Darren Cunningham's bleak, unsettling and possibly final album blows dance genre conventions apart
To introduce his fourth album, ‘Ghettoville’, Actress – aka south London’s Darren Cunningham – issued a cryptic statement describing how it’s “the bleached-out and black-tinted conclusion of the Actress image”. The message ends, simply: “RIP Music 2014”.
If this really is the end of Actress, it’s a tragedy, because throughout a career that began in 2004 with the ‘No Tricks’ EP being released on the record label he co-founded, Werkdiscs, Cunningham has created an electronic vocabulary that’s all his own. His last album, 2012’s ‘RIP’, explored the subtle cadences between techno, electro, 2-step and sub-bass, and dragged them into a previously unexplored netherworld.
This follow-up is another record on which familiar dance genre conventions are blown apart, and twisted instead into something utterly bleak and strangely alluring. On ‘Street Corp’, the breezeblock-blasting bass notes are crunchier than a gravel pit. ‘Corner’ is like a massive hip-hop tune played at the wrong speed on a Ford Escort tape deck, with its horn-driven melody muted and forlorn. ‘Rap’ is as close as Actress will ever get to slinky R&B, while ‘Image’ is a bit like Prince’s bold electro-funk were it made in a boiler room in late-’80s Detroit.
At 16 tracks long ‘Ghettoville’ is demanding and uneasy going, oscillating between the sort of punchy club beats that could give you a hernia and soundscapes so deep and affecting you’d expect to hear them at an art installation. ‘Time’, a twitchy 2-step boomer, moves at a glacial pace, and if you listen to ‘Contagious’ for too long – slo-mo strings, pitched-down-and-down-a-bit-more vocals, abdomen-shaking bass and noises a bit like when you blow on top of empty bottles – you will feel unsettled.
There is a faint sense of familiarity on a trio of tracks: the chirrupy, vaguely Fuck Buttons-ish ‘Rims’, the icy Aphex piano of ‘Our’ and ‘Gaze’, which subverts the sounds of ’90s piano house. But mostly ‘Ghettoville’ is an exciting new landscape to get lost in and explore, even if it does spell the end for Actress.