Sunday, 2 February 2014

Review: Actress

Actress Ghettoville (Werkdiscs, 2014)

Sometimes, a new album comes out and questions my very relationship with music, and my own consumption of it. The last record that significantly challenged me in such a way was probably Far Side Virtual, James Ferraro's nightmarish ringtones-turned-performance-art dystopus (if I may invent a word for it). While a lot could be said about Ferraro's philosophical influences and conceptual insight, channeling Baudrillard, grime and Second Life, what made Far Side Virtual such a hellish cultural hallmark was that it reconfigured seemingly redundant sounds - MIDI, computer blips, the Wii start-up menu - into a Frankenstein-ian monstrosity of a generation's maximalist values. Beneath the chintz and the promises of the digital age, the scariest thing about Far Side Virtual was that it was grounded in reality; as noted by its creator, "people kind of live in it already."

What's the connection, then, between this ersatz album and Ghettoville, the latest (and possibly final) release from Darren Cunningham's Actress project? The niches carved out by the respective artists couldn't possibly be further from each other: while Ferraro crafted a claustrophobic, densely layered simulacra of new age synths and Garageband drum loops, the two preceding Actress albums have been spatial, micro-repetitious deconstructions of house and techno. Ghettoville, however, is an intriguing entry into Cunningham's artistic lexicon, as it forgoes the cosmic sonics of R.I.P and Splazsh and retreats into a congested, dusty headspace which recalls industrial music and crud-infused beat tapes.

Naturally, Ghettoville can be viewed as a direct sequel to Actress' slept-on debut album, Hazyville: not only in name, giving the impression of a release cycle coming to an end, but also in the atmospherics conjured up by Cunningham. If Hazyville spent the majority of its time shrouded in a mysterious fug, Ghettoville takes the haze to its logical extreme, with a scraping, scratchy aesthetic imposed on near-enough every last congenital fiber of the album. Moments of clarity are few and far between: this is a nebulous record, and as such it's possibly the most aurally challenging of Actress' transmissions to date.

Cunningham's deployment of vocal samples had always been subtle, a secondary aspect to the loops, beats and keys of the music itself, but Ghettoville subverts this by not only making vocals a central element of the sound, but in some instances the focal point of the track. Some commentators have noted the parallels between Actress' treatment of samples and the Internet micro-genre vaporwave, which similarly dislocates and reimagines vocal cuts from sources such as pop, RnB and soul. The vaporwave connection becomes an extremely significant one upon further examination: indeed, the aforementioned Far Side Virtual is very much stylistically attached to the vaporwave genre, and a notable element of the ethos of these enigmatic online presences (INTERNET CLUB, New Dreams Ltd. et al.) is that they explore our fascination with the Internet's convenience as a platform for distribution and the ensuing throwaway culture it consequently creates.

It's telling that one of the most poignant moments contained within Ghettoville is a simple vocal loop, accompanied by a three note progression. "Don't", which spans just over a minute in length, carries the intonation "Don't stop the music", possibly extracted from a rather ubiquitous pop artist. With the album's press release calling for music's eulogy, this track can be straightforwardly dissected: the "pseudo artists" run rampant, reducing the essence, the wonder of music into a hollowed-out void. No hope - "Zero satisfaction." The unbearable truth; the music will, at some point, stop.

The perceptive unity of what is actually a rather diverse release is a testament to Cunningham's hoodwinking approach to sound. Amidst the crushed sample-and-loop aesthetic, the sophisticated inner workings of Ghettoville will reveal themselves with intent listening: it's formed upon the basis of a ghostly shell of techno, fused with productions tics from the left-field. However, I still must ask myself - does Ghettoville question my relationship with music as Ferraro and the plucky web enigmas have? In a nutshell, yes. With what is possibly the final release in the Actress image, Cunningham has evoked a hopelessly bleak existence - the musical ghetto - and while our innate desire for music will continue, we are already living beyond music history. R.I.P Music 2014.

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