Actress (Darren Cunningham) has always occupied his own unique sonic territory. Sure, there are discernible influences—a low-slung hip-hop rhythm here, a driving techno pulse there—but they are harnessed into Actress’ sound, which is gauzy, insistent, and absorbing. That’s not to say that every Actress album is samey; 2008’s Hazyville was at times playful and upbeat, 2010’s Splazsh explored the sound palette of classic electronica, while 2012’s R.I.P largely eschewed beats altogether in favour of fluttering melodies.
Ghettoville has been billed as Hazyville‘s spiritual successor, and they do share a somewhat similar atmosphere; both would perfectly soundtrack a late night drive around a somewhat decaying city (although Actress hails from London, he is influenced by Detroit sounds). Gritty drum loops form the basis of most tracks, and in some cases there is (almost) nothing else. Opener ‘Forgiven’ goes almost four minutes without discernible change; next track ‘Street Corp’ goes one better and has no rhythmic shift in its entire five and a half minutes. This will, I’m sure, put off quite a few listeners, and that is fair enough. There are elements, though, to reward repeat listens and close attention; a slightly off-kilter hi-hat flitting in and out, say, or a ghostly melody hidden within the murky atmospherics.
Not every track is a complete dirge; as on Hazyville, there are some upbeat and ostensibly club-focussed moments. ‘Corner’, for instance, contains a straightforward house beat and even a hummable synth line, while ‘Image’ is based on an almost jaunty 80s electro drumbeat. However, even these have an off-putting edge to them; ‘Towers’ could be a pumping techno track were it not for the decaying brass stabs which give it the air of a computerised Eastern European national anthem.
Cunningham has hinted that Ghettoville will be his last album under the Actress moniker and, appropriately, a feeling of finality hangs over the album. Every track feels as though it is slowly crumbling before your ears: tape saturation and vinyl crackle threaten to overwhelm it at any moment (similar to William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, where tape loops were recorded as they repeated and disintegrated until nothing was left of them). Some may well find this simply too dark and discomforting, but for those who find themselves drawn into the album’s suffocating universe, it may be hard to get out.
Photo (album cover) credits: Werk Discs/Ninja Tune