Actress – LXXXVIII

The latest album from Actress sees producer Darren Cunningham apply game theory and deep strategic thinking to his unique brand of experimental techno

Album Review by Patrick Gamble | 01 Nov 2023
  • Actress – LXXXVIII
Album title: LXXXVIII
Artist: Actress
Label: Ninja Tune
Release date: 3 Nov

Taking its inspiration from game theory – a branch of applied mathematics frequently associated with chess – Darren Cunningham's ninth release as Actress sees the producer pit his techno-oriented rhythms against his avant-garde impulses in a knotty single-player game.

This conflict comes across loud and clear on opener Push Power ( a 1 ) where a pattering house rhythm and a ponderous piano-led melody interact in a back and forth dialogue between analogue and digital modes; as if each were waiting for the other to make their first move. Built around a set of recurring themes and ideas – namely, the disjuncture between technology’s promise of a better world and the frustrating ways in which it magnifies the imperfections of its human creators – the album dives headlong into a heady mix of garage, house and R'n'B.

Cunningham’s fascination with human-machine symbiosis continues on Game Over ( e 1 ), a haunting downtempo number in which melancholic vocals bristle against a mechanical beat. Evoking the ambition and anxiety surrounding machine learning, its title could relate to a dystopian future where sentient machines have rebelled against their human creators or simply be a loving tribute to IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue who defeated chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997. Then there’s tracks like Typewriter World ( c 8 ), that sound both antiquated and cutting-edge; like standing at the precipice of a post-human world but still feeling uncomfortable about your home’s AI assistant knowing how many times you visit the bathroom.

Like the pieces on a chess board, each of these tracks is assigned a grid position and adheres to its own rules and movements. Some are gradual and contemplative, like the tranquil and near-ambient Hit That Spdiff ( b 8 ) or Green Blue Amnesia Magic Haze ( d 7 ) which indulges Cunningham’s taste for the spectral and murky. Elsewhere, the skeletal structure of the album’s more club-oriented tracks like Memory Haze ( c 1 ) and Azd Rain ( g 1 ) recall the eerie weightless feel of Cunningham’s earlier work, and allow the producer to articulate his fascination with the interplay between moves and countermoves.

The product of deep strategic thinking, LXXXVIII is an incredibly unpredictable album, with Cunningham seemingly determined to push his imaginative limits, vivifying his unique brand of experimental techno by cataloguing the possibilities of the genre. At times, these eccentric – and often downright baffling – transitions in style and tone can be disorienting, but they also speak to Cunningham’s dexterity as an electronic auteur, and his refusal to play by the rules.

Listen to: Push Power ( a 1 ), Memory Haze ( c 1 ), Game Over ( e 1 )