Ghettoville, the fourth album by mercurial electronic producer Darren Cunningham, aka Actress, is every bit as desolate and bleak as the title suggests. For Cunningham, Ghettoville represents a hopeless requiem for not only electronic music and its prospects for the future but, indeed, all music. ’RIP Music 2014’ ends the statement accompanying the album’s release. It’s seemingly the end point of Actress’ recording career. The light at the end of the tunnel has hollowed out until what’s left is a deep, dark abyss. It’s this abyss that Actress peers into on this unsettling yet utterly compelling album.
Actress is a master at manipulating sounds and textures until they resemble nothing quite like you’ve heard before. On his previous records, he was making music loosely defined as techno or dance music; however, his version was always warped and bastardized. All the intricate facets of electronic music’s past, and Cunningham’s influences, were endlessly twisted and distorted.
By contrast, here the obsession with making desperately unpalatable dance music more akin to a macabre horror show than euphoric celebration is taken to even further extremes. Ghettoville is a stark, harrowing and unforgiving place. A look at the track listing instantly suggests a landscape devoid of hope and inspiration. Where once Actress’s albums were littered with evocative and mysterious track titles, Ghettoville instead wallows in prosaic one word descriptions like Time, Our, Don’t, Image, and Gaze.
There appears to be a deep desire within Cunningham to plumb the dark depths of horrorcore techno, but there is a key distinction though to be made between Actress and someone like Zomby, an ostensibly similar artist who also makes dark hued electronica. While Zomby often gives off the air of someone happy to indulge in self-sabotage, Darren Cunningham is the exact opposite; he wishes to make his music as challenging, bewitching and unforgiving as possible. He knows exactly what he’s doing and executes it masterfully on this album.
The sound of Ghettoville is brittle and tinny, abrasive; like the rubbing together of sandpaper. Beauty and melody are at a distinct premium. From the opening seven-minute grinding lurch of Forgiven the record gives off the air of a sinister electronic death march. It’s relentless. You can almost picture a windswept barren hinterland as you listen to the crude textures of Street Corp or the industrial clang of Contagious. The latter track resembles the musical accompaniment to a condemned man being led to the gallows.
The dark, discombobulating nature of these pieces disguises the craft that goes into Actress’ sound. Every precise beat, swirl of gaseous synth or scuttling percussive breakdown is measured and perfectly placed; a fine example of Actress’ ability to tease and manipulate his sounds can be found in the pressurised build and release of Image. But while much of the music here is hopeless, Actress also indulges in a bit of reflection; a last-gasp dip into a reverie of blissful musical release that is, in his eyes, now irrevocably lost. These moments are when Ghettoville becomes truly affecting. Gaze, for example, is a blissful swirling joy. Reminiscent of the early days of Chicago house filtered through a tinny, abrasive gauze, it catches a moment and leaves you ever so slightly awestruck. Like a ghost from dance music’s past, you’re transfixed by this audio apparition.
Elsewhere, a sort of warped human quality emerges amidst the darkness. Rap is perhaps the closest Actress has came to making a traditional RnB track, albeit it is a gloopy funk jam that unsettles rather than allures. Don’t is as startling, the repeated vocal sample of “don’t stop the music” is touching in the context of the album.
As the record ends with the oncoming burblestorm of Frontline and the hazy, lobotomized piano vamps of Rule you feel emotionally and physically exhausted, for Ghettoville is a not really an album that you can enjoy in a traditional sense. It challenges, questions and, quite frequently, unnerves. Despite all of this, you can’t quite stop listening. It’s a record that leaves you frozen. Whether or not Ghettoville is to be Darren Cunningham’s final work as Actress, it is as a significant achievement.