First Floor #123 – How the "Underground" Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Banger
a.k.a. Thoughts on the growing prevalence of big-room tunes, plus a round-up of the week's electronic music news and a bunch of new track recommendations.
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BACK TO THE BIG ROOM
Reading DJ Mag’s recent cover story about Overmono, it struck me how of much the article focused on the UK duo’s ascent into live dance music’s upper echelon, specifically noting that while a number of artists who first struck it big in the ’90s (e.g. Chemical Brothers, Orbital, Underworld, Basement Jaxx, etc.) continue to top festival lineups, “few contemporary acts could reasonably be called household names in the same way.”
Although Overmono came up through dance music’s “underground” circuit—and yes, “underground” is an admittedly hard-to-define term that these days often has more to do with perception than reality, hence the scare quotes—there’s also no denying that over time, their tunes have taken on what could be described as a more commercial character. That in and of itself isn’t bad, or even all that unique, but it is indicative of what might be considered a growing trend: “underground” artists making big-room tunes and engaging with big-room spaces / aesthetics.
More established acts (e.g. Four Tet, Bicep) might be the ones most obviously preceding down this path, but even amongst new and up-and-coming artists, there does seem to be an increased willingness to cast off the anti-commercial sentiments (some might say posturing) that often dominated electronic music’s “underground” during prior eras.
What’s motivating this? Is it simply a question of economics (i.e. there’s more money in big rooms), or is what’s happening indicative of shifting values, particularly amongst younger generations of dance music artists and fans? It’s a complicated issue—and there is no shortage of opinions about what’s happening and why—but I sketched out some of my own thoughts earlier this week in an article, which can be 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.
Earlier this month, NYC venue Rash (a relatively new LGBTQ nightspot) was the victim of a terrifying arson attack, in which a man entered the venue, poured gasoline on the floor and set it alight. Although the fire thankfully resulted in only a couple of injuries (none of them grave), the club itself suffered extensive damage and the incident obviously sent a chill through NYC’s queer and nightlife communities. That said, last week a suspect—a 24-year-old man named John Lhota—was arrested and subsequently charged with arson, which will hopefully help to calm people’s nerves.
Is webcore a genre? That’s not really clear, but it is the name of an increasingly popular Spotify playlist, and in the wake of a similiar playlist arguably launching the current hyperpop explosion, Kieran Press-Reynolds has put together an interesting piece for No Bells that looks at how the rise of streaming platforms is affecting audiences’ perceptions and categorizations of music. (h/t to Martyn for sending this my way.)
Geopolitics have long closed Iran and its culture to wide swaths of the Western world, but that doesn’t mean the Iranian people (and the wider Iranian diaspora) aren’t creative beings. In a new article for Bandcamp Daily, Daryl Worthington has assembled a look at what he calls the “Iranian Electronic Underground,” and though it’s not meant to be comprehensive, it should serve as a useful primer to anyone who’s interested in this music but is unsure where to look.
Music writer Isabelia Herrera has done some excellent work during her stint at the New York Times, and last week the paper published her long-form meditation on ambient music, a deeply personal piece that explores the methodology of listening and the role that the genre played when she was dealing with the aftermath of her mother’s stroke.
Axel Boman, whose new LUZ / Quest for fire double LP has to be one of the unlikeliest “Best New Music” honorees in the history of Pitchfork—and I say as both a Boman fan and as someone who’s written for the publication—has broken down the album and its genesis in an interview with Beatportal’s Cameron Holbrook.
The self-titled album from Chimère FM (a.k.a. I:Cube and John Cravache) was featured in the newsletter last week, and now Ransom Note have asked the French duo to write up a track-by-track breakdown of the LP.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases that were announced during the past week.
Two Shell dropped a new single called “[Round]” last week via Bandcamp, and then took it down a few days later once 3000 people had purchased it. (To be clear, the UK duo all along made clear their intention to do just that.) The track, which originally sampled the Sugababes’ “Round Round,” had first surfaced in the group’s mix for the Hessle Audio radio show back in January—a clip of that can be heard here—but the updated (and presumably official) version of the song (which distorts the vocal somewhat, possibly for legal reasons) can for now only be heard on YouTube.
Caterina Barbieri has a new album on the way. Spirit Exit will be the first full-length on the Italian synthesist’s own light-years label, and it’s due to arrive on July 8. In the meantime, she’s shared one of the LP’s tracks, “Broken Melody,” along with the song’s official video.
Parris has finished up a new two-track outing, “South of South West Waves” / “Dreaming of Sunflowers,” which is slated for an April 29 release via the Peach Discs imprint. Ahead of that, both songs can already be heard here, where the label has also posted an accompanying poem from the UK artist.
Fresh off the release of the first album from her Whatever the Weather project, Loraine James is now set to return with a new collaborative EP she created alongside Italian producer (and fellow Londoner) TSVI. Entitled 053, it will be issued by the AD 93 label on May 13, but two tracks from the record have already been made available here.
House legend Kerri Chandler last released an album in 2008, but he’s apparently completed a massive, 24-track full-length called Spaces and Places that he’ll be releasing via his own Kaoz Theory label in October. In the meantime, one song from the LP, “Never Thought [Printworks] (623 Again Vocal),” is already streaming.
Speaking of legends, Orbital have also finished a new album of sorts. 30 Something, which is set for a July 15 release on London Records, finds the English brothers reworking many of their seminal classics (“Satan,” “Chime,” “Belfast,” “The Box,” “Halcyon,” etc.), and also includes remixes of said classics by such artists as Lone, Shanti Celeste, Jon Hopkins, David Holmes, John Tejada, Logic1000 and several others. Also on the tracklist is the album’s first single, “Where Is It Going?,” which features the voice of late physicist Stephen Hawking and was originally written for Orbital’s performance at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics.
tstewart has long been Machinedrum’s outlet for more personal creations, and he’s just returned to the moniker with a new album, Elysian. Inspired by Elysian Park in his adopted home of Los Angeles, the record feels more richly cinematic than past tstewart efforts, and it’s available now through the Mercury KX label. (Although the LP is not on Bandcamp, it is on streaming services, and three gorgeous music videos have been published here.)
Kangding Ray told Resident Advisor that his upcoming ULTRACHROMA full-length is in part an effort to go “beyond techno.” Slated for a June release through his own ara label, the record isn’t yet available for presale, but the Berlin-based French artist has shared a video for LP cut “PERVINCA LUCENTE.”
Top-shelf ambient label Past Inside the Present has assembled a new benefit compilation, Healing Together, to support mental health recovery. All proceeds from the 23-track collection, which includes all-new music from Penelope Trappes, Clarice Jensen, Nailah Hunter, more eaze, Patricia Wolf and many others, will go to a non-profit organization called Sounds of Saving. The compilation will be released in full on May 23, but several of its songs have already been shared here, along with the record’s complete tracklist.
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
In the wake of my article about “underground” artists making big-room tracks, it feels appropriate to start this week’s round-up with a couple of belters from Marlon Hoffstadt. Although the German artist’s excellent 2020 Planet Love LP openly flirted with trance and Eurodance, he took things a step further last year, adopting the Daddy Trance moniker and fully embracing a more full-throttled approach to dance music. That’s not to say that his latest full-length, Moments of Extasy, should be disregarded as a high-calorie celebration of camp and over-the-top theatrics. While standout cuts like “Until Infinity” and “With You By My Side” aren’t exactly modest in scope, they do have depth, occupying a space that’s closer to the melodic, techno-adjacent sounds of ’90s-era Paul van Dyk than the drop-heavy, emotionally manipulative rollercoasters that trance music is often associated with. Listening to them zip along, one is reminded that it’s possible to “go big” without going dumb.
Hailing from Vancouver, PARC fits perfectly into the city’s exceedingly chill reputation. His sophomore album Wave Iridescence is ostensibly an ambient record, but it’s far from sedate, and its creator’s heavy usage of digital synths from the ’80s and ’90s lends the music a glowing warmth that’s both inviting and somewhat alien in nature. The shimmering chimes of “Entropic” recall the work of Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the song’s soft pads and synthesized woodwinds are nicely bolstered by the song’s tumbling—and equally digital—beat. “Break Fade” is another LP highlight, and while its gleaming strings and plush drones hint at Pure Moods-style new age, the song’s lightly shuffling drum pattern sounds more like trip-hop, adding a little bounce to the equation without disrupting the track’s zen-like atmosphere.
Launched in 2020, Simo Cell’s TEMƎT is still a young label, but it’s already establishing itself as an essential outpost for highly creative bass music permutations. French producer Lolito is the latest addition to the roster, and true to TEMƎT’s genre-melding spirit, his Memory File Hosting LP mashes together various sounds and styles, obviously pulling from various points of the hardcore continuum, but also folding in elements of trance, ambient, new age and hip-hop. The influence of the latter looms especially large across the record, as the fantastical “Transparent Things” is literally built atop a trap beat—albeit one tempered by the song’s delicate strings and warbling melodies, which sound like a cross between classic Japanese ambient and cinematic ’80s synth-pop. “Ash Flow” takes a flashier approach, its hard-snapping snares and thick purple bassline laying a solid crunk foundation for the track’s fluttering trance riffs. In less skilled hands, these kinds of hybrid creations could easily go sideways, but Lolito appears to have a firm grip on the wheel, and tracks like these speak volumes about the possibilities of electronic music in a post-genre world.
BEST OF THE REST
In a week dominated by talk of big-room tunes, Krystal Klear’s “Telephone” just might be the biggest new track to hit the market. Taken from the Irish producer’s new Connect EP, it’s quite possibly the most glamorous track he’s ever made, a neon-streaked romp that’s equal parts ’80s Italo and ’90s French touch. Think mirror balls, shiny suits, outrageous sports cars and packed dancefloors at midnight on New Year’s Eve; it’s a lot, and Krystal Klear takes things right up to the edge, but the results are pretty damn glorious. Subtle it is not, but this one was made to bring the house down.
Trance is pretty much all over dance music these days, but despite its popularity, some artists continue to be a bit sheepish about their engagement with the genre. DJ Heartstring, however, appears to have no such hangups, as the Berlin-based producer gleefully dives right into the candy-raver deep end on the new Met Her at Bâreneck EP. Much of the record deals in glittery exuberance—and has a lot of fun doing it—but “The Last Hour” takes a slightly darker path, hewing closer to techno while still indulging in some turbo-charged rave calisthenics.
CFCF’s Memoryland was one of 2021 best electronic full-lengths, and the album’s hazy, Y2K-inspired vision—which the Canadian producer discussed with me in an interview last year—has only grown more potent with time, which makes the new Memoryland Enhanced a wholly welcome arrival. A collection of (mostly) previously unreleased remixes and B-sides, it builds upon the original LP’s retro-futuristic, electronica-flavored universe, and hits a high point on “Codependence,” a slightly hyperactive (albeit still soothing) avant-pop gem that offsets its fervently snapping rhythm with floaty ambience, quirky vocal bits and a warm sense of childlike wonder.
The name Arjun Vagale may not ring familiar to many First Floor readers, but in his native India, he’s one of the country’s leading techno producers. After dropping on album on Jeff Mills’ Axis label last year, he’s now been recruited to join Radio Slave’s extended Rekids family with the new Function 88 EP, and the record very much lives up to the “function” of its title. Squarely aimed at the dancefloor, it’s full of linear, hard-charging techno cuts, and “Cryophytes” might be the best of the bunch, its thrumming kicks underpinning the track’s eerie sci-fi squelch.
Partnering with the Patta clothing brand, Apron Records has enlisted artists like AshTreJinkins, Shy One, System Olympia and Brassfoot to contribute to the new Better Together compilation, which also includes a track from label founder Steven Julien (a.k.a. Funkineven). As such, there’s quality to spare, but J M S Khosah truly stands out with “Lessons,” a woozily galloping house cut with a crooked little bassline and a host of disembodied (but still smooth) R&B vocals.
With tracks from Bambounou, Al Wootton, Nicola Cruz and a bunch of other noteworthy acts (mostly from the bass music realm), the new charity compilation HeForShe x femme culture Vol. 4 isn’t hurting for talent, but UK duo Wayward manage to shine through by delivering what’s perhaps the collection’s hardest-slapping tune. “Say1thing” opens with bright melodies and a bit of rave nostalgia, but it’s built around an eye-opening procession of machine-gun snares, their percussive might fortified by a heavy helping of industrial-strength (and slightly wobbly) bass.
Though the other two tracks on Chance Is Our Greatest Ally—the inaugural release from Kassian’s new Faux Poly imprint—offer a bit more in terms of straightforward DJ functionality, the skippy, garage-influenced “Akkala Falls” is the EP’s obvious highlight. Opening with little more than some soft pads and a quiet rumble, the song slowly builds to a boil, its shuffling rhythm and boldly darting synths conjuring images of feverishly dancing beneath the hypnotic flash of a strobe light.
Kicking off the SPE:C label’s new dub series, “Framing Void” is stealthy bit of bass-heavy techno from Berlin-based artist Esposito. Dark and deeply paranoid, the track impressively manages to both ooze and rumble simultaneously, its pounding percussion underpinning the song’s sludgy low-end gurgles.
Earlier this week, I spotted a tweet that said, “Dopplereffekt: often copied, never equaled,” and thought to myself, “I can find no fault in that assertion.” Although the duo’s ties to Drexciya will forever color how their music is perceived, the Dopplereffekt catalog—which dates back to the mid ’90s—can certainly stand on its own merits, and the group’s latest LP, Neurotelepathy, will do nothing to tarnish their sparkling reputation. Moving through electro, techno and various strains of synthesis, the album largely sticks to the established Dopplereffekt formula, but that doesn’t take any of the shine off tracks like “Neuroplasticity,” a subtly whimsical tune that sounds a bit like Kraftwerk soundtracking a submarine adventure.
Arriving a full decade after his debut album, Axel Boman’s new LUZ / Quest for fire double LP lightheartedly tours through a variety of sounds and styles—many of them on the more subdued end of the spectrum—but LUZ’s “Edgeware Rd” has some real pep in its step, piloting a pinpoint techno kick through a sparkling (and somewhat psychedelic) melodic fog.
A beatless instrumental that barely cracks the two-minute mark, “don’t call” is something of an outlier on Sossegado, the debut album from London-based Portuguese producer Silvestre. Sitting somewhere between ambient music and cloud rap, the track consists of little more than some delicate keys, a looped vocal murmuration and a little bit of reverb, yet it blissfully conveys feelings of warmth, intimacy and endless possibility.
The music of Earthen Sea has long been both minimal and melancholy, but on the New York ambient / experimental artist’s new Ghost Poems LP, those qualities are heightened like never before. Album highlight “Fossil Painting” doesn’t do much, softly clicking and clacking as its languid melodies slowly stretch across the horizon, but the track carries an obvious emotional depth, its willingness to calmly sit back and drift with the current seemingly perfect for contemplating life’s big questions.
A new release from Romance would have been exciting enough on its owna, but the prospect of the anonymous producer teaming up with Dean Hurley—a frequent David Lynch collaborator who served as a sound designer on the 2017 reboot of Twin Peaks—seems to good to be true. Together, the two have cooked up In Every Dream Home a Heartache, a spellbinding ambient release that uses daytime soap operas as its primary source material. The inherent melodrama of that particular television genre is certainly baked into “White Lace & Promises,” an unnerving (yet also kind of beautiful) number that hauntingly repeats the words “I promise” over and over.
That’s it for this edition of the newsletter. Thank you so much for reading First Floor, 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.)
Until next time,
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.