Actress – ‘Ghettoville’ (Werkdiscs)

Few artists have managed to create an artistic vision as cohesive as Darren Cunningham, with a single-mindedness that borders on obsession. And quite rightly so. Over the past decade, the Londoner has been responsible for some of the most compelling electronica available and it was with understandable fervour that many awaited the purported last album from the man himself, the prequel to his much-feted debut, ‘Hazyville’. Cunningham’s self diagnosis as a man “devoid of any soul” is a startlingly ominous precursor to its release and one would hope he still had a little left when he laid down his apparent swan song.

Indeed, the first twenty-five minutes of ‘Ghettoville’ are, I would suggest, intentionally intimidating. Opener ‘Forgiven’ is certainly indicative of some sort of fatigue, whether it be physical or spiritual, with trudging percussion lumbering cumbersomely across dread-filled chords and disquieting atmospherics to create a soundscape that can verge on drab. Refusing to yield an inch throughout its duration, the listener is left to wonder whether Cunningham has completely lost his enthusiasm for his trade. Follower ‘Street Corp’ is no more penetrable, with the likes of Throbbing Gristle a closer reference point than any electronic artist I care to mention. Crunching percussive flurries burst sporadically through coldly ethereal synths and almost arhythmic kicks make for an unsettlingly industrial experience.

By the time the terrifying codeine-drenched vocal strains of ‘Contagious’ drift out of earshot, the claustrophobia is almost too much to handle. With almost half of the album playtime over, there has been little in way of respite from a dreary and oppressive atmosphere. And then, it happens. The storm clouds part and the sun shines through in the form of ‘Birdcage’, which ironically acts to liberate rather than ensnare. Warbling synths flitter delicately across tightly tuned toms, with more than a nod towards Chicago. For all of the weighted dread of the former part of the album, it acts as a short and perfectly pitched blast of energy to proceedings, lifting you above the muggy mire of haze instilled by what went before.

This track is a definite tipping point for ‘Ghettoville’. Whether the first half is some sort of test of endurance, the rewards are deliciously sweet. From this point on, the sheer variation in styles is remarkable, with all of them still managing to maintain some semblance of cohesiveness. All of them are unmistakably Actress.

‘Our’ sounds like a cut from ‘R.I.P.’ with mystical arpeggios sprawling across the lo-fi buzz. It’s in these conditions that Cunningham manages to truly impress, with a masterful juxtaposition of both dereliction and beauty, grime and fragility. Meanwhile, ‘Gaze’ goes all Ron Hardy with a rough and ready slice of grubby disco house, offering one of the most abjectly club-centric offerings, with ‘Image’ taking things on a boogie tangent. The chopped and screwed R’n’B stylings of ‘Rap’ adds another string to ‘Ghettoville”s already luxurious bow, but rest assured there is far more on offer. The glacial pace of the opening gambit only further exemplifies this myriad of styles and more than validates the seemingly humdrum start to the LP, with it acting as a fertile primer from which something that, when it wants to be, is beautiful.

In something a bold move, Cunningham reveals himself as a master of pacing and one can only hope this isn’t the last we see of him. He’s tired, but he’s by no means out of ideas and something tells me that he’ll be back again sooner than he’d like us to think.

‘Ghettoville’ is out now on Werkdiscs. Buy it here.

Patrick Henderson