First Floor #139 – The Diminishing Utility of Critics' Opinions
a.k.a. Examining the role of the modern music journalist, plus a round-up of electronic music news and a big batch of new track recommendations.
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THIS MIGHT NOT BE YOUR THING, BUT…
In 2022, what exactly is the job of a music journalist?
Many people assume that music writers largely just opine for a living, making elitist judgements about artists’ work and getting paid for sharing those judgements with the masses.
In reality though, music journalists’ opinions are arguably less valuable than ever. Reviews are in decline—both in number and cultural relevance—and most outlets don’t have the resources to commit to real, in-depth reporting, which means much of the day-to-day craft of journalism now has a lot more to do with filtering through press releases and deciding which ones are worthy of a news story. (And yes, the question of “will this generate clicks?” plays a role in that calculation.)
Within music circles, journalists are often treated like an extension of the industry’s PR and marketing apparatus, and over time, many readers have come around to that perspective as well, often under the guise of toppling “gatekeepers.”
What happens when music journalists are reduced to being mere conduits of industry information and messaging? And what’s been driving these changes over the past decade or so? I put together some thoughts on the matter in an essay earlier this week, and that piece is now available (temporarily) for everyone to read in full here.
A round-up of the last two weeks’ most interesting electronic music news, plus links to interviews, mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
In an interview with Lauren Martin for the Guardian, Chicago house legends Larry Heard and Robert Owens revealed that they had successfully settled their legal battle against Trax Records, and as a result had taken back ownership of some of the most seminal songs in their respective catalogs.
Anyone hungry for a thoughtful conversation about the music industry, streaming, Web3 and cultural nostalgia should check out the latest episode of Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst’s Interdependence podcast, which finds the latter talking to David Turner, author of the essential Penny Fractions newsletter.
A new investigative report by Craig Silverman and Bianca Fortis for ProPublica details a depressing / infuriating multimillion-dollar scheme in which hundreds of people faked music careers—in some cases masquerading as DJs—in order to get a blue-check verification on Instagram.
Many listeners were likely surprised by the indie / pop direction of You’re the Boss, the recent new LP from Patrick Holland (formerly known as Project Pablo), but in a new essay for Talkhouse, the Canadian artist (rather thoughtfully) explains how he’d “fallen out of love” with DJing and decided to follow a new direction.
Vice published a lengthy report by Annabel Ross in which former Beatport employees allege that the online music seller had a “toxic workplace” where “bullying, sexism, and casual racism was pervasive.” In response, Beatport CEO Robb McDaniels published a statement which “disagree[s] with the overall portrayal of the company,” but also “sincerely regret[s] any unjust and unfair treatment of any employee during [the] company’s history.”
On the heels of his recent “Deep Inside” remix, Todd Edwards granted an interview to 5Mag’s Terry Matthew, detailing his long relationship with the Strictly Rhythm label and what it was like to rework a classic.
Equiknoxx founder Gavsborg is the latest DJ to be featured by Mixtape Club—a free mixtape series from Finn and Local Action in which the participating artists gets paid—and his Untitled mix, which he says is “mainly made up of recent edits to songs [he] enjoyed in [his] childhood,” is available now.
Before his debut album drops next week on AD 93, UK artist Coby Sey talked about his musical past, present and future in an interview with Ian Opolot for The Quietus.
Kuedo is an artist who usually lets his music do the talking, but the Berlin-based producer spoke to George Bass for a new DJ Mag feature, discussing his recent Infinite Window LP for Brainfeeder and how his music has been shaped by UK bass and Vangelis alike.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases announced during the past two weeks.
Björk has a new album on the way, and according to this interview with Chal Ravens for The Guardian, gabber was a big influence on the record. The LP is called Fossora, and will be released on September 30 through the One Little Independent label. No music from the record has been shared yet, but the Icelandic artist has announced that she’ll be diving into her back catalog with a new podcast series, Björk: Sonic Symbolism, whose first three episodes are available today.
In an unusual scheduling quirk, two different singles featuring Julianna Barwick debuted on the same day last week. The first, “Four Horses,” is the surprising first taste of A Nurse to My Patience, the forthcoming LP from FaltyDL. Due to arrive on November 11 via the NYC producer’s own Blueberry label, the album—which also includes guest spots from Mykki Blanco, Joe Goddard and Interpol’s Paul Banks—is billed as FaltyDL’s “biggest departure yet,” and a whimsical video for “Four Horses” has already been shared. The second Barwick-featuring track was “Blue Hour,” a collaboration with Nosaj Thing that will appear on the LA artist’s upcoming Continua LP for LuckyMe. Details about the album are still under wraps, but “Blue Hour” is available now.
The White Material crew celebrated their 10-year anniversary with a party in Brooklyn last weekend, and further marked the occasion by releasing a new compilation EP called Into Tha Shadow, which includes new tracks from Galcher Lustwerk, DJ Richard, Alvin Aronson, Morgan Louis and Young Male.
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of their Honest Labour LP, Space Afrika dropped a new version of album cut “Meet Me at Sachas” that features vocals from Florence Sinclair. The song is available now through the Dais label, and the group also shared an official video for the track.
more eaze—who many know from her frequent collaborations with fellow Texas resident claire rousay, but also has a number of excellent solo releases—has linked up with Leaving Records for a new album, Strawberry Season, that’s slated to arrive on November 9. Ahead of that, LP cut “Cold” is already available.
Christina Vantzou has announced a new album, No. 5, which the Brussels-based composer will be releasing via Kranky on November 11. The LP’s closing track, “Surreal Presence (for SH and FM),” has already been shared, along with a visual trailer for the album.
Joining a long lineage of Detroit artists who’ve collaborated with Tresor over the years, Waajeed will be releasing his next album, Memoirs of Hi-Tech Jazz, through the vaunted Berlin imprint on November 25. Ahead of that, he’s dropped the first single, “Motor City Madness,” which comes backed with a remix by Underground Resistance and also has an official video that’s full of images from Detroit.
Six years have passed since Junior Boys last released an album, but the Canadian duo has a new full-length, Waiting Game, that the City Slang label will be issuing on October 28. One track from the LP, “Night Walk,” is available now.
Kornél Kovács has announced a new LP called Hotel Koko, and it will be arriving on October 14 via the Studio Barnhus label the Swedish producer co-founded and runs alongside Axel Boman and Petter Nordkvist. The garage-flavored first single, “Follow You,” which features the vocals of Aluna, has already been shared.
In recent months, I. Jordan has taken to dropping new music without advance warning, and last week the UK producer released another surprise two-tracker, Hey Baby / I Had The Best of Times, on Ninja Tune.
Following last year’s Concealer LP for Planet Mu, NYC techno artist Relaxer has decided to restart his own Lovers Rock Recordings label, and will kick things off with a new EP, Licking, that’s set to drop later today. The record’s title track is available now.
Fever AM co-founder Rhyw has linked up with Blawan and Pariah’s Voam label for his latest EP. Entitled Honey Badger, it’s slated to drop on September 23, though its relatively bonkers title track has already been shared.
Inaugurating the new Candy Mountain label she’s set up alongside Virginia, techno / electro specialist Steffi has announced a new LP called The Red Hunter. It won’t arrive until October 24, but one album track, “North Facing Shade,” can be heard now.
NEW THIS WEEK
The following is a selection of my favorite tunes from releases that came out during the past two weeks 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
There are a lot of layers to “Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This (Dark Room Mix)”—regular First Floor readers may remember that Drew Daniel laid many of them out in an interview with me several weeks ago—and while the double entendre and clever nods to gay sex clubs are enough to make anyone smile (or maybe raise an eyebrow), the song, at its core, is a sumptuous deep house cut.
Coming from a project that has spent much of the last 20 years cultivating a kind of pranksterish energy, the tune is something of a surprise—although 2020’s ambient-leaning Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? LP had already signaled a pivot toward more earnest territory—but it’s also clearly the most straightforward dancefloor track in the The Soft Pink Truth catalog. Openly referencing a queer club culture that was ravaged by AIDS during the ’80s and ’90s, the song—which leads off the new Was It Ever Real? EP—is tinged with melancholy, but there’s also resilience in its soulful strut, which calmly sashays along for nearly eight minutes, its plush grooves and aching vocals subtly demanding that everyone embrace the vibe and take things up a notch.
Bias alert! Given that Dania—yes, the same Dania who previously helmed the “My Wife Has Better Taste Than I Do” section of this very newsletter—and I are married, it’s clear that any opinions I offer about her music aren’t exactly objective. That being said, her debut release as a solo artist—which follows many years of her heading up the Paralaxe Editions label—still feels like something special. Entitled Voz (Spanish for “voice”), the tape is often built around manipulations of her own vocals, a process complicated emotionally by the fact that Dania—an Iraq-born, Australia-raised and Barcelona-based artist—grew up in a household where singing was strongly discouraged (and as such, mostly took place in secret).
Dania sounds particularly radiant on opening number “I Lied,” an immersive song that consists entirely of her own vocals. (Other tracks on Voz fold in field recordings, meditative atmospheres, and assorted bits of orchestral instrumentation.) Listening to its soft textures and dreamy undulations, the work of acts like Julianna Barwick and Felicia Atkinson comes to mind, but “I Lied”—and Voz on the whole—ultimately carves out its own sector of the ambient / avant-pop continuum.
More than two years have passed since Cong Burn last dropped a new release, but the Manchester label—which had previously established itself as one of the most reliable outposts for left-of-center, bass-centric sounds—has now returned in glorious fashion with an EP from UK producer Tonto. Cong Burn 07 pulls heavily from dub, but also strips the genre down to the bare essentials, leaving little more than skeletal drum patterns, punchy subs and a whole lot of reverb. On paper, that may sound like nothing much is happening, but the excess of open space is very much the point; all that extra room allows each individual element to resonate and shine. In truth, the whole EP is worth checking, but “Igloo”—which also features a playful array of sci-fi sound effects—has a particularly potent, late-night groove, its moody murk conjuring images of smoke-filled afterparties and zonked-out ravers.
BEST OF THE REST
Although Alphane Moods—the debut album from Australian ambient artist Mark Gomes—appears to be primarily concerned with outer space and exploring the cosmos, LP closer “Solar Breeze” sounds a lot more like Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic Twin Peaks theme, the song’s lush tones and idyllic vibe offset by a subtly creepy underbelly.
Inspired by the death of her grandmother during the pandemic, Dienne has filled her debut release Addio with feelings of loss and mourning. It’s a stirring tribute, and while the music is marked by ever-present feelings of sadness, it’s often quite beautiful, particularly on album closer “Ti Saluto Parte 1,” a stripped-down vocal choir piece in which the Belgian composer’s soaring melodies exude both tenderness and an almost devotional grandeur.
Ambient techno rarely gets much attention within the context of the ongoing ambient boom, and that’s unfortunate, especially when albums like A New Landscape—the latest full-length from Sweden’s Lav—offer such a mesmerizing take on the sound. “Art of Noticing” is laid back, yes, but it’s also bright and bucolic, its gleaming melodies—not to mention its array of birdsong and other nature sounds—evoking images of strolling through a verdant field on a sunny spring morning.
DJs will undoubtedly reach for the high-octane reworks that populate much of Courtesy’s new Night Journeys Remixes EP. Those unconcerned with revving up the dancefloor, however, can luxuriate in KMRU’s spacious take on “Night Journeys III,” in which the Kenyan ambient specialist stretches the song’s reverberant guitar tones across a moonlit night sky, ultimately sounding something like a ’90s slowcore band playing on the surface of the moon.
If Neu! had held together just a few years longer—the group first disbanded in 1975—and intermingled with the nascent new age crowd, they might have come up with something like “Ideus.” A highlight of Terra Preta, the third album from Bay Area duo Skyminds, the hazily drifting song is full of warbling synth melodies and warm, ashram-ready drones, and impressively manages to reference krautrock without employing the genre’s signature motorik pulse.
Anyone who’s heard Julianna Barwick already knows that she has an incredible voice, but it’s quite possibly never sounded as sultry as it does on “Blue Hour,” the first taste of LA producer Nosaj Thing’s forthcoming Continua album. Heavily mining ’90s trip-hop—perhaps more in terms of vibe than its actual sound palette—the smoky number intriguingly dials back Barwick’s usual power, eschewing cathedral-ready sonics for something closer to an intimate late-night lullaby.
After stripping her music down to the studs on last year’s brilliant fragments—which was essentially a collection of guitar-centric sketches—Rachika Nayar has taken a turn toward the cinematic on new LP Heaven Come Crashing. The expansive “Gayatri” is one of the album’s clear bright spots, its gentle (albeit steadily swelling and heavily reverbed) guitars bringing to mind the heart-stirring work of post-rock giants like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky.
Working under his own name for the first time, drone and noise veteran Steve Fors digs deep on the new it’s nothing, but still LP, which he describes as both “a study in melancholy and transience” and a concept album focused on breath. Produced by Siavash Amini and populated with dense field recordings, the record charts a notably epic path, beginning with the towering cellos and grand vistas of opening track “good enough (for now).”
Both Viul and Benoît Pioulard are ostensibly ambient artists, but the lushly wavering “Catalune”—a standout from their new collaborative Konec LP—almost sounds like a pitched-down take on shoegaze, its sheets of distortion slowed to a crawl as the song’s primarily melody hypnotically trudges along, radiating both confidence and melancholy in equal measure.
UK artist patten always has his hands in many different projects, but when it comes to music, he’s probably best known for his club-referencing experiments on the fringe of the dancefloor. “Kiss U”—the lead cut on his new Desire Path EP—doesn’t necessarily break that mold, but it does creep a few steps closer to banger territory, pairing jittery hi-hats and brawny basslines with a myriad of chopped-up R&B vocals, resulting in something that feels like a thrilling throwback to the early days of Night Slugs.
In need of a good throttling? Look no further than “Elemental,” the title track of Roho’s latest EP. A punishing drum & bass tune that makes even the gnarliest tech-step look timid in comparison, its feverishly whirling drums act as a kind of percussive centrifuge, tossing dancers to and fro as the song’s meaty bassline—which might be better described as a thick, low-end-heavy ooze—softens up their innards.
Artists often aren’t great at talking about their music, but when Pessimist described his new Blue 09 EP as “hardcore / jungle techno done my way” and “two tunes for the dancefloor, no messing around, straight to the point,” he pretty much nailed it. Lean and mean, “MDZhB” kicks off the record with a flurry of breakbeats, and while there’s no shortage of gut-rumbling low-end in the mix, the Bristol producer takes a more workmanlike approach, smartly avoiding face-melting theatrics and opting instead for a more linear—but no less potent—arc.
What happens if you combine tech-step sonics with jump-up energy? Most of the time, that kind of question would only serve as a drum & bass thought experiment, but “Only,” the lead track on T>I & Trex’s new EP, offers a more concrete answer, combining jagged bass blasts, irrepressibly lively breakbeats, diva vocal fragments and a dusting of twinkling piano into something that’s both menacing and fun.
Taken from the new Knock Motion EP, the dark and driving “Don’t Care” is a quality piece of no-frills, drum-heavy techno that largely keeps its head down, but also tweaks the standard four-on-the-floor formula just enough to keep things interesting. Rene Wise doesn’t really fall into the same bass-techno axis as his UK brethren at labels like Livity Sound and Timedance, but the slight shuffle in this tune’s galloping drum pattern is a clear sign that his listening habits go beyond the Jeff Mills catalog.
That’s all for today’s 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.