As you know, this is usually Tom’s column. But I’m taking over this week to talk about one of the most anticipated experimental albums of the season. Things will be back to normal next week.
Last year I got hooked on the popular podcast Welcome To Nightvale. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s set up as a local news broadcast from a small radio station in a fictional desert town that makes Twin Peaks sound like Lake Wobegon by comparison. It’s filled with horrifying stuff: People go missing; secret police factions fight with other secret police factions; a sentient glowing cloud possesses townsfolk; and horrible creatures lurk around corners. What makes Nightvale a hilarious stroke of brilliance, though, is the fact that, because this is all the people in this town know, it’s all treated as fairly mundane, reduced to boring local news stories. That sentient cloud ends up becoming a member on the school board, and police tirelessly pursue one particular monster not for being a multi-headed dragon, but simply because they suspect he may have a fake driver’s license (and of course he eventually runs for mayor). It’s completely insane, except for the fact that it’s not — because that’s just how things work in Nightvale. There are rules, even if they don’t make sense to outsiders.
I bring this up because the fourth (and potentially final) album by Darren J. Cunningham, better known as Actress, kind of does the same thing. Working with the methods and tools of techno and bass music, Actress has gradually grown both better and more esoteric, from his debut, Hazyville, to the “R&B concrète” of Splazsh, to 2012’s puzzling R.I.P. Still nothing can exactly prepare you for the toxic and suffocating space of Ghettoville. It is by far the most atmospheric and least dance-friendly album of Cunningham’s career, even making the difficult R.I.P sound bright and energetic by comparison. Here, the producer is in complete world-building mode; his finely ordered cycle of shuffling mood pieces gains a seismic power. Yeah — it’s a grower; a sonic space that you chart out gradually with each listen like exploring an unfamiliar city. Actress has always been essential listening for anyone interested in techno, but Ghettoville proves he’s saved the best for last.
When recommending Ghettoville, it’s tempting to instruct the listener to skip the first three tracks. Even hardcore Actress fans will agree that “Forgiven” is about as alienating as an album opener can get. It’s a slow, blown-out line in the sand that lurches for more than seven minutes as percussion rumbles and drones zoom by like oncoming bombers. However, “Forgiven” and the tracks that follow it — the static, skipping “Street Corp” and queasy hip-hop of “Corner” — serve an important purpose: They act almost like a diver’s decompression chamber, a steady way to ease into an album that would otherwise give you the bends. Because once the abyss-like drum crash of “Contagious” hits (a little more than 20 minutes into the 70-minute album) the bottom drops out, and Actress begins stretching and bending any expectations you had about his music over the last 10 years.
It just gets wilder from there. “Birdcage” comes blasting in with an aggressive, punching drum loop, until a flute-like adult contemporary melody comes floating through the haze. I actually laughed the first time I heard it, but it’s grown into one of the most endearing moments on the album for me, an early indictor of how few fucks Cunningham gives about the tropes and fleeting tastes of electronic music. That recurs throughout Ghettoville, like in “Skyline” and “Towers,” which continue his fondness for blending smooth sounds with beats of such low audio quality they distort at the edges into digital mush. But that sonic ugliness complements tracks like the recently released slow-mo R&B of “Rap” or the crystalline “Our,” the brief moment of pure, untarnished beauty sitting right at the center of the album, like the eye of a storm. The best moments come when Cunningham allows these elements to blend. Case in point: “Gaze,” where one of the sweetest melodies of his career dances over an ocean of clipping distorted beats.
For as difficult as it starts, Ghettoville ends things (much like R.I.P did) with two tracks to remind you that, when he feels like it, Cinningham can make you shake your ass. “Frontline” begins to dust off the preceding 60 minutes of grit with an agile high-hat pulse, blending different melodies before piling on more noise until it sounds pretty and ugly and slow and fast all at the same time. The album ends with a vocal track, something fairly rare for Actress, though he explores it more than ever before throughout this album. The voice is expertly looped so as to be clear, almost conversational, while also being completely and utterly unintelligible. Finally, with only a few minutes left on the album, Cunningham drops a 4/4 beat seemingly without any idea he’d been denying it to us for more than an hour, and rides out the surprisingly carefree and playful vibe to its end. It’s cathartic (how could it not be?) but it comes off funny because by then you’re fully aware that Cunningham isn’t paying attention to things like catharsis — or anything outside of simply what texture and rhythm feels right in that moment. If this really is the end of Actress, then it’s the stuck landing from an artist whose music has been intensely and increasingly principled, even if those principles make sense to no one but him.
Actress album covers are usually very defined: black and white, with angular, neat shapes. Ghettoville’s cover, on the other hand, is full of gray areas and smudges. There are sketches of shapes, parts that look erased and drawn over; some have said it reminds them of a blueprint, evoking something not fully formed. On the outside, Actress’s final statement seems formless and daunting, but give it a chance: Its endlessly inventive song cycle reveals an entire world, albeit one on the verge of apocalypse.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Dum Dum Girls’ dreamy and grimy third album Too True.
• Quilt’s laid-back psychedelia on Held In Splendor.
• Spiritual Emergency, the third album by the Boredoms-worshipping Guardian Alien, led by former Liturgy-drummer Greg Fox.
• Dude York’s debut album of good-old-fashioned rock and roll, Dehumanized.
• The new album by Hospitality (a Band To Watch), the lovely and restrained Trouble.
• Morgan Delt’s very trippy, very lo-fi eponymous debut.