Music Reviews

Actress Ghettoville

(Werk Discs) Rating - 6/10

Ghettoville, the fourth and potentially final album by electronic producer Actress (Darren Cunningham), is certainly a departure, but a departure from what? The obvious answer would be techno, the genre Cunningham made his name under, but look back on Actress’s discography and you’ll realize he never really made a techno album, at least in the traditional sense. Listen to the producer’s debut, the dense, overcast Hazyville, or 2012’s wonderful R.I.P., and on a first take you’d think they were unfinished, with most tracks consisting of vague, propulsive loops with unflinching beats and melodies that sound like they were recorded through an apartment ceiling. But these “sketches,” as they appear to be initially, instantly open themselves up as complete, distinct worlds full of rich and mysterious melodies and textures for the listener to explore. R.I.P., in particular, perfected this idea unquestionably, with each of the album’s 15 tracks standing as wholly distinct universes full of beats ranging from fluorescent to decayed.

But while past Actress albums immerse you in their varied worlds, Ghettoville seems more like an attempt to swallow you whole and spit out the bones. His longest and most unfriendly release yet, Ghettoville is the sound of Cunningham sharply turning heel, using reference points like grime, hip hop, and hopelessness to shape them into bleak, corroded loops. It’s an intended sequel to the project’s debut (as obviously hinted by both album’s use of “-ville”), but it’s really more of a spiritual successor in its attempt to build one distinct environment rather than many separate ones (again, “-ville”). But while Cunningham’s dingy ghost town sounds fascinating in theory, its many lacking, underdeveloped parts hardly encourage the hour-plus long stay it demands.

You’d hardly need to look past track one, however, to realize that Cunningham had no intention to make this easy in the first place. As the rusted gates of Ghettoville swing open with that stereotypical horror screech, the barren, oppressive drones of Forgiven douse everything in dark shades of grey while simultaneously dismantling any preconceived notions regarding Actress’s music. I know “dirge” is a word frequently thrown around to describe music like this, but Forgiven nearly makes the term obsolete in any other use as it proudly slogs along for 7 and a half minutes with no variation. And though it does a pretty good job of proving Cunningham’s mission statement with this album, the results are no less exhausting and even boring.

No other track on Ghettoville quite matches the grueling sluggishness of Forgiven, but the unfortunate opener does highlight the album's most consistent problem: It’s just not engaging enough to absorb listeners into its world for too long. This is especially true with the album’s longer tracks, as the gurgling hip hop beats of Rims and the passive clicks of Time stretch for six minutes with little to no embellishment or development. Other tracks, like Street Corp and Skyline, fare much better, implementing the distant, twinkling melodies Cunningham is known for while shrouding them in dense static fog, but these moments feel few and far between as the albums more uninspired and repetitive beats seem to get the most room to stretch their legs.

Interestingly enough, many of the album's best moments are also their most brief. Though much of Ghettoville resides in tar pit black and oppressive grey, Cunningham allows for bits of color and light to shine through these 1-2 minute flashes and mesh with the melancholy, from the ghostly grooves of Birdcage to the blue-tinted chimes of Our. These shorter tracks also frequently implement vocal samples – a first for Actress – and while these disparate uses tend to resemble something you’d find in a Burial record or Daniel Lopatin side project, they bring a newfound warmness to Cunningham’s icy approach and allow quick moments like Don’t and Rap to stand out significantly over the album's 5-6 minute wastelands. Greater use of vocals might have actually been the key to bringing some life to Ghettoville’s more dreary moments, but Cunningham unfortunately keeps the human touches at a minimum, presumably in an effort to manage a thick layer of ice over his frigid world.

You have to give Cunningham some credit at the end of the day – he set out to craft an album that presents a cold and oppressive landscape, and by god did he stick to his guns, building a long, dreary, dusty trail of a record where any bits of radiance are surrounded by thick clouds of grey smoke. However, I get the feeling that the producer did too good of a job at this, as the album's occasional memorable moments do little to make up for the exhausting and ultimately unrewarding experience Ghettoville offers. Actress’s music always seemed like meticulously detailed sketches that came to life and immersed the listener, but while Ghettoville comes off as an interesting sketchbook of ideas, it rarely transcends that to become something greater.