breathtaking if no less peculiar songs.
It’s easy to conclude, at least based on some of the highlights and singles from LXXXVIII, that it’s more firmly rooted in dancefloor tradition, as evident on the crackly cut-and-paste soul chop-ups of “Its me (g 8)” or the laser-beam techno dystopia of “Azd Rain (g 1)”. But it’s never that easy; Cunningham’s far too canny to play it straight, and his greatest sources of inspiration are at highest concentration where he can sculpt negative space to his liking, as on the ghostly strut of “Game Over (e 1)” or the inebriated dub of “Chill (h 2)”. Even the driving kick-drum thump of opener “Push Power (a 1)” employs piano more like a jazz song might, its eerie licks arriving as more improvisational in nature, an act of free expression and emotion rather than pure rhythmic drive.
Those wandering piano keys become a recurring motif throughout LXXXVIII, amplifying the unpredictable nature of Actress’ music while feeling like a natural counterpart to it. It somehow feels only natural for a producer like Cunningham to lean into the freedom of jazz as he builds upon his darkly distorted electronic landscapes. By yielding to his most enigmatic instincts, Actress has delivered one of his best albums yet.
Label: Ninja Tune
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.