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First Floor #145 – When Tradition Trumps Innovation
a.k.a. Exploring the idea of dance music as folk art, plus a round-up of the week's electronic music news and a fresh batch of new track recommendations.
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RAVING AS FOLK ART
Dance music is often touted as a bastion of futurism, a forward-thinking, boundary-pushing music and culture that actively subverts the mainstream. And for a long time, there was a lot of truth to that notion. Unfolding largely outside of the spotlight, the genre spent decades establishing its own “rules” and norms, frequently following a DIY ethos that encouraged—and often rewarded—innovation and experimentation.
These days, however, dance music’s “underground” bona fides have notably withered. The genre is now at the core of a global, multibillion-dollar industry, and as a byproduct of that growth, its music, culture and even its vocabulary (e.g. words like “DJ” and “rave”) have all been more or less subsumed into the wider pop culture. Although dance music is far from static, the general parameters of what it is—and what it could be—have essentially been set, giving rise to what feels like an increasingly fixed set of expectations and a stronger adherence to operational orthodoxy.
In short, this is not an environment in which innovation thrives, and despite dance music’s (at times revolutionary) foundational rhetoric, the genre no longer seems likely to usher in bold new social paradigms. Given that, perhaps dance music ought to be placed in a new cultural framework, one that better reflects its present-day reality. Although it sounds strange, the genre has in many ways become a kind of folk art, a shared set of practices and traditions that gets passed down from one generation to the next.
But does that classification really fit? And if dance music really is folk art, what does that mean for the genre and its future? I put together some thoughts on the matter in an essay published earlier this week, and it’s now available (temporarily) for everyone to read in full here.
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A round-up of the last week’s most interesting electronic music news, plus links to interviews, mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
After years of heavy touring with her solo live show, Marie Davidson publicly departed from the club scene back in 2019. However, the Montreal artist has found her way back recently, this time as a DJ. Perhaps that’s why she decided to record what she describes as her “first DJ mix,” a nearly 80-minute session for the Crack Mix series.
As reported by Michaelangelo Matos for Rolling Stone, legendary (some might say infamous) Chicago house label Trax Records, fresh off its recent legal entanglement with Larry Heard and Robert Owens, is now the subject of a new lawsuit. Filed by nearly two dozen more of its former artists (including Marshall Jefferson, Adonis, and Maurice Joshua), the suits claims that the iconic imprint “didn’t make royalty payments, and in a number of cases released their music without paying them anything at all.”
It’s not often that I’ll specifically highlight a new music video, but yesterday The Soft Pink Truth—who was interviewed here in the newsletter a couple of months ago—released a fun (and joyously queer) new clip for “La Joie Devant La Mort,” a track from his forthcoming Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This? LP. As an added bonus, the song is voiced by Jamie Stewart (a.k.a. Xiu Xiu), who also appears in the video.
Few labels appear in First Floor more often than AD 93, but writer Louis Pattinson has taken a more detailed look at the the London outpost, speaking to founder Nic Tasker about the imprint’s history and current output in a new feature for Bandcamp Daily.
Anyone who’s ever wanted to have Ableton in their pocket will be delighted by this week’s release of Note, which the company describes as “a playable iOS app for forming musical ideas.”
Now that Isabelia Herrera is back on staff at Pitchfork, she’s restarted her column looking at “the most captivating songs, trends, and scenes coming out of Latin America and its diaspora,” and kicked off this current run with a new round-up of 10 (largely under-the-radar) ambient artists from across Latin America.
The history of UK soundsystem culture is a long and complex tale, but Ria Hylton has skillfully managed to summarize many of its key points—and touch on where soundsystem culture is at today—in a new feature for DJ Mag.
With her new album The Red Hunter set to drop next week, Steffi is the subject of Beatportal’s latest cover story, speaking at length with writer Marcus Barnes about her straightforward approach and recent-ish move to a small town in rural Portugal.
Freebeat, a young—and largely TikTok-fueled—style of dance music out of Nigeria that’s also known as cruise music, has been garnering increased notoriety this year, thanks in part to a series of compilation EPs by UK label MOVES. In a new feature for Bandcamp Daily, writer Joe Muggs speaks to MOVES boss Ian McQuaid about how he came across the sound, and also connects with Nigerian producers DJ Cora and DJ YK, who provide an inside look at what freebeat is all about.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases announced during the past week.
Malibu—who granted a rare interview to First Floor earlier this year—has completed a new EP. Entitled Places of Pity, it’s scheduled for a November 18 release on the UNO NYC label, but one of its tracks, “So Far out of Love,” has already been shared.
Kelela released a new single yesterday. “Happy Ending,” which was produced by LSDXOXO and features additional production from Bambii, has been billed by the distinctive R&B artist as “one for the club.” It’s available now on Warp, as is the track’s official video.
Ikonika has a new EP on the way, and three of its songs unexpectedly feature her own voice. Bubble Up will be issued via Hyperdub on November 25, but first single “When You Look at Me,” which the UK producer describes as a “queer love anthem,” is available now.
Veteran producer René Pawlowitz—who’s best known for his work as Shed—has returned to his jungle-ish HOOVER1 moniker for a new EP, HOOVER1-5, which surfaced last week on his own Nowt label.
Dark Entries has once again plumbed the archives of late disco and synth pioneer Patrick Cowley, and has assembled a new collection of “six previously unreleased funk-fueled jams” called Malebox. It’s slated for a November 11 release—all the details are here—and preview clips have also been shared.
First released in 1997, Double 99’s “Ripgroove” is arguably one of the biggest tunes in UK dance music history, and is also responsible (at least in part) for birthing what would become known as speed garage. Now, the duo have prepared a two-part, 25th anniversary remix package. The first half, which includes both a “Reimagination” and a “Director’s Cut,” dropped last week on the Deluxe label, while the second half, which includes remixes from Daffy and Ewan McVicar, is slated to arrive on November 18.
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
The sounds of Iran are inextricable from Maral’s music. Drawing upon her heritage—and, more specifically, the sprawling sample archive that she’s spent years assembling—the LA-based artist’s output has always been littered with manipulated fragments of Iraninan folk, classical and pop sounds, and while that approach still informs her latest full-length, Ground Groove, the album nonetheless feels like a more explicitly hybrid effort, incorporating not only more live elements (e.g. guitar, bass, vocals), but also bits of dub, hip-hop and even grunge.
LP highlight “Heart Shimmer” still retains a distinctly Middle Eastern feel, particularly when it comes to the song’s ghostly melody, but its moody, reverb-laden atmosphere and distorted boom bap feel more like a collaboration between Burial and Los Angeles-era Flying Lotus. “That’s Okay, Ruin It,” on the other hand, brings some jagged flashes of guitar into the mix, and initially sounds a bit like an old Jesus Lizard track being cut up on an MPC, though it quickly segues back into a zoned-out mélange of flute and drone-like vocalizations.
Although UK producer Crypticz has a full decade of releases under his belt, he’s never before sounded as accomplished as he does on new album Transition of Eye. Plenty of artists pull from the hardcore continuum in their work, but Crypticz practically seems to glide through it, putting a a premium on mood as he elegantly weaves together bits of jungle, dub, footwork and other bassy permutations. LP opener “The Soundboy Tears” quickly lives up to its weepy title, keeping its drums at a relative simmer as the song’s pastoral melodies and heart-tugging string swells work their magic. “Angles” is another standout, and while it offers a bit more percussive oomph, it nonetheless resides on the headier end of the dubstep spectrum, its feverish drum patter and emotively lurching basslines recalling the spacey sounds of acts like Horsepower Productions.
It was only a few weeks ago that I was showering praise on the Cong Burn label—which returned in late August following an extended break from releasing new music—and now its founder John Howes has turned up with a new alias and album of his own. After years of working as simply Howes, he’s adopted the moniker Paperclip Minimiser, and his self-titled LP was reportedly made using what he describes as “an authentic 2006 studio, best listened to on Windows XP Media Player or Winamp.” That alone will pique the interest of gear nerds, but the music itself—a murky (and occasionally downright bizarre) brew of dubbed-out ambient techno—is thoroughly compelling, and fits snugly alongside the output of mysterious Peak Oil labelmate Topdown Dialectic. Album highlight “B2” is akin to a sludgy—and (very) subtly funky—take on the classic Clicks & Cuts sound, while the similarly excellent “A3” is a more taut dub cruiser, its chunky bassline strolling along as the song’s assorted creaks and pops fire off overhead.
BEST OF THE REST
The album-length Mantis 0910—which is being officially billed as a “double pack”—is the latest entry in Delsin’s dubby, genre-defying Mantis series, and like pretty much everything in Konduku’s catalog, it defies easy categorization. Pulling from dub, techno and IDM, but ultimately sounding like none of those things, it’s built atop skittery and decidedly off-kilter rhythms, and while the plinking chimes of standout track “Lavender” do bear a certain resemblance to the work of Aleksi Perälä, Konduku is clearly operating in his own fanciful soundworld. Based on the results so far, it’s a place that merits continued exploration.
The new Scope EP from Hammer & DART makes no secret of its big-room aspirations, but while the Irish duo’s sparkling house and techno has an undeniable appeal, it’s German producer Maruwa—and her high-gloss rework of “Tint”—that crash into the spotlight. Bigger and bolder than the original, its electric synths are joyously buffeted by a flock of filtered diva vocal clips.
After debuting their Oscean project with the Ideoma EP earlier this year, Argentinian producers Andrés Zacco and Sebastián Galante have quickly returned with an even stronger effort, Multirays. The punchy “Multidimensional” opens the record, and though its busted rhythms aren’t terribly far off from the broken techno made famous by labels like Ilian Tape, the track has its own unique churn, with cinematic synths that slowly rise and fall like the—no pun intended—ocean tide.
For all the plaudits thrown Hessle Audio’s way during the past 15 years, it’s not often that words like “bouncy,” “bubbly” and “fun” have been applied to the label’s output. Shanti Celeste, however, has seemingly set out to rectify that with her gregarious, brightly colored Hessle debut, most notably on EP opener “Cutie.” Combining a jaunty house beat with a series of childlike vocal chops, the track sits halfway between preschool and the club, and is guaranteed to leave plenty of smiles in its wake.
“Angles Morts,” which opens Sankt’s new Crux II: Angles Morts EP, is rooted in a haunted strain of jungle. That said, the German producer hasn’t put DJ functionality at the top of his priority list, opting instead for a more filmic vision that harkens back to the ambitious world building of ’90s-era Mo’ Wax, and projects like UNKLE in particular. Better suited to the IMAX than the club, the track just feels big, and while its brawny basslines and percussive rumble do unquestionably pack a punch, it’s the music’s dramatic ups and downs that ultimately leave the strongest impression.
Electro veteran Plant43 is perfectly capable of crafting a razor-sharp rhythm, but on “Searching for the Skies”—a glittering highlight of his new Remote Signals EP—he follows a fantastical path that’s more Spirited Away than Beat Street. The track still has some bump of course, but it’s the UK producer’s alluringly vivid melodies, reverb-soaked vocal clips and quirky assortment of new age-isms that serve as the main attraction.
Trails + Stations is the latest release from Boston artist A. Campbell Payne, but it could honestly be called Chimes + Bells, as the hypnotically stripped-down, synthesis-heavy record consists of little else. All that negative space does give a track like “Dome” an almost delicate feel, as its intricate lattice of crystalline tones is akin to a carefully assembled pyramid of champagne flutes, but the song is also quite beautiful, and hearing its exquisite melodies dreamily resonate is enough to put anyone in a wonderfully introspective state of mind.
The closing number from Giulio Aldinucci’s new Real LP, “Asymptotic Embrace” is a notably chilly effort. It’s ambient, yes, but rather than quietly hovering in the background, the track calmly—but firmly—clutches at the soul, its weepy strings, softly crackling static and angelically alien vocal laments—Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi wouldn’t be a bad comparison—all coalescing into a moving piece of deeply melancholy arctic drone.
Fictions, the latest volume of the long-running Made to Measure compilation series, includes quality contributions from Mary Lattimore, Félicia Atkinson, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Matías Aguayo, Christina Vantzou, Lucrecia Dalt and several other notable artists, yet the record’s high point is its sumptuous closer, “A.D. sur la carte.” An unexpected collaboration between Benjamin Lew and Tuxedomoon founder Steven Brown—the two haven’t released something together since the mid ’80s—it’s a lush suite of warbling static, reverb-soaked chimes and the ponderous bellows of a late-night saxophone.
Spoken word can—and often does—go terribly wrong when paired with electronic music, but “Glitches” is a poignant tale of modern malaise. Taken from the new Sun Moon Town EP and voiced beautifully by filmmaker Michael Smith, the song evokes memories of Renton’s famous “Choose Life” speech from Trainspotting, its society-skewering prose made all the more epic by the billowing, Tangerine Dream-meets-shoegaze soundscape of Steve Queralt—who, in fairness, has learned plenty about towering sonics during his many years as the bassist of Ride.
“Sparks” doesn’t punch, kick or hit. It floats. The lead track from Bristol artist Surgeons Girl’s new Sever EP, the song leans away from the twitchy IDM rhythms that color much of the record, and instead offers a kaleidoscopic, new age-indebted journey powered by synthesis. Full of luminescent tones that blossom with bursts of color, the song quickly takes flight, its rippling melodies gracefully darting and diving amongst the clouds.
As easy as it is to razz Miami about its love of VIP bottle service and insipid tech house, the city does have a rich electronic music legacy, and while its history with Miami Bass, freestyle and various Latin rhythms tends to get more shine—especially as of late—this Danny Daze mix of Jonny from Space’s “Hurricane Party,” which appears on the latter’s new No Swim Advisory EP, feels like a turbocharged tribute to the thundering ’90s and early 2000s sounds of legendary South Florida house duo Murk. The relentlessly booming drums are the star attraction here, but the tweaked (and hurricane-themed) news clips and zooming hoovers ensure that this rave-ready slammer is more than just a straight-up throwback.
That’s all 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.)
Have a good one,
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.