Actress' 'Ghettoville' Is a Spectacularly Icy Riot of Grouchy, Grimey Outsider Dance Music

8
Ghettoville
SPIN Essentials
Release Date: January 28, 2014
Label: Werk Discs / Ninja Tune

by Philip Sherburne

Ladies and gentlemen, we are frozen in place.

If this really is Darren Cunningham's final album under his Actress alias — a possibility hinted at in the press release, which speaks cryptically of the "conclusion" of the project — the London producer is going out in spectacularly anticlimactic fashion. The fact that his third album, in 2012, was already called R.I.P. only makes Ghettoville's walking-dead shuffle and thousand-yard stare all the more explicit. Forget about peaks; this is more like an endless succession of troughs, each one deeper than the last. If the curtain really is coming down, the show ends not with a bang, but with a locked groove.

That much is clear from the very first track, "Forgiven," an agonizingly slow loop of metallic clang and creaking bedsprings and lo-fi digital fizz that sounds like an homage to the Cure's "Carnage Visors." Not a lot happens over the course of its hypnotic, seven-and-a-half-minute run, but that's kind of the point. (Cf. John Cage: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then 16. Then 32. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.") Besides, who needs bells and whistles when you've got sounds as marvelously tarnished as these? The snares alone will surely turn Burial green with envy; the gleam of the electric bass suggests an autumnal shade of lipstick, coppery and louche.

"Forgiven" sets the penumbral tone for the hangdog procession to come: 70 minutes of sullen synthesizers, battered and bit-crushed drums, and omnipresent line noise, all of it tinged with the faintly metallic taste of freezer burn. Track two, the stumbling, andante "Street Corp," is slow enough to make DJ Screw look positively sprightly by comparison — its lopsided rhythm and dry crunch bring to mind picking scabs in a snowdrift. Faint, slightly dissonant synthesizers drift idly in the background, but not in a way that lends any sort of arc or structure to the track's five-and-a-half-minute running time; it just sits there, static and encrusted with static, hiccupping queasily into infinity. On virtually any other album, it would have been the last song, and you probably could say that about the first seven or eight tracks here, and most of the ones that follow. Ghettoville is an album full of endings, a choose-your-own-misadventure story where every beat thuds like a heavy tome slamming shut.

There's "Corner," which probably should have been called "Coroner," a grinding, half-speed techno track that features waterlogged handclaps and queasy murmurs and a syn-brass melody that's catchy in spite of itself; you may find yourself humming it hours later, which is weird for a song that feels about as substantial as a wad of cellophane. "Rims" sounds like Omar-S remixing John Carpenter's The Thing soundtrack (but played back at 33 instead of 45, the better to accentuate its woozy slide-whistle lead). "Contagious" is about as warm and fuzzy as you'd expect, with a grinding loop of pitched-down heavy-metal drums, liquid tendrils of backwards keyboards, and a sorrowful voice slowed to death-gurgle tempo; file under douR&B.

Only with the sixth track, "Birdcage," does the tempo rise to something approaching a dance-floor cadence. O happy title! O glimmer of light! It's just a glimmer, but we'll take it: an almost-peppy new-wave synthesizer melody framed by deflated Miami Vice toms and fat, leathery kick drums. So there are some peaks scattered throughout the wreckage — they're just worn down to near-nothingness.

"Our" is the album's optimistic high point, with a twinkling melody reminiscent of both Burial and Hamburg's Smallville label. It's probably telling, though, that Cunningham only deigns to indulge the sentimental mood for two-and-a-half minutes. With "Time," he's back to his old tricks, taking sandpaper to a mobile strung with icicles and losing himself in six minutes of languid repetitive gestures. ("Time," whispers a raspy voice, over and over, doing its best to nullify the thing it invokes.) And "Towers" dials back even further, like a shifty-eyed tortoise pulling its head inside its shell.

It's only with "Gaze," two-thirds of the way through the album, that we're treated to a proper club jam, pumping and (relatively) upbeat, fluffed up with chords reminiscent of Moodymann and Philly disco; there's even a jubilant grunt that might be James Brown. But the fact that the closest thing here to a hit is hidden deep in the album's back half suggests how weird and counterintuitive Ghettoville is. After "Gaze," it all breaks apart again, a frayed tangle of Oneohtrix Point Never-gone-electro ("Image"), cryogenic quiet storm ("Rap"), and one track ("Frontline") so lo-fi it sounds like a nightclub recorded through a storm drain onto Dictaphone. "Rule" wraps it all up with a call-and-response rap slowed down and chopped up over slapdash organ stabs and kalimba — sort of a Four-Tet-meets-Jungle-Brothers-in-zero-G thing, and one of the only songs on the album where grey isn't the predominant color.

Actress' work has always given the impression of a self-enclosed universe, and that's doubly true here, where Cunningham cannibalizes his own hallmarks — grit, hiss, murk — and favors tempos so slow as to sever virtually all links to the dance floor, no matter the beats' formal resemblance to techno. That inward turn is reflected in the record's litany of one-word titles ("Street Corp" is the only exception), many of which seem to be at pains to resist signification of any kind, like "Our" or "Rap" (not a rap song by any stretch of the imagination) or the even more reticent "Don't."

In fact, Don't might have been a more appropriate title for the album — or, better yet, Won't — just because Cunningham so steadfastly refuses to do so many of the things we expect artists to do. Underground artists are supposed to have a signature, but they're also expected to change, to experiment with different techniques and tempos, to hybridize their sounds with likeminded styles. But put Ghettoville into a playlist with Actress' three previous albums and set your player to "shuffle," and you may be hard-pressed to guess which songs come from which albums.

That isn't a slight. To the contrary, it's a testament to the strength and singularity of Actress' vision. In the 10 years since he launched the project, lo-fi and slow-mo and purple haze have become commonplace, from cloud rap to Tri Angle to L.I.E.S. to Yeezus, but Ghettoville doesn't betray any kind of anxiety of influence in either direction. As much as any of electronic music's feted outsiders — Burial, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin — Cunningham gives the impression of an artist completely cut off from the world beyond the confines of his studio, or at least indifferent to any aspects that can't be projected through his grainy frame of reference.

Sharks are supposed to keep moving forward, or they'll die; Ghettoville puts that theory to the test and gives us… a rotting lump of grey flesh teeming with microorganisms and the intricate choreography of decay. "R.I.P music," wrote Cunningham in the introduction to the album. As corpses go, this one is exquisite.

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