Monday, 6 January 2014

Actress - Ghettoville


Electronic music has been fortunate as of late to not have its recent, genre-pushing highlights tinted by the presence of an underlining message; a spectacle of which is seemingly deserving of placement and existence than just merely an after-thought of the product itself. Six days into the new year, and I can (with confidence) surmize the press release early November pinned to the announcing of Darren Cunningham's forth studio album under the Actress alias, may well prove intriguing given more questions have homed in on the album's relevance and positioning, rather than simply its actual content. Is this the last Actress album? How is this a sequel to the Wolverhampton-born, London-based producer's 2008 debut Hazyville? Will the succeeding (and unanimously praised) follow-up's in Splazsh & R.I.P. fall into some surreal paradigm of non-existence? A bittersweet boggling of the mind f'sure, but a theme that has served Actress well given 2012 gave Actress the yearly moniker of one of electronic music's most captivating producers both sonically, as well as contextually. Like his peers in Nicolas Jaar & The Field - whom in recent years have been rightly praised for their own away-from-the-dancefloor analyses - Cunningham's intent is one of pushing his listener into approaching sounds as suggestions rather than outright declarations. As Eddie rightly cited of R.I.P, Actress is an artist for the stay-at-home's; the mental movers-and-shakers more than (but not flat-out turning away from) the physical equivalants. 

So given this spatial imagination is one Actress feels relatively adjust and comfortable with (as well as taking onboard the left-field mumblings early release Grey Over Blue seemed to press towards),  Ghettoville - even without pressing play - feels immediately juxta-posed and unsettling; reflecting as much in its cover sleeve, a suspicion that what will unfold, is not of space and independance, but instead something plagued with confinement and/or some fully-realized defeatism of form. It turns out however - mirrored in the album's former half of its sixteen-track offering - that this post-Hazyville state of affair is one Cunningham perceives as not just pessimistically unjust, but completely flatulent in nature. The overwhelmingly cacophonous atmosphere on opening track Forgiven, or the definitively abstract pops and clicks on Street Corp - which has the hallmarks of something I'd hear, and hear better applied it must be said, on an Autechre track - allude already to this notion of music lacking its soul; Actress' particularly fowler treatment of repetition playing to listeners' perception of space, even if this time, the dynamic between rhythmic and melodic  is a little more conjoined and lesser left to its own devices.

As we progress through the record then, there's a distinct lack of expansion to Cunningham's enveloping sound as was present on R.I.P. In its place lies a distinctly deliberate mesh of electronics and instrumentation that are perhaps without reason, but more-so merely exist for the sake of existing. While this does leave Actress' longer-running composites feeling uncharacteristically empty and rotary, Corner's obvious hip-hop leanings do provide both a groove and a melody that's more acquaint to Ghettoville's dank envisaging of its 2008 starting point. More-so, moving onto Rims (or at least the first half of its near-six minute duration) the greasy, grimy texture of bass and low-fidelity production definitely expands upon the record's bleaker suggestiveness. My concerns, like many tracks in the album's first half, lie however with Cunningham's unavoidable lack of advancing his instrumentation beyond such a simple, and fairly unexcited, 2-step home-base. The frustration is confirmed in the way Actress merely decides to stop/start layers rather than treating them with a sense of purpose and respect. Yes the faint smack of echo offered by the beats could perhaps be a reference to some personal disgust of recycling/rehashing old ideas, but because there's no relinquishing of Actress' own two-bar cycle of bass and percussion, the sonic effect ultimately loses its representational value, and feels - ironically - rehashed itself.

There are better moments fortunately in latter proceedings; Cunningham's closely-held opaque grooves and melodies on Birdcage signalling a return to previous albums' differing musical phrasing alongside what is this emphasis on distinctly harder beat patterns amid gaseous production choices. Likewise Time has an affinity for standng on-the-brink and creating tension about its melody - the waning subtlety of synths and out-of-shot bass leaving its listener vying to question the track's true motives and intention. Towers too, while could be seen as equally linear as earlier efforts, works because of its seemingly unaware, almost brain-dead self-sacrifice. The repetition of this solitary synth chord (which itself makes up the track's leading element) is persistent, yet the way the looping percussion and drafted whirls of sound come in and emanate throughout, suggest said repetition is merely accidental, and thus, unfortunate rather than deliberately intended.

In these circumstances, and something which thankfully Actress builds on from this point onward, the album's pessimism-come-disdain, projects as something both visceral but shockingly apparent. It's here within the album's second half that uncovers a vastly stronger relevance to Cunningham's cryptic outpour of [electronic] music's end; of artist's paying the price for their refusal to develop and identify. And uncover it does so, with resounding effect. Skyline is the result of the London producer's projecting a once lively disco/dancefloor/club surrounding to that (now, in the presence of Ghettoville's timeline) of a mere shell/corpse of its former self. There's a bubbling reactiveness in the track's 4/4 bass and grainy accompaniment of beats certainly, but it ultimately feels artificially vacant, like what we're experiencing is the last surviving piece of sampling equipment to have survived what feels like some gargantuant post-apocalyptic event, yet projecting - for obvious reasons - a sense of euphoric belonging to no one save the dank, dystopian air that greets it. Image too feels awkwardly autonomous and sterile, as if its own clunky, densely-clogged delivery has lost awareness of just how out-of-place and pointless it's unfolding rhythm, actually is. The pitiful irrelevance of it all - of such sample-based methodologies - gives Cunningham's vision of modern electronica as a tomb, rather than a sanctuary, even more the evocative edge. And because of it in the album's approaching climax, the aged, distant quality to Ghettoville's sound reaches its dormantly coldest yet.

There is of course that continuing episodic flinch between scenarios Actress continues to use when transitioning between locale, as is the case with Rap's return to a more street-corner, hip-hop orientated tenure of groove and vocals. But in as just-as-swift a motion, Frontline builds on the former direness of music left on auto-pilot, to greater effect. The dense, claustrophobic layering - which gives the impression the track is sadly buried beneath layers and layers of rubble or city debris - gives the sound's pointlessness a more apparent sadness given how intent the track is on passaging its melodic layers to that of the overworld lying in wake outside...or perhaps above it. But once again, like the main drum leads illustrate, the music's (or even the machines broadcasting it) ignorance to the current state of affairs - let alone the lack of any one survivor present to take it all in - is left to simply wade its way into the distance without compromise. In this respect, Rule - which caps off both the album as well as being the last of Actress' return to Hazyville's once-lively, habitable demographic - brings a energetic stir of once former liveliness, yet the rigid instability of the vocals and keys once more brings attention closer towards Cunningham's stating this as merely an artifact of past bliss, and because of it, a final sorrowing reminder of [what was] Hazyville's confinement to now this bleak husk, caught in endless repetition.

Ultimately the deliverance of Actress' send-off - of Ghettoville's grim forewarning of this unpreventable future - ends up strengthened by its rigid framework, but weakened too by its lack of real merittable progression and development in parts. What Cunningham offers is by no means as rich or as immersive as his previous efforts, and in the album's latter efforts, succeeds because of it. The drawback, and one that unfortunately hinders Actress from achieving an overly frightening escapade of minimal blurbs of electronics, lies in the producer's recurring apathy for the outside World. While it's obvious this album is more content on pain-stakingly enclosing its listener and treating humanity like some ancient fragment of a distant past, there's a lot to be answered for when the focus on this stricken state is barely, if at all, present. But when it is, you'll find these initial analogies between World's end and music's end to be frightfully believable in its visage. You will find Cunningham offer up electronic music devoid of its original soul; a culture reduced to no more than a blissfully unaware primordial ooze. And so too, you'll ask yourself, how will this shape music's, let alone Actress', near future? R.I.P. music? Let's hope not.
~Jordan Helm

 7.3

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