The human voice does not survive for long in the vacuum of Actress’ music; it is cut up, spaghettified, dissolved into fog and smoke. Demonic pitch-shifted voices cackle, howl, and recede into the murk. Sampled divas morph into distant ambulance sirens. All the while, Darren Cunningham carries on an arch, amused, perma-blazed commentary; one imagines him as Rod Serling or Vincent Price, inviting the enterprising listener to follow him into a world where reality cannot be trusted. His catchphrases and cryptic murmurings are often the only thing connecting the listener to the human world, the only reminder that there’s actually a producer behind all of this and that you’re not just listening to an ill wind blowing from Tartarus.
Cunningham’s new album LXXXVIII was inspired by chess—the idle pastime of a steel-trap mind. There are some remarkably idle stretches on this 57-minute album, which weaves between short dance tracks and long, intractable expanses of stasis; it’s the inverse of the typical techno “artist album,” where the dance tracks are sandwiched between half-baked ambient stocking-stuffers designed to show off the producer’s compositional bona fides. Many of the dance tracks on LXXXVIII seem vestigial or underdeveloped; “Oway (f 7 )” is a stark, haunted-sounding loop that never builds to anything, and “Pluto (a 2) ” cuts off abruptly after less than three minutes. You get the sense that yawning voids like “Green Blue Amnesia Magic Haze ( d 7 )” and “Azifiziks ( d 8 )” are the real heart of the record, that if you peer into their depths for long enough you might decode some of the byzantine logic that drives this music—or maybe you’re just staring at a black hole.
LXXXVIII is the Roman numeral for 88. That was the name of a comparatively spry album Cunningham released relatively under the radar in 2020, now packaged with the 3xLP edition of the new record. It is also the number of keys on a piano, and Cunningham uses that instrument as a means to transform his music into a sort of free jazz. “M2 ( f 8 )” starts out as the kind of slight, nacreous keyboard sketch Ryuichi Sakamoto might’ve cranked out between appointments before it’s subsumed into a loping, side-chained rhythm. “Push Power ( a 1 )” kicks off the record with a deranged hyena cackle, after which an imperious voice recites robotic commands and Cunningham ruminates endlessly on a circular piano phrase. It scans as a joke on the first listen, a challenge on the second, and something really quite beautiful on the third; just wait for the voice that bubbles up at the end and seems to sing, “Cry.”
Within the Actress catalog, LXXXVIII initially most resembles Ghettoville, Cunningham’s 2014 pseudo-retirement album, whose ideas didn’t always get off the ground but which remains a singularly sinister and misanthropic presence in his catalog. Yet LXXXVIII contains a few of the most purely pleasurable, dare I say chill, pieces of music Cunningham’s ever recorded. “Memory Haze ( c 1 )” is like a second cousin of 2011’s “Marble Plexus,” generously side-chained to give the impression that it’s collapsing on itself. “Its me ( g 8 )” is a gorgeous if surprisingly straightforward soul chop that stands a chance of being played in a café. Track two, the marvelously titled “Hit That Spdiff ( b 8 )” is an astral blissout that also functions as a litmus test for anyone not entirely sure they want to listen to the rest of this thing. (The pitched-down goblin voices are hardly reassuring.)
Cunningham is capable of crafting lean full-length statements; R.I.P. and AZD are sleek and streamlined. But he’s too wily and restless to want to do that all the time, so we end up with albums like this, where he expands the canvas to make room for private jokes and stray thoughts. LXXXVIII might seem like an unsolvable puzzle at first, but the only real key to this music is imagining Cunningham at his workstation, sp(d)iff between his fingers, preparing to dive back into the twilight zone.
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