Review: Actress - Ghettoville

Darren J. Cunningham's Actress project comes full circle.
Actress Ghettoville cover art


Actress’s first full-length was released in 2008 and it was called Hazyville. Too perfect, right? The global economy was collapsing and chillwave was nascent, U.K. bass was going viral and American drone was picking up momentum and visibility. Around the time, these factors came together in the unholy form of “hipster house,” cheap electronic music with a penchant for ironically faint, watery takes on deep house and techno. These instantly nicknamed and derided acts were often accused of producing mediocre dance music with little or no interest or commitment to the history or ethos of dance music. Its title may be pure late-aughts, but Hazyville did not fit aesthetically within this trend – Actress’s music was darker, tenser, edgier, more complex, more obscure, and more aware of its relationship to dubstep and techno. In retrospect, however, it makes wonderfully perfect sense that the Actress project got its start at the time it did, surrounded in the blogosphere by artists making an immeasurably lazier kind of electronic music. Comparing where Actress has ended up to where it started, there are few betters ways to characterize Darren J. Cunningham’s work than to say he has demonstrated almost no commitment to the dancefloor. The influence of various dance subgenres is vital in Cunningham’s work, but clearly he perceives no obligation in that influence.

The press release for Actress fourth and apparently final full-length Ghettoville is the rare album announcement that does most of the legwork for critics: Cunningham declares the new record a sonic sequel to his debut of five years ago due to their shared “rugged aesthetic,” and describes Ghettoville as “the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image.” Indeed, all of Actress’s work since Hazyville has been a bleaching-out and a black-tinting of that initial half-hearted gesture toward the utopianism of the club, deconstructing and warping it. After all, dancefloors look awfully petty as populist models when considered alongside that other great equalizer of all humanity (I’m talking about death). Actress’s career arc as a whole has been one long, inexorable turn from the “hypnagogia” of Hazyville’s contemporaries towards frank confrontation with the fact of mortality. By the release of Actress’s third LP, 2012’s John Milton-inspired R.I.P., Cunningham wasn’t kidding anybody about his aesthetic intentions or his philosophical interests. 2013’s Silver Cloud EP gave into completely to those urges, resulting in three bleak, lengthy compositions with minimum percussion and maximum intellectual density.

So the title really does say it all: as suits an artist thematically obsessed with death, we’ve come full circle, one ville to another, or maybe it’s actually the same one, five difficult years later. These two records really do share a “rugged aesthetic,” especially as compared to the intervening works by Actress, and it really is a “bleached out and black tinted” one, acrid, effaced, and 100% grayscale. Actress’s thematic foci weren’t as thoroughly explored in his 2008 output as they have been since, so Ghettoville functions as a sequel to Hazyville not just sonically but also in that it provides a solid intellectual undergirding that wasn’t available to the artist before. The haze has dissipated and the harsh reality has been exposed; death is everywhere apparent. But Ghettoville’s return to some of the musical qualities of its 2008 predecessor gives new richness and power to Actress’s work, which by Silver Cloud had grown perhaps too cold and distancing. Those locations-as-titles aren’t accidents: Ghettoville is as deeply immersive a piece of music as any, a veritable world unto itself, full of dark alleys and hidden nooks, the kind of place you can get lost in and which reveals new details with every listen. This “ghetto” is derelict, abandoned, the former site of something terrible, haunted by ghostly snatches of bygone urban radio hits. Yet, especially compared to the abstractions of Cunningham’s last couple releases, it’s also seductive because it’s so thoroughly realized.

As microgenre after microgenre flashes in the pan, what’s kept Actress going is Cunningham’s omnivorousness. His work sits at the point of convergence for all of electronic music’s most cutting-edge sounds, incorporating pieces of them all and feeling out the unexpected ways they synchronize. In Ghettoville, it’s not difficult to detect shades of nearly every watershed moment in electronic music of the past couple decades, be it Boards Of Canada, deep house, minimal techno, or the sluggish productions of Houston hip-hop; ambient drone, library music, or neoclassical experimentation. Here’s the technical familiarity with jazz that comes from hip-hop and trip-hop, there’s the percussion of industrial music as interpreted via the many faces of U.K. bass. Cunningham himself insists on the relevance of musique concrete and late-‘90s R&B to the Actress aesthetic. But as with his closest peers, such as Andy Stott and Daniel Lopatin, the fact remains that no matter how carefully one traces Cunningham’s influences, it’s never the whole story. The way these many sounds feed into the overall Actress aesthetic, the alchemical way they temper and transform one another, is all Cunningham’s own. This is an astonishingly varied and an astonishingly cohesive record, one that maintains a crystal-clear (if very glum) vision as it hops from one sonic context to another. Every track sounds unmistakably of a piece with its neighbors, and unmistakably like the work of Actress. Moreover, they all sound like the work of Actress at this particular point in the project’s trajectory.

From the wording of the Ghettoville press release, it also seems that this point in the project’s trajectory is the terminal one. This is sad, but given Cunningham’s themes, perhaps not unexpected. Ghettoville is the record he couldn’t have made in 2008, but of the three following LPs, it’s also the record that follows inevitably from that debut. And although it kicks off with the merciless industrial grind and pulverizing bass hits of seven-minute monstrosity “Forgiven,” Ghettoville concludes much less predictably with “Rule,” a beguiling fragment of sampled rap put on loop. In some ways, this is a representative moment: consider the repetitiveness that’s less like a techno track and more like a hardware malfunction, or the cruelty of cutting the final loop off mid-word. But it’s still a shocking shift in tone from the aggressively soulless machine sounds of “Forgiven,” a tonal shift that Actress has been subtly working toward for most of Ghettoville’s second half via the (relatively, tentatively) warm, human feel of the record’s three best tracks, “Gaze,” Rap,” and “Don’t.” To conclude the album with “Rule” suggests reconciliation with death rather than despair – is this another, more hidden layer of Ghettoville coming to light? Is it a way out? “Rule” challenges the 66 minutes of music that precede it, offers a new interpretation, demands reconsideration. If Actress must come to an end, this is the right time and place for it to come to a rest: a simple loop that prompts the listener to start the record all over again. There is life after death, after all. A-