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First Floor #120 – Dance Music's Enthusiasm Gap
a.k.a. Thoughts on creative stagnation, plus a round up of week's electronic music news and a fresh batch of new track recommendations.
GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS
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People have been saying “dance music is dead” for decades, and it almost always rings hollow. (More often than not, it’s a grumpy complaint from an aging figure who’s struggling to cope with the inevitable march of time.)
The reality is that dance music is far from dead, especially now that the pandemic appears to be on the decline. Festivals are selling out, clubs are filling up and the constant firehouse of new releases—which never really stopped, even during the height of COVID—shows few signs of slowing down.
All that said, I recently read Mixmag’s interview with Joy Orbison, and there’s one thing he said that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind:
“… we're getting to a point where the spirit and innovation that was in dance music, is not in dance music any more,” he reflects, suggesting the “people who would have been making dance music are now making other forms of music” such as drill, hip hop and “weird pop music — you didn't have that when I was growing up.”
I think he’s right.
For all of the industry’s economic success and the music’s increased acceptance in the canon of “genres that people take seriously,” it does feel like dance music is stuck in a creative holding pattern. As Orbison said, innovative musical minds are often looking elsewhere these days, and while notions of futurism and subversion were once central to dance music’s identity, the genre increasingly seems content to rehash decades-old musical ideas. (It’s also not a great sign that conversations about crypto and NFTs are frequently generating more passionate discussions than even the biggest tunes of the day.)
How and why did this happen, and what does it mean for the future of dance music? Those are big questions, but I laid down some my thoughts in an essay earlier this week, and it’s available to read here.
A round-up of of the last week’s most interesting electronic music news, plus links to interviews, mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
In an effort to close the growing income gap between DJs and producers, DVS1 has launched Aslice, a new service that easily enables the former cohort to donate a percentage of their fees (5% is suggested) to the artists whose music they play. (Full disclosure: I’ve previously worked with both DVS1 and Aslice CEO Ethan Holben, and last year I was also hired to do some copywriting / copyediting for Aslice. That said, I have no ongoing involvement.) The Aslice platform uses existing technology (i.e. no crypto is involved) and circumvents PROs and rights organizations that don’t seem to understand DJ culture, and DVS1 provided a lot more details about how it all works in this interview with DJ Mag’s Declan McGlynn. Signups are now open, and while it remains to be seen how many DJs will voluntarily give up a portion of their income for the benefit of their music-making peers, if usage of Aslice were to become widespread and normalized, the economics of dance music could be radically realigned (for the better).
Speaking of music industry economics, Spotify has given its Loud and Clear website a fresh update. Originally launched last year to provide “increased transparency” and “clarity about the economics of music streaming,” the initiative has been widely criticized for its cherry-picking of statistics and casual dismissal of artists’ repeatedly stated concerns. The newly updated site clearly looks to address those critiques, adding a lot more numbers and explanations—including the company’s headline claim that it paid out $7 billion to rights holders last year—but despite the increased volume of content, a quick parse of the information presented makes clear that Spotify is still deflecting blame, providing statistics that contradict its stated goals and twisting facts to present itself as a force for good in the music industry.
Marco Passarani is best known these days as one half of Tiger & Woods, but the Italian artist has been active in electronic music for more than three decades, and bore witness to the initial rise of rave culture in his native Rome. Fresh of the release of his The Wildlife of the Quieter Ones LP, he’s now dug into his memory banks and shared some stories with Vivian Host on the latest episode of her Rave to the Grave podcast.
Elijah’s run as a guest editor of Resident Advisor is nearly at an end, but the latest article his tenure has produced is an illuminating Rewind review of the Roy Davis Jr. & Peven Everett classic “Gabriel.” Written by Matt McDermott, it recounts the track’s genesis and unlikely ascent, along with how the song’s unexpected success ultimately triggered the disintegration of the friendship between the artists who made it.
Ploy is the subject of DJ Mag’s latest Recognise feature, which includes an exclusive new mix from the UK artist, plus an in-depth conversation with writer Katie Thomas about his personal history and musical evolution.
Those who followed the the “global bass” explosion during the late 2000s may remember changa tuki, a raw Venezuelan sound that combined elements of house and techno with the rhythms and sensibilities of Latin America and the Caribbean. Writing for Crack magazine, Verónica Bayetti Flores has penned a new article that takes a closer look at the genre and its history, speaking with its originators (many of whom are still active) and exploring how the music has dovetailed with the socio-political realities of life in Venezuela.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases that were announced during the past week.
French house icons Alan Braxe and DJ Falcon have joined forces (under the name Braxe + Falcon) on a new EP, Step by Step, that’s scheduled to drop on August 26 via a new Domino offshoot called Smugglers Way. In the meantime, the duo have shared two singles (“Step by Step,” which features the vocals of Panda Bear, and “Creative Source”) and also sat down with writer Gabriel Szatan—who I interviewed last year about his forthcoming Daft Punk book—to discuss both their present collaboration and illustrious past exploits in a lengthy new Pitchfork feature.
Five years removed from their last album, celebrated electro / techno outfit Dopplereffekt have finished up a new full-length, Neurotelepathy, that’s set for an April 22 release on the Leisure System label. Ahead of that, they’ve shared LP cut “Neuroplasticity.”
Jeff Mills has been on a rather prolific run during the past few years, and the techno legend recently announced two more albums: Wonderland (from his Jeff Mills and the Zanza project) and Mind Power Mind Control. Both records will be issued by his own Axis label, with the former arriving on April 22 and the latter on May 20. No music has been shared yet, but presale links and more info about the records can be found here.
Mere weeks after she released her excellent I'll Look For You In Others album via Past Inside the Present, Portland ambient artist Patricia Wolf has linked up with the Balmat label for a new full-length. See-Through will officially emerge on May 13, but LP closer “Springtime in Croatia” is already available.
Marina Herlop debuted on PAN last year with the spellbinding “Miu” single, and now the Barcelona avant-pop artist has announced a proper album for the label. Entitled Pripyat, it’s set to drop on May 20 and will include “Miu,” but Herlop has also shared another track from the record, “Shaolin Mantis.”
Was Jesus Christ an extraterrestrial? Perel has thoroughly explored the idea on her forthcoming new album, Jesus Was an Alien, which will be released by Kompakt on May 13. Before it arrives, the German artist has shared several versions of the title track (and lead single), a collaboration with Marie Davidson.
Chicago ambient musician Forest Management has a new LP on the way. Billed as his “return to the use of tape as a source of texture and composition,” it’s called Palm Life and will drop via Husky Pants on April 22. Before that, the song “One After Another” has been made available.
Earlier this week, Russian artist Pavel Milyakov (a.k.a. Buttechno) released a new album, untitled 2022, and announced that proceeds from the record (and all of his other releases) would go to Ukrainian charities and volunteer teams.
Despite its title, LP.8 isn’t Kelly Lee Owens’ eighth album. It’s her third, and it will be released by Smalltown Supersound on April 29. Described as “an unbridled exploration into the creative subconscious” that was born out of a desire to make “music somewhere in between Throbbing Gristle and Enya,” it seems to have a more avant-garde bent than her previous work, and two tracks from the record have already been shared here.
Rooted in a collaboration commissioned by Berlin Atonal, Limen is the forthcoming new album from Kenyan ambient artist KMRU and French experimenter Aho Ssan. Their “post-apocalyptic” effort for the Subtext label won’t be released until April 29, but an edit of lead track “Resurgence” is available now.
Roza Terenzi and D. Tiffany have teamed up many times over the years, and now they’ve joined forces yet again for a new album-length effort called Edge of Innocence. It’s due to arrive on May 19 via Delicate Records, and while no full tracks have been shared yet, a preview clip of its eight songs can be found here.
Barry Can’t Swim has been riding high off the success of 2021’s Amor Fati EP for Shall Not Fade—his track “Rah That's A Mad Question” was one of my favorites of last year—and now the UK house upstart has signed with Ninja Tune’s Technicolour imprint for a new EP, More Content. The record won’t arrive until June 24, but a first single, “God Is the Space Between Us” (which features the vocals of Taite Imogen), is available now.
NEW THIS WEEK
The following is a selection of my favorite tunes from releases that came out during the past week or so. The ones in the ‘Big Three’ section are the songs I especially want to highlight (and therefore have longer write-ups), but the tracks in the ‘Best of the Rest’ section are also very much worth your time. In both sections, you can click the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this convenient Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.
THE BIG THREE
A Tennessee native now based in Atlanta, Nikki Nair has quietly become one of dance music’s rising stars over the past few years, hopping between house, electro, and various flavors of bass music while dropping records on labels like Scuffed, Lobster Theremin, Gobstopper, Banoffee Pies and even Dirtybird. “1overf” is just the second release on his own n goes to infinity imprint, and it’s an ebullient lark, gleefully combining bits of ’80s-style electro-funk—think Cameo, or Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis—with crooked drum patterns and pitch-shifted vocal mayhem. At times it’s reminiscent of classic Night Slugs releases (and the early work of Jam City in particular), but as great as those records were, “1overf” feels noticeably more carefree and fun. In short, it’s a fantastic tune, and considering that Nair already has several more releases on the horizon, his continued ascent seems all but assured.
Equal parts hope and melancholy, Croatian Amor’s wistful new Remember Rainbow Bridge LP is billed as an “homage to youth.” Full of lush textures and bright, ’80s-style synths—which have basically become electronic music’s primary shorthand for big emotions—it’s a gorgeous record, albeit a pensive one in which the Danish artist (and Posh Isolation co-founder) ponders “the delicate metamorphosis that occurs as childhood trips into maturity.”
Cinematic from start to finish, the album perhaps feels most poignant on “Young Adult, Common Nettle,” where vocal clips—which sound like they were lifted from news broadcasts or a documentary film—take on a poetic quality as they’re layered atop subtly bleeping melodies and the sounds of crashing waves. Similarly meditative is LP opener “5:00 am Fountain,” though the song’s shimmering synths border on trance territory as they swell and soar skyward. “Albaster” adds some (relatively light) percussion into the mix, its hip-hop-indebted rhythm bolstering the track’s tastefully dazzling melodics and hazily filmic atmosphere.
For lovers of tripped-out dub, freaky drum patterns and low-end-heavy sonic manipulations, it’s hard to top a collaboration between Azu Tiwaline and Al Wootton. Though the two artists come from very different places—the former resides in the Tunisian desert, while the latter makes his home in London—they share a lot of common musical ground, which is likely why they routinely hit paydirt across their joint Alandazu EP.
“Nine Points” opens rather deliberately, the bassy undulations of its opening minutes recalling old DMZ records, but once the song’s percussive patter is unleashed, the track sounds like a particularly upfront dub-techno tune that’s been infused with North African rhythms. Tiwaline and Wootton turn the drums up even higher on “Blue Dub,” marching through thick sheets of reverb as the song’s percussive churn conjures an almost psychedelic air. Do tracks like these represent the future of dub? It’s possible, but even if they don’t, no one is going to complain about more records like this one.
BEST OF THE REST
These two gems are taken from Leon Vynehall’s rather excellent new Fabric Presents mix, and while Skee Mask likely needs little introduction—for the record, “Untitled 279” is a zenned-out slice of crunchy breakbeat perfection—Portuguese artist A.k.Adrix delivers a cooly galloping showstopper with “FL Studio, Obrigado,” a woodwind-powered batida / house hybrid that first appeared on his 2020 EP Código de Barras.
Can dancehall be twee? “On the Jetty” says yes. A heartstring-tugging standout from the new Performance Enhancers compilation, the song piles on the pastels (and rack up scads of cute points) as it layers lullaby-ready twinkles atop a subby (but still relatively chill) dembow riddim.
Night Journeys is Courtesy’s long-awaited debut EP, and it’s an exercise in ambient trance grandeur, and “Night Journeys III” might be the most majestic of its four tracks. With dreamily stuttering melodies that elegantly glow in the darkness, the track delivers an emotional wallop without the need for banging kickdrums.
Percussion leads the way on these two bass-heavy cuts, and the drums fly particularly fast on “Adrestia,” a dark and deliriously hypnotic highlight of UK producer Herman’s new Narcissus EP. Leese hails from Belgium, and “Kaa”—which appears on her new Nomäa EP—has more of a slither to it, the track’s off-kilter rhythms seductively swaying alongside its twisted vocal bits.
The closing number on Shelley Parker’s new Wisteria LP, “Deepfield Way” is at its core a classic breakbeat track, but thanks to its howling winds and digital growls—which sound something like the bleatings of a waterlogged cyborg—the song takes on an agreeably sinister tone.
Drum & bass has something of a rowdy reputation, but London’s Alix Perez dives into the genre’s softer side on “Desanka,” a soulful (and somewhat melancholy) roller that leads off his new Wairua EP with soft piano, even softer static and a slew of Burial-esque vocal refrains.
Physical Therapy grew up in New Jersey, but the shuffling sounds on his excellent new Teardrops on My Garage EP make clear that his love of UKG runs deep. The skittering “Chain Reaction” feels like a loose-limbed combination of classic Wookie and TLC-era Babyface, while the “Illegal Mix” of “2 Tears” lives up to its title by repurposing a Motown classic, slathering it with reverb and joyously pushing it into the red atop a lively array of R&B-meets-garage beats.
With songs from Paramida, Voiski, Maral, Aria Rostami and several others, the new Sounds from the Iranian Ultraverse is essentially a showcase of the extended Iranian diaspora, and its centerpiece is “Diaspora Simalucra,” on which Shaytoon boss Sepehr serves up a moody breakbeat romp that recalls both contemporary artists like Skee Mask and the sludgy basslines of classic dubstep.
Although Sara Dziri’s Tunisian roots loom large over “Kan Ya Makan” (translation: “Once Upon a Time”), the song—which closes out the Brussels-based artist’s promising debut album Close to Home—purposely moves beyond the typical “Arab-influenced electronic music” experiments, referencing darkwave and ambient while ultimately landing in an ethereal zone that’s not too far from what fellow Belgian SKY H1 is doing.
Big, brawny and unrelenting, “Shoebox” is a diamond-sharp standout off Manchester drum & bass producer Sl8r’s new Allig8r EP. With its bruising basslines and sci-fi sheen, it’s something of a throwback to the glory days of tech-step, but the track’s fuzzy wobble and samurai-like precision are clearly capable of riling up contemporary dancefloors.
Given that his dancefloor-focused production has never been terribly orthodox, perhaps it’s not too surprising that Interstellar Funk has largely abandoned the dancefloor on his debut album Into the Echo. With its warbling synths and psychedelic bent, “Dreamers (Part i)” sounds a lot more like Mike Oldfield than Mike Banks, while the LP’s title track colorfully recalls the synth-pop-heavy soundtracks of classic ’80s films.
Max Cooper’s cinematic new Unspoken Words LP is an expansive audio-visual project that includes 13 short films—one for each track on the record. Viewing those films, however, requires getting your hands on the Blu-Ray version of the album, so here I’ll just focus on the music, specifically the graceful “Pulse at the Centre of Being,” a steadily percolating (albeit still soothing) tune that takes elements of new age and ambient and blows them up for the big screen.
An exploration of “the ethereal state between wakefulness and sleep,” hypnagogia is the debut release from UK ambient / experimental artist quiver vex, and it reaches a creative zenith on “pillbox.” Deliberately paced and wonderfully serene, the song feels like a restorative soak in a flotation tank, its pillowy textures consisting of little more than gently swooning strings and a delicate piano melody.
Although Space Ghost hails from Oakland, his silky smooth, boogie-indebted jams are perfect fit for Vancouver (i.e. the same place that birthed laid-back crews like Mood Hut). Pacific Rhythm has long been one of the city’s top labels, and Private Paradise—an album rooted in rejuvenation—hits an obvious high note on the title track, its woozy vibes, soft keys and head-nodding groove beautifully bridging the gap between new age and funk.
That’s all for this edition of First Floor. Thank you so much for reading the newsletter, and as always, I do hope that you enjoyed the tunes. (Don’t forget, you can find them all on this handy Buy Music Club list, and if you like them, please buy them.)
Have a good week,
Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance writer, editor, presenter and project manager. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter, or you can just drop him an email to get in touch about projects, collaborations or potential work opportunities.