First Floor #125 – Appearances Can Be Deceiving
a.k.a. Uncomfortable truths about the post-COVID dance music industry, plus a round-up of the week's electronic music news and a big batch of new track recommendations.
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FAKE IT UNTIL... ACTUALLY, JUST KEEP FAKING IT
Clubs are back! Festivals are back! Everything in dance music is going great!
This has been the dominant narrative in dance music during the past few months, and while it’s true that some events are going like gangbusters, in many places things aren’t going quite so smoothly. Although artists, promoters and venues are reluctant to talk about it, many have already noticed that ticket sales and attendance figures—especially at clubs—have been erratic, and lots of events simply aren’t doing that well, regardless of who’s on the bill. Maybe the industry is simply weathering a temporary post-COVID hangover, or maybe some systemic, more permanent shifts are taking place, but it’s hard to know for sure, especially when there’s so little public conversation about it.
Why aren’t more folks talking about this? Probably because even admitting that there might be a problem is anathema to a much stronger cultural force: the pressure to project success at all times. This isn’t unique to dance music of course, but it has increasingly transformed artists into little content creators, constantly posting on social media and presenting a manicured, envy-inducing version of themselves to the world. After two years of COVID, it’s arguably worse than ever before, as people across the industry are scrambling to get back on track (and yes, make some money), and promoting themselves in this way likely seems like the best way to accomplish that. In the meantime, however, trouble is brewing.
It’s a thorny issue, and earlier this week I put together some of my thoughts on the matter in an article, which is 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.
A couple of months have passed since Bandcamp was acquired by Epic Games, and last week the latter filed a motion to stop Google from removing Bandcamp from its Android app store. The conflict stems from Google’s newly implemented rule stating that as of June 1, Bandcamp (and other similar apps) must exclusively use Google Pay Billing for payments. According to a post by Bandcamp CEO Ethan Diamond, such a move would essentially make the company’s continued existence on Android both financially and operationally infeasible. Given that Epic Games has previously taken stands against the hegemony of online app stores, their decision to take this matter to court isn’t entirely surprising, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the months ahead.
Spotify’s stock price dipped below $100/share last week, and while it’s since recovered somewhat, it remains below the company’s initial IPO price from four years ago. I’m no investment guru, but that seems… not good, and it prompted Ted Gioia to author a piece for his Honest Broker newsletter laying out why he thinks Spotify’s long-term financial outlook doesn’t seem particularly healthy. In his always well-researched Penny Fractions newsletter, David Turner dug even deeper into the topic, hammering home how many of the company’s (extremely expensive) efforts to expand into podcasts and other forms of audio content haven’t produced the returns its leaders were surely hoping for.
Any electronic music fan who’s been on social media during the past few years has likely noticed the rise of memes within the culture, and Resident Advisor enlisted writer Gunseli Yalcinkaya to examine the phenomenon. I’m not sure I buy into the article’s assertion that memes are “reflecting the absurdity of contemporary culture back on itself,” and following its publication, most of the online chatter about the piece has predictably focused on which meme-makers it didn’t include, but it’s nonetheless an interesting peek at what the proverbial “kids” are up to these days. (It’s also one of those articles that’s pretty much guaranteed to make anyone over the age of 30 gnash their teeth and feel like they’re approximately one million years old.)
Kenyan ambient artist KMRU—who will make another appearance later in the newsletter—put together the latest installment of the Black Artist Database (B.A.D.) mix series, and also took the time to answer a few interview questions.
Earlier this year, First Floor interviewed Brooklyn native P. Leone about his pandemic-induced transition from dance music to pizza making, and now his newly opened restaurant, Lucia Pizza, has been given a glowing review by Pete Wells in the New York Times.
Speaking of the NY Times, the paper last week published a beautiful piece about Fire Island and the music that soundtracked its gay nightlife during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. A moving tale that reflects back on the AIDS crisis, the article was actually inspired by a modern-day couple who found a trove of old cassette tapes in their newly purchased beach house, and crucially includes digitized clips of the DJ mixes they contained, providing a fascinating window into an important (and often untold) chapter of dance music history.
The International Music Summit has published the 2022 edition of its annual Business Report, which takes a detailed look at the overall state of affairs across the electronic music industry. The full document can be obtained here, but the headline takeaway is that the industry’s overall value grew by 71% last year (after the pandemic caused a 54% decline in 2020), and currently sits at $6 billion.
Beatportal, working in tandem with Black Artist Database, enlisted South African writer Madzadza Miya to outline the history of amapiano. Tracing the genre back to its humble township origins, the article tracks its explosive growth during the past decade (and the past few years in particular), laying out how even the major labels have now come calling.
Few people would include Amiga computers in the halls of vaunted vintage gear, but in a new feature that Tamlin Magee penned for The Guardian, artists such as Legowelt, Aphrodite and Equinox reflect back on how the machines helped shape the sound of ’90s dance music.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases that were announced during the past week.
Jamal Moss (a.k.a. Hieroglyphic Being) is someone who releases a lot of music, but the Chicago veteran’s new Thanks for the Tracks U Lost LP, which dropped last week via Modern Love, is one of the strongest collections of new tunes that he’s offered up in quite some time.
Patrick Holland (formerly known as Project Pablo) has a new album on the way, and it’s being billed as the Canadian artist’s “first foray into guitar-driven indie pop.” The LP is called You’re the Boss, and before it surfaces on July 29 via the Sinderlyn label, Holland has shared the record’s breezy, ghost-themed first single, “Sinister Bell,” along with the song’s official video.
Head High (a.k.a. Shed and about a dozen other monikers) has assembled a new mix, HOME.HOUSE.HARDCORE.2, that will be released both digitally and on CD through his own Power House label on May 27. Consisting entirely of his own productions, it includes several previously unreleased tunes, plus collaborations with Cassy and Virginia. The latter of those, a track called “Blind,” has already been shared.
Versatile label founder Gilb’R has launched a new project called J'ai rêvé..., a collection of tunes inspired by his dreams (which he began actively documenting last year). The audio pieces, which the veteran French producer describes as “little stories that occur in my head when I sleep, without any control,” are available as name-you-price downloads on Bandcamp, and though only three have been published so far, he’s promised to update the list every week.
Nik Colk Void is best known for her collaborations—though her recently released debut solo album Bucked Up Space is quite excellent—and now she’s joined forces with Alexander Tucker in a new project called Brood X Cycles. The pair’s debut album, Sleep Nameless Fear, will be issued on June 21 by The state51 Conspiracy label, and ahead of that they’ve already shared a track from the LP, “No Rival.”
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
For all the jungle and hardcore throwbacks that have been made in recent years, it’s striking how many of them are missing one key ingredient: fun. Thankfully the same can’t be said about On the Dial, the latest EP from UK producer Chimpo. The Manchester mainstay is old enough to remember when these genres were blasting out of local pirate radio stations back in the ’90s, and opening cut “Rig Doctor” perfectly captures that era’s raw, unpolished energy with its hyperactive breakbeats, squirrely synths and cheeky samples—including the song’s comically pitch-shifted, chipmunk-style rap refrain. Less ravey is “Buzz Army,” which dials up the bass and (tastefully) dips into jungle’s ragga roots. Here Chimpo keeps things relatively cool, but the track’s steel-plated bassweight can still do some serious damage.
LP.8—an album from an imagined future that Kelly Lee Owens created while stuck in Oslo during the first pandemic lockdown—is easily the Welsh artist’s darkest, weirdest full-length, but it might also be her most interesting. Equally inspired by Throbbing Gristle and Enya, it revels in crackling static, billowing drone and hypnotic vocal mantras, largely ignoring the dancefloor and only occasionally tipping into the more pop-tinged territory that Owens is best known for. “One” is actually the closest the LP gets to a big pop moment, and though it maintains the album’s moody, meditative vibe, its lovelorn vocal soulfully hints at R&B, with Owens repeatedly cooing “you are the one” atop the song’s warbling expanse and ASMR whispers. If Tinashe got Andy Stott to produce her next single, it might sound something like this.
Lithuanian sound artist Gintas K is one of those musicians whose discography contains literally dozens of albums, and on his new Lėti LP, he’s seemingly mastered the art of symphonic glitch. Emotionally stirring and distinctly inorganic, the album at times recalls the work of artists like Oval, although the shimmering waves of “Various” are strikingly beautiful in their own right. They actually sound like the work of a simulated orchestra, but as they’re joined by the song’s chittering array of clicks, blips and other digital imperfections, the music becomes truly intriguing. “Bonus Sound,” another standout cut, follows a similar path, even as its melodies sound more like a virtual chorus of Mediterranean lutes, sparking visions of seaside cliffs and vast olive groves.
BEST OF THE REST
Taken from his new Good Music Mixtape Vol. 2, “home screen” is a semi-ambient gem from NYC producer J. Albert. With its scuttling rhythms and bloopy underwater melodies, the song has a definite late-night vibe, its warm, lo-fi glow conjuring images of a kid quietly (but fervently) playing video games in a dark bedroom while everyone else in the house is fast asleep.
Originally recorded in 1975, but now being released for the first time as part of the new Pulse Music reissue, “108 Pulses” is true to its title, offering what the label describes as “a single, repeating loop in a 20-minute tableau.” At first glance, that may not seem terribly enticing, but unlike many of his minimalist contemporaries, American composer John McGuire steered clear of stodgy and overly academic sounds. Full of bright colors and sparkling melodies, “108 Pulses” is positively kaleidoscopic, making its endless loop feel not just hypnotic, but narcotic.
The words “ethereal” and “harmonica” rarely go together, but Australian artist Lydian Dunbar takes the instrument to surprisingly celestial new heights on Blue Sleep, an album inspired by a particularly memorable day he spent surfing and relaxing on the beach with a friend. The cloud-like “Beach Shelter” largely consists of spindly (albeit graceful) melodies, his harmonica transformed into pillow-soft textures that gracefully glide alongside pitch-shifted snippets of his own voice.
It’s fair to say that something of an IDM revival has been taking place during the past few years, but no one can accuse D’Arcangelo of trend hopping. The Italian duo have been crafting leftfield and experimental sounds since the mid ’90s, and “Godsonix” opens their new Arium EP on an introspective (but not sedate) note, layering moody textures and bright, darting synths atop the song’s cooly percolating rhythms.
Back in 1991, the Psychotronic EP was the first official release on the legendary Moving Shadow label, and now that it’s been reissued, tracks like “No Idea” offer a welcome reminder of just how deliciously weird early rave tunes could be. (For more details about the record’s genesis, check out this recent Test Pressing interview with Earth Leakage Trip’s Neil Sanford.) The song is largely powered by thick, loping basslines and blippy synths, but it’s the crazed vocal elements—which include ominous, time-stretched drones, a young girl calling out to her mommy and some loon saying, “the doors are where the windows should be, and the windows are where the doors should be”—that truly give “No Idea” its memorably bizarre charm.
House music loves to recycle, and though that unfortunately leaves many retro-flavored tunes sounding like limp retreads, contemporary producers do occasionally strike gold while slamming the nostalgia button. “Vader,” a standout from Ejeca’s new Keep Climbing EP, is a joyous, piano-powered big-room romp, and Vitess’ bouncy “Popeye”—taken from the Parisian artist’s appropriately titled Retroactive EP—has enough classic Korg M1 organ sounds to make MK blush. Neither tune is wildly innovative, but they both offer a shot of feelgood energy, and are sure to put a big smile on the average club kid’s face.
Although Brooklyn native P. Leone has spent much of the past two years making pizza, he hasn’t forgotten about his E-Missions label, which just released the Hardcore Seoul EP from Lawrence Lee. The record’s title track is a sturdy techno stomper, but in the hands of Australian producer Tred, the song rockets into the rave zone, its insistent throb and repeated calls to “drop the bass” barely keeping up with the thundering kick drum.
If an old Hessle Audio record chugged a pallet of energy drinks, it might wind up sounding like “Plata,” a bonkers highlight from An Avrin’s new Parisian Pitstop EP. Between the dizzying, stop-and-start percussion, the borderline cartoonish synths (which sound like something from a campy vintage horror film) and the assortment of quirky vocal clips, there’s a lot to take in, but the song just plain slaps, its booming kicks and bruising bassline hitting with the force of a heavyweight boxer.
The history of rave-rock hybrids is full of laughable misfires, but Bristol outfit SCALPING have struck a satisfying balance on their debut full-length Void. The echo of groups like Trans Am can be heard across the record, but songs like hard-charging album standout “Cloak & Dagger” also make clear that SCALPING brings more power to the equation. With its angular guitars and big rock drums, the track sounds like something a ’90s post-hardcore band might have cooked up, but its neon synths and brawny, dubstep-style bass undulations also make clear that these boys have spent plenty of time getting their guts scrambled on the dancefloor.
Descriptions of KMRU’s music usually involve words like “delicate” and “meditative,” but the Kenyan sound artist has embraced raw power on Limen, his new collaborative release with French producer Aho Ssan. “Resurgence” combines digital squall with apocalyptic black-metal theatrics, its punishing bassweight marching across the horizon and casually obliterating everything in its path. Clocking in at just under 12 minutes, the track is a true face melter, and yet it makes destruction sound—and feel—utterly glorious.
Although the ongoing trance revival (understandably) tends to elicit a lot of eye rolls, only an absolute grump could turn up their nose at Young Marco’s Planet Love compilations, which thoughtfully survey the much-maligned genre’s early years (i.e. 1990-95) and largely avoid its stereotypical hands-in-the-air theatrics. Vol. 2 dropped last week, and highlights like Sven Väth’s “L’Esperanza” sound more like a woozy Balearic chillout than a campy rave-up. The Obsession Project’s “Untitled Part 3” is another standout, and though it leans closer to techno, the song’s relaxed psychedelia and cosmic melodies would be perfect for a moonlit nature rave.
During the opening moments of “Slowly Breaking Away”—a track from the new More Good Than Bad EP—London producer Kincaid trawls through a gloopy haze, the song’s murkily bubbling textures seemingly drifting towards nowhere in particular. After a few minutes, however, those grey skies begin to part, and a swirly sort of ambient prog tune emerges, its glittering melodies brimming with warm, regenerative energy.
Of all the longtime Ostgut Ton affiliates, Answer Code Request is perhaps the one whose productions most comfortably intermingle with the various strains of UK bass music, and that same duality colors his new Shattering EP—the German producer’s first effort for the Delsin label. Constructed atop a broken techno rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place on a Livity Sound record, the EP’s title track has an impressive sense of swing, but it’s the wobbly, distorted bassline that steals the show, adding a hint of menace to what’s otherwise a rather reflective tune.
Bass music has always been a nebulous term, and thanks to the efforts of Batu and his Timedance label over the past decade, the genre has only become weirder, more complex and almost impossible to succinctly describe. Opal, the Bristol producer’s long-awaited debut album, won’t make things any easier, as Batu has purposely pushed beyond established ideas of the dancefloor, tossing aside concerns about “functionality” and embracing the outer limits of sound design instead. “Atavism” was the LP’s first single, and though its pert drums are still capable of rattling a bassbin or two, it’s the song’s ventures into oddity that prove most thrilling; is that alien vocal riff some sort of pitched-down sample, or a digital recreation of a Tuvan throat singer? It’s unclear, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it sounds incredible.
That’s all I’ve got for today’s 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.)
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.