Darren J. Cunningham has been making boundary-pushing electronic music for a decade as Actress. Over the course of three previous albums Actress has been experimented with Detroit house music, deconstructing and tweaking the elements into ever more meditative and trance-like electronic music. And by the time it became common knowledge that Cunningham was citing “music of the spheres” and John Milton’s Paradise Lost as significant influence’s for his 2012 album R.I.P., instead of electronic or dubstep producers, people knew he was heading in a different direction than simply reimagining house music. R.I.P. was released to widespread acclaim, appeared on a number of year-end lists, and was unlike anything else that I had ever heard. Though most tracks do not have distinct beats, they are precisely constructed and made up of beautiful (and sometimes abrasive) sounds, creating soundscapes that act as our guides through an excursion through the life-death-rebirth cycle. So how does Cunningham top such a project?
Enter Actress’s brand new LP, Ghettoville, where Cunningham takes his sonic template for a walk through dirty streets of the capitalism’s underside, confronts all the discarded machinery, the cast-off stories and ideas masquerading as hollowed-out people in “the wrong neighborhood”. The signs and symbols of the places where the least of these are forced into are an apt partner for Cunningham’s aesthetic, which is at its most exquisitely bleak on tracks “Forgiven”, “Contagious”, “Towers” and album closer “Grey Over Blue”. The first two of those tracks makes up the albums first 13 minutes and will find a lot of people turning away from this album which I want to think of as unfortunate, but I am confident thatCunningham knew when he was putting together the albums track list. While there are a load of brighter moments on this record, which will invariably be discussed by Cunningham’s return to outright beats (with “Corner” , “Rims”, “Birdcage”, and “Gaze” all being undeniable standout tracks), I am prone to think that Cunningham’s one-two punch as an underline of the press release that appeared only a few days ago:
Perhaps Cunningham is going to retire the Actress name as many have speculated – it sure seems like it- but I think there is a bit more revolutionary going on here with Cunningham’s missive. Specifically, I see a proposal that we acknowledge that “music”, as we know it, is dead in our culture but that making art is still possible. “The artist is slumped and reclined…acutely aware of the simulated prism that required breakout” while “psuedo artists [are] running rampant” and the “machines have turned to stone, data reads like an obituary to its user”. To me whenever I come across references to images, stone, notes and composition I will immediately think of the realm of Art, and remember that “the path continues” so it doesnt seem that creativity as a whole is what Cunningham is leaving behind. And when Actress signs a missive “R.I.P. Music 2014” I think he is just letting go of his personal inhibitions, leaving behind the specifically sonic approach to creating art (as he has been stretching that concept for years now), becoming the very bird that “looks back into the cage [it] once inhabited.” I don’t know if this will be the last we hear from Actress, but I appreciate that Cunningham was willing to push himself as far as did with “the Actress image”. This album sure sounds like he put himself into it and the sonic equivalents of desperation, addiction, confusion, and living amongst imminent death aren’t your cup of tea I won’t blame you for not seeking Ghettoville out. I appreciate a musical artist who successfully creates a work that itself is a specific mood and I am thankful that Cunningham was so confident and expressionistic in his final statement as Actress so to do exactly this. For anyone that is interested in music as a form of art, seek this album out, but definitely give it time for it rewards repeated listens and headphone listening.