It’s fitting, in a perverse sort of way, that the release of Darren Cunningham’s fourth album under the Actress moniker, Ghettoville, arrives just a couple of days after the 56th Annual Grammy Awards. There could hardly be a wider gap between Sunday night’s pageant of spoon-fed pop artifice and Actress’s abstruse, headphones-requisite bass music, and any doubts as to how Cunningham views the music industry are dispelled by a jeremiad-cum-retirement-notice attached to the album’s press material: “Zero satisfaction,” it reads, “no teeth, pseudo artists running rampant…R.I.P. Music 2014.” This frustration is sublimated into Ghettoville’s rough-edged techno; the album’s second track, “Street Corp,” is a fussy, disintegrated mess of altissimo clinks and swathes of static that seems to dare casual listeners to flee for the safety of something more tuneful.
Ghettoville isn’t merely a meditation on urban decay; it’s more like the graven image of decay itself, its cold machine parts coated in grime, its aural blight awash in a foul ambient slurry. No one’s ever mistaken Cunningham for a PLUR-minded dance-floor escapist, but here he sets out to plumb new depths of dread and despair. Opener “Forgiven” is seven bleak minutes of gravel-pit grooves and clamorous percussion, a slow subway ride to hell, crawling through noisy portents of doom and destruction. And yet an apocalypse of the fire-and-brimstone variety never arrives. The world explored by Ghettoville ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a series of long, industrial death rattles: the suffocating haze of “Contagious,” the mechanical hiss of tech-house clatterer “Skyline.”
Individually, many of these songs are static objects, self-contained pieces that collapse into a splintered rhythm and mostly stay there. “Time” grinds along on the same broken-organ loop and rat-a-tat rasp for nearly six minutes, while the main ingredient in “Towers” is a single blown-out bass note repeated on end. Track by track, though, Ghettoville begins to reveal its true shape, and what at first may seem like gratuitous detours into the avant-garde emerge as essential parts of the whole. The deconstruction and monomania of “Time” and “Towers” pay off as the latter fades into “Gaze,” which fuses elements of both into the album’s most full-bodied and danceable track. You can trace a similar arc through the microwaved boom-bap of “Rims” and “Contagious” to the comparatively lush “Birdcage,” which feints toward deep house before bottoming out into something else entirely, muted hi-hats and fluttering toms chasing an honest-to-God melody through the void.
Ghettoville is a 70-minute high-wire act, equal parts musique concrète and concrete jungle, its enveloping darkness in tension with a few precious rays of light, like the mellifluous bell-tones of “Our,” or “Rap” and its warm, warped R&B vocal: “Wrap yourself around me.” Very few producers can maintain such a delicate balance as effectively as Cunningham does here, and if this is truly what he calls “the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image,” it’s at least one hell of a parting gift. Ghettoville’s scenes of waste and ruin might resonate a little too vividly in these uncertain, embattled times, but if a thing of such beauty can be formed from pieces so jagged and desolate, maybe there’s still hope for us too.