27 January 2014 (Werkdiscs and Ninja Tune)
By Ruben De la Huerga
Actress’ fourth and final album, Ghettoville, is a gratifying end to a great art project created by one of the leading figures exploring the textural possibilities in modern electronic music.
My memories of the minimal-tech artist Actress have always been very hazy. I can remember drunkenly stomping around to “Maze” when I was in high school (now one of my favorite electronic music songs). I can remember getting lost in the expansive world of “Hubble” when I woke up to that dreary hangover of a morning the next day. And I remember a scattered instance staring up to the sky while listening to Hazyville. I’ve listened to Actress an insanely large amount of time and yet these three blurred images are the only memories I can come close to bringing up. I know I’ve listened to R.I.P. 5-8 times and yet honestly I can hardly recall anything from it except a vague sense of loss and beauty. Though it may seem that all of this could serve as an argument to claim Actress’ music is immemorable, I think it is a testament to the otherworldly power of his sound. There is a feeling of serene transportation that I always encounter with his music. It’s an alien experience, like a sudden step into the surreal only to be flashed with a Men in Black pen and left seemingly unchanged with no memory of it taking place. OK, that’s possibly underselling the visceral connection that Actress’ music makes, but the point is that Actress’ music has a power to it that is potentially more subconscious than conscious. As opposed to taking a powerdrill to your head the way an artist like Rustie does, this music simply bores its way in, ever so slowly. The penetration of his music is so minute that one might not even notice. At this moment I would be unable to hum any element of any song of Actress’ discography. But whenever I put a record of his on, it’s like a long series of reacquainting myself with long-lost friends. It is only once I step back into the world of Actress that I remember it’s not so alien after all.
And with that being the introduction to this artist, let the rest of this review serve as his obituary. Yes, with Ghettoville, Actress has announced that he will be retiring from music, at least under this moniker. Being a huge fan, this obviously stirred up a great deal of sadness within me. But what it also did was vamp up my anticipation for the record. Putting on the first track, “Forgiven,” was a huge moment, wondering how in the world Actress would begin to unravel itself. It’s a dank and swampy lurch of a song, one of the most massive tracks he’s worked on yet. The grungy bassline here really threw me for a loop, almost sounding like a chopped and screwed version of the LA Law SVU theme. The sounds explored here set up a completely new textural framework for Actress, just as he has done on every other record. However, unlike his past records, Ghettoville ties together all the textural idioms of his previous work while still sounding completely distinct from all of them. The surreal, melted techno of Hazyville is present on “Skyline.” His warped brand of modern art hip hop perfected on Splazsh can still be found on “Corner” and “Rims.” And the magical garden visions of R.I.P. are gladly reaffirmed on “Our.” And yet none of these new songs would have actually fit into those albums they reference. Instead, they are gentle goodbyes to those old worlds, making peace with what Actress used to represent.
This concern for the past shows up again within the incorporation of the sounds of vaporwave weaved into his own design. I find it quite funny that Actress noticed this microtrend in music; it makes me wonder if you could catch an artist like him browsing 4chan. This new genre can be seen in many songs, including “Forgiven,” “Contagious,” and “Rap.” The latter is fantastic; it has already become one of my favorite vaporwave tracks for its particularly emotional take on the genre. Vaporwave is possibly the most backward-looking genre of all time, this manifests in both the old corporate imagery invoked as well as the actual borrowing of music. It’s a fascinating choice to utilize this genre on his last album, a sound that captures the fall of an era and yet has a trend that is currently on the rise. Though this new addition to his sonic repertoire initially seems confusing, it begins to make sense given that both vaporwave and Ghettoville are attempts to document the end of something, to find new life within a death.
Nestled at the center of the record, I think “Gaze” offers up the true crux of Ghettoville’s identity. This song is in many ways the contrapuntal cousin to “Maze,” one of Actress’ most popular songs. In that light, “Gaze” can be viewed as a farewell to the glory days, when an actress has just made it onto the big screen but has yet to be confronted with all the drugs and drama that are soon to follow. Though all of Actress’ work is characteristically dark or subdued, these two songs share an exuberant color that really shines through most of his work. “Gaze” is as close as a subtle artist like Actress will ever come to writing his own New Orleans funeral March. It’s one of the best songs he’s ever written.
As a whole, Ghettoville offers the last dose of everything we’ve come to expect from Actress. It always remains adventurous, ever probing for new textures in electronic music. It’s an enjoyable listen, one which can function as a blur of mood music yet simultaneously each of its pieces lend themselves to individual analysis. It manages to find every possible permutation available in its palette of fun, airy, brooding, tense and delirious sounds. And most of all it stays true to his vision. When viewing the trajectory of Actress as a whole, it really almost seems like he had this planned out all along. Not only do each of his albums have a consistency that makes them feel like a completed work of art, but his discography as a whole feels that way as well. So although the tragic cry of “Don’t stop the music” that is sorrowfully repeated towards the end of the record hits very close to home as a fan, something feels very right about ending here. If we choose to view “Actress” as more of an art project than an identity, the state of things becomes much less despairing. Tragedy occurs at the end of an identity. But unlike an identity, great art needs an end. With the distinctive world of Ghettoville, “Actress” is given its grand finale.