Actress AZD

[Ninja Tune; 2017]

Styles: normalization, equalization, compression, impression, touch
Others: Laurel Halo, Autechre, Mark Fell, Andy Stott, Four Tet, Chino Amobi, James Ferraro

AZD returns blood flow, allows full movement and touch. It carries with it suggestion of various post-human theories (the most tangible of which is what the press release had to say about the album’s fixation on chrome “both as a reflective surface to see the self in, and as something that carves luminous voids out of any color and fine focuses white and black representing the perfect metaphor for the bleakness of life in the Metropolis as suggested by Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate.”) Its title is pronounced “Azid” and is an anagram for its creator Darren Cunningham’s nickname: Daz. AZD is also the name of Cunningham’s new live show, which is “a test frame for linking circuits using various forms of language — Midi globalized language, Lyrical language, Tikal Graffiti code and various other Synthesizer language — to create one intelligent musical instrument called AZD,” an instrument that no doubt incorporates the facilities and functions of Cunningham himself as a part of the larger itself. But that much is all press. To step back a bit and allow this gentle, experimental practice of theory that has been proposed, it is helpful to think of how music has been particularly fruitful in allowing post-humanist rumination/expression.

A friend has directed me to a short video documenting the military origins of the vocoder. The documentary features New York pop avant-gardist Laurie Anderson (who values the vocoder’s capacity for cold, corporate slogan delivery), as well as Ben Cenac a.k.a. Cozmo D — founding member of the electro group Newcleus — who provides a more exciting historical perspective. Just as the US military brought forth vocoder technology to communicate beyond great distances, Cenac used the instrument as a necessary utility for expression. Citing the instrument’s affordability, Cenac tells of his first sets as “Cozmo D With His Beatbox, Bassbox, Voicebox, & Spacebox” (a title foreshadowing the postmodern all-in-one techno-assemblage represented by Cunningham’s AZD moniker). Cenac then gives background as to the thinking behind Newcleus’ 1984 minor hit “Computer Age (Push The Button)”: “‘Computer Age’ is about us giving power and turning things over to the computers, losing our humanity […] that’s why I made sure it was the vocoder, so you don’t know whether it’s the human asking the question or the computer asking the question.” That question, asked in stiff un-syncopated eighth notes with a monotone sci-fi robot voice, ponders: “Are we under their control or are they under our control or what?”

Setting aside its (sometimes reasonable) paranoia, technophobia, and anxiety, that question and its implication that humans risk “losing our humanity” has been the foundation for endless artistic and theoretical query. Take for example theorist Donna Haraway’s famous “Cyborg Manifesto” (published in 1984, the same year as Newcleus’ “Computer Age”). The “Cyborg Manifesto” posited the possibilities and pitfalls of a feminism invigorated by present and future technologies through the construction of “an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism.”

Similarly, consider Neil Young’s 1982 cult oddity of an album Trans, which sought an unlikely pathway to relation with his then young son who was born with cerebral palsy. For Young, the vocoder provided a point of empathy with his son’s inability to communicate, as it breached Young’s own sense of communication between himself and his listener. One song, “We R In Control,” appears first as a paranoid, dystopian anthem for a city/world run completely by robots (from the FBI right down to the traffic lights) much like Cenac’s “Computer Age.” The vocoded robot voice that declares control is campy and unthreatening. The song’s theme, however, is complicated by the truth that Young is really the one making the declarations and thus asserting human dominance. Any understanding of the techno-human narrative that Young is putting forward is muddied by a realization that these venues of control are human constructs that are, at present, securely under the control of humans like Young himself. Young’s declaration “We are in control” may as well be Cenac’s “are we under their control or are they under our control or what?” By acting as a mediator between source and receiver — artist and listener — the vocoder detaches denotative meaning from the feelings it evokes. It creates an ironic distance — much like that of Haraway’s “ironic dream of a common language” — which allows room for pondering beyond answering, query beyond statement, but ultimately distorts communication.

Considering what sets AZD apart from Actress’s previous releases — primarily R.I.P (2012) and Ghettoville (2014) — I check for a general affect. In some ways, there is none. AZD is more vibrant and lively than the lethargic impressionism of Ghettoville. It is more complex, varied, and compositional than the minimal digital atmospheres of R.I.P. Yet its lack is in its clarity, its stiff and apparent sound sources. R.I.P had the illusion of breath, that its sounds simply arose, instantaneously internal and complete. Similarly, Ghettoville’s trick was in its mastering treatment. Each track felt to be second-hand, as though emerging from a car stereo, computer speakers, or a boombox at the park. Now, sequenced percussion and MIDI synth orchestration take the center stage under a thin remembrance of familiar side-chain compression. Sound sources are completely distinguishable, pulled apart like the aforementioned black-and-white contrast of chrome. As such, singularity under a unifying theme is lost to a theory of difference. An end-goal is unclear, as clear intention gives way to a moderate economy of difference (i.e., one that is not quite as excessive as other contemporary representations of chaos and hyperactivity within the electronic underground).

“FANTASYNTH” is classic. Its Rhodes loop loosely revolves around the four-on-the-floor kick and hi-hat. A familiar phasing trick causes the loop to orbit around the much stronger 4/4 — it is either not totally on the beat’s grid or it is off by a somewhat small rhythmic increment (a sixteenth or thirty-second note). In either case, the listener’s perception of imprecision (humanness) arises from technological precision: the machine’s ability to ignore the larger beat and produce two simultaneous yet opposing experiences of time. This phasing effect isn’t particularly new. Since its popularity via Steve Reich, it has no doubt been a common tape/computer loop trope (notably and explicitly appropriated as the outro to clipping.’s 2013 mixtape midcity). But here — as a suggestion amidst a larger cyborg integration narrative in bloom — the mechanical nuance feels quite nice, reliable, non-invasive.

A majority of tracks (“UNTITLED 7,” “BLUE WINDOW,” “CYN,” “RUNNER,” “THERE’S AN ANGEL IN THE SHOWER,” etc.) give service to microhouse method, while outliers (“X22RME,” “FALLING RIZLAS,” “DANCING IN THE SMOKE,” “FAURE IN CHROME,” “VISA”) explore formal composition and ambience more fully. The result is a mix that is less concept-driven and less unified under a singular identity than previous releases. Made of chrome, it shimmers, reflects, and amplifies. But at times, it distorts its figure refracting the light, sabotaging its own form.