Darren Cunningham’s career as Actress might just be performance art by way of music production – during the creation of latest LP Ghettoville, he has stated that it was to be the “conclusion” to who he is (or was, at this point) as Actress. It’s the type of befuddling declaration musicians tend to make, but often time that instance of pretension is coupled with an equally self-important release. Ghettoville on the other hand, feels like trolling as a self-reflexive commentary – Cunningham, perhaps growing tired of his rep as high-brow electronic’s golden boy, decided to react to it by being purposefully ostentatious while simultaneously subverting that expectation.
The album’s press release sets the tone, something ominous about humanity’s relationship with technology, and the implicitly menacing opener ‘Forgiven’ reflects the sci-fi prose of the press release. The track is 7 minutes’ worth of repetitive drone – which is for the most part, Ghettoville’s constant – that doesn’t go anywhere; a beat-less affair. This continued for some time with the following tracks, ‘Street Corp.’ and ‘Corner’, but just when you got the album figured out (“Oh, it’s a minimalist, drone take on dance.”), comes ‘Rims’. The first to feature some semblance of a beat, the track changes and moves to differing soundscapes just right that there’s variance to not bore you, even amidst the monotron synth noises over its staid funky bassline. It’s almost danceable.
‘Contagious’ then brings drone to an interesting place by incorporating what sounds like low pitched r’n’b vocals to an affecting potency. He has stated that the album was his way of conveying to listeners what it is like to be an addict uncomprehending of the world around them. The pitched-down r’n’b vocal, a trope all too familiar with beat-makers, as coupled with drone, is made more unsettling, befitting of exactly the mindset Cunningham was aiming for. While that sounds drearily serious, the continuing track ‘Birdcage’ is the most overt instance where we’re convinced he is really trolling us – beginning with a self-serious rhythm made for a chin-stroking Boiler Room sesh, what sounds like a flute-esque descant then comes in and out of the tune. It’s a confounding moment.
However, there is a point to the arrhythmia, drone, and noise of Ghettoville; the 6-minute-long ‘Time’ lives up to its namesake, its unbearable repetition can be deduced as intentional – it feels longer than its actually long running time. Some have dubbed it satirical in execution – another instance of trolling, mayhap? Or there might not be any self-awareness at all and it truly is experimental music? But Cunningham is too smart of a musician to do things without intent and following up ‘Time’ with ‘Gaze’ proves that. While starting out typically atypical, the track slowly morphs into a stout house rhythm – other media have played up the non-dance nature of his current music, but Cunningham still knows the dancefloor.
The pitched-down r’n’b vocals return on ‘Rap’, an ironic song title, to an effect that’s antithetical to ‘Contagious’, so much so that it betrays the rest of the album’s weirdness. That, in effect, is weird itself. Weirder that it is also the album’s centrepiece in our opinion – perhaps being the third last track of Ghettoville makes it something of a breather for listeners after a long aural journey of the jarring and dissonant.
If there is indeed a trolling aesthetic to the production of the album, end track ‘Rule’ is the greatest instance of exactly that. Like ‘Rap’, nothing on the album previously informs the direction it takes; ‘Rule’ is Cunningham’s deconstruction of hip hop that is, dare we say it, incredibly feel-good! The chopped-and-screwed MC verse and sunshine-y organ chords are something you’d expect more from an instrumental album by a post hip hop producer than what preceded the song. By this point of our review, there should be something to extrapolate from the album’s baffling nature – but there is none to be thought of.
Maybe that’s the point. That is the ultimate act of trolling.
LISTEN TO: ‘Rule’, ‘Rap’
IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU’LL DIG: Andy Stott
2. Street Corp.