A line down the block at 10:30 pm on a weeknight somewhere other than Molly Moon’s? Was Macklemore playing a secret show? Nope, just world-class live experimental electronic music at Kremwerk. No big deal.
The occasion for last night’s crowd on Minor Ave. was the world premiere of a new audio-visual show by Darren Jordan Cunningham, a British electronic musician who has been making music for over a decade as Actress.
He has played sold-out shows at temples of high culture like the Tate Modern art museum in London, the Tokyo edition of Sónar festival, and legendary Berlin club Berghain. This weekend, he’ll take the new show, “AZD” (pronounced “Azid”) to the summer tastemaking concert series Warm Up at New York’s MoMA PS1.
But thanks to the combined firepower of Decibel—which blessedly came off hiatus this summer and returned to booking events outside its annual festival—KEXP, and Action Potential, Actress came here first.
Flanked by two large flat-screen monitors, Actress hunched behind a laptop, DJ mixer, and some other hardware that wasn’t entirely visible in the dark confines of Krem. Long known as a devotee of Detroit techno, he cued up a series of sci-fi soundtrack riffs reminiscent of Drexciya.
But just a few minutes in, he disappeared from the stage for a spell, came back, and appeared to restart the music. That false start, coupled later with drum patterns that didn’t line up with the treble, were evidence to my ear that Actress is not yet totally dialed in with “AZD.”
Not that there weren’t brilliant moments. Kremwerk’s recently reinforced sound system shined as the low bass rumbled, a far cry from the thump of trap or EDM, and cast an ominous shadow over the packed club. A touch of muffled conversation in stereo created a surround sound effect as bewildered audience members looked around in confusion, struggling to pinpoint the source of the only hint of vocals in an otherwise purely tonal performance. For much of the set, something like the sound of labored breathing carried through, as though Actress had found the right digital filter for a hospital respirator.
However, with the lurching low tempo, attention seemed to wane. I caught snippets of actual conversation, a sure sign the performer is losing the audience, as well as some stolen glances at smartphones. Finally, about 20 minutes in, some disco hi-hats and high-pitched synth stabs elicited cheers as the reinvigorated crowd began shuffling on the dancefloor.
There is no question this is heady, inscrutable stuff. In an interview, Actress described the project as:
“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. If successful it will produce the first translucent, non-soluble communication sound pill synergized through impressionistic interpretations of technological equipment. This is the music vitamin of the Metropolis.”
That description reads about par for the course for an obtuse artist’s statement, but it also hints at the futurism embodied in the project, which was supplemented by the visual component. The screens filled with the 1s and 0s of binary code, flickering like an ATM terminal gone awry. While intriguing, the visual component was not synced to the music in a very nuanced way.
Not every show is going to hit it out of the park—and live performances are finicky beasts that require tweaking—but that doesn’t mean Kremwerk and the assorted partners that brought this one to life don’t get an A for effort. A stacked early line-up with as_dfs, Raica, and Bardo:Basho earned a coveted nod from online electronic music outlet Resident Advisor.
Seattle’s electronic music bookings have been consistently strong for the last few years, but too often the crowd doesn’t show up to match. Thankfully, last night was not one of those nights. More, please.