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First Floor #160 – This Is What Dance Music Is Now
a.k.a. Thoughts on Skrillex, plus a round-up of the week's electronic music news and a fresh batch of new track recommendations.
Before this week, I don’t think I’d ever written anything substantial about Skrillex, which is kind of amazing considering that I’m an electronic music writer and he’s quite possibly the most famous electronic music artist in the world. (Then again, these things are relative; an artist friend literally messaged me earlier this week saying that she’d only just found out who Skrillex even is, having googled him after seeing him pop up repeatedly on Four Tet’s Instagram.)
What’s really weird though is that I not only wrote about Skrillex this week, but in the process drew extended parallels between his career and that of punk band Green Day. I swear it makes more sense when you read the full essay. You’ll find that below, along with a special appearance by Ghostly International bossman Sam Valenti IV and all of the usual First Floor round-ups of news, release announcements and new tracks that I’m enjoying.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
Every Tuesday, First Floor publishes a long-form piece that’s exclusively made available to paid newsletter subscribers only. The latest one was prompted by the hullabaloo that’s surrounded the release of Skrillex’s latest album, and looks at how someone who was once widely mocked in serious electronic music circles seems to have not only won over his critics, but now holds an almost iconic status in an industry and scene that’s fundamentally changed during the past decade. (Oddly enough, it also compares his ascent to that of punk band Green Day, whose trajectory is starting to look rather similar in retrospect.)
The paywall on the above article has now been temporarily removed for the next 24 hours. If you’d like exclusive first access to future long-form pieces (and unlimited access to the First Floor archives), then please sign up for a paid subscription.
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.
Running Back founder Gerd Janson has long been one of dance music’s most lovable characters, and he talks in detail about his career and influences on the latest episode of the DJ History podcast.
For all the good Bandcamp has done in the independent music realm, the platform’s functionality hasn’t always been at the level where users would like it to be. That said, the company claims to always be working to improve the user experience, and as of last week, people can create playlists—using only music that they’ve already purchased—on the Bandcamp mobile app. Details of how it all works are here.
Kelela is the subject of Mixmag’s latest cover story, in which she speaks at length to Moya Lothian-McLean about her new album Raven, the lengthy hiatus that preceded it and her evolving (and at times difficult) relationship with the dance music world.
Last year Aurora Halal sat down with writer Nyshka Chandran for a live edition of Resident Advisor’s The Art of DJing series, and their conversation—which explores the NYC techno artist’s approach to playing and the artists who’ve inspired her—has now been transformed into a readable feature.
James Holden gets rather philosophical in this career-spanning interview with The Quietus’ John Doran, reflecting back on his trance beginnings and the parts of commercial club culture that turned him off, and also explaining how he now finds peace in coding (amongst other things).
Chal Ravens was tapped by the Guardian to profile Fever Ray, who discusses getting older, gender roles and their forthcoming new album.
This essay that writer / editor Matthew Schnipper recently penned for the New Yorker only briefly touches on electronic music—and not in a positive way—but its contents, which delve into the loss of his infant son and how it affected his relationship with music, are both devastating and powerful.
Although Chez Damier is a verifiable house legend, it often feels like he fails to get the same shine as other Midwestern dance music pioneers, which makes this Artist of the Month feature that Kristan J Caryl put together for Beatportal all the more satisfying.
Reggaeton, once widely reviled in Spain, has gradually become one of the most popular genres in the country, in the process prompting a myriad of questions and conversations about colonialism, appropriation and cultural ownership. In a lengthy new feature for Pitchfork, writer Felipe Maia breaks down both the history of the situation and the contemporary debate.
The voice of Skrillex’s hit track “Rumble,” veteran UK grime MC Flowdan is suddenly getting attention from a new wave of dance music fans, many of whom hadn’t heard of him before. He talks to writer Adam Davidson about what that’s been like in a new feature for Attack magazine.
In an effort to reduce dance music’s environmental footprint—which, thanks in part to all the flights DJs are taking, isn’t great—a new app called twogigs has been soft launched, and it aims to help promoters and artists carve out more efficient tour routes while ideally reducing costs via improved travel shares.
However one feels about Boiler Room and its wider impact on electronic music and DJ culture, the company’s Broadcast Lab grant scheme aims to shine a light on overlooked scenes—namely by giving them money to help realize proposals that might not have been possible otherwise. (For reference, the most recent award went to Sublimation, a collective in Uzbekistan.) The initiative’s latest application round is open now, with a submission deadline of March 17.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases announced during the past week.
Following a very busy 2022, UK artist Mike Paradinas will soon be returning to his µ-Ziq alias with a new full-length, 1977, which will be the Planet Mu founder’s first (mostly) ambient album. The LP is slated for an April 7 release on the Balmat label, but two tracks from the record, “4am” and “Belt & Carpet,” have already been shared here.
Released in 2009, “The Medium Is the Message” is one of Levon Vincent’s best-known tracks, and last week the Berlin-based American artist issued a sequel, “The Medium Is the Message II.” It’s available now via his own Novel Sound label, as is a separate “Paradise Version” of the song.
Arizona-based producer Kareem Ali, who at one point was releasing a new single or EP seemingly every week, has finally dropped his long-promised debut album, GODSON OF HOUSE. It’s out now through his Bandcamp page.
Shackleton has teamed up with Scotch Rolex—a Japanese artist who’s been releasing on Nyege Nyege offshoot Hakuna Kulala in recent years—on a forthcoming new album. Entitled Death by Tickling, it’s scheduled to arrive on March 31 and will be the first release on the Silver Triplet label. Ahead of that, LP cut “Opium Vibration” has been made available.
Fresh off his project Mirrors release for AD 93, Pavel Milyakov has lined up another record, this time from his buttechno alias. As the title implies, minimal cuts II will mark his second appearance on the Incienso label, and before the EP drops on March 10, opening track “green” has already been shared.
Jayda G has completed a new full-length, Guy, that she’ll be releasing on June 9 through Ninja Tune. Rooted heavily in archival recordings made by her late father, the album is also said to bring the Canadian artist’s “voice and words more prominently into focus than ever before.” First single “Circle Back Around” is available now, as is the song’s official music video.
Crystal Vision, an album of what’s described as “music for music’s sake,” is the latest LP from Nathan Fake, and it will surface on April 7 via the UK veteran’s own Cambria Instruments imprint. The record includes a collaboration with Clark, but it’s a different collaboration with Wizard Apprentice, “The Grass,” that’s already been shared.
SAM VALENTI HAS BETTER TASTE THAN I DO
First Floor is effectively a one-person operation, but every edition of the newsletter cedes a small portion of the spotlight to an artist, writer or other figure from the music world, inviting them to recommend a piece of music. This week’s installment comes from Sam Valenti IV, a Michigan native and longtime New Yorker who also happens to be the founder of Ghostly International, one of electronic music’s most celebrated labels. Anyone familiar with Ghostly knows that Valenti has a serious passion for curation, design and playing with ideas of format, yet he never comes off as pretentious. In fact, his excellent weekly playlist series / newsletter Herb Sundays is based upon the idea of getting some of the coolest people on the planet to open up and share the faves they put on when no one else is listening.
In an effort to define my music discovery with an evergreen approach, my philosophy is that a song discovery from say, five years ago, is equal to a new one today, especially if that piece feels more in sync now than it did then. When a song has a patina gathered from rinsing around the internet (and since MP3s degrade over time, obviously), you can really hear its essence unfurl. I was really moved by this song last year by Millia a.k.a. Akeem of Chicago’s next-to-blow trio, Purelink, whose “Maintain The Bliss” was close to the top of 2021 mountain for me. The ambient-dub-techno of Purelink gives way to something slightly heavier here and could see it being used in almost any context. He just announced a new 10” for Australia's Local Knowledge label that I'm looking forward to as well.
NEW THIS WEEK
The following is a selection of my favorite tunes from releases that came out during the past week or so. ‘The Big Three’ 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. Click the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this convenient Buy Music Club list if you prefer to listen to them all in one place.
THE BIG THREE
John Elliott will likely always be “one of the guys from Emeralds”—the fact that the beloved Cleveland synth-drone trio is reuniting for a handful of shows this year certainly won’t help on that front—but in the decade since the group first called it quits, he’s built up a rather impressive solo catalog as Imaginary Softwoods. The Notional Pastures of Imaginary Softwoods is his latest full-length, and though its contents were born out of “countless sessions that span multiple years,” the album itself is a coherent and markedly peaceful listen, carving out a bucolic space that’s light years away from the chaos of the modern world.
Drones do come into play here, but the LP is often at its best when Elliott keeps things light and playful. “North of Roswell” is a pillow-soft new age lullaby, its tinkling tones seemingly made of daydreams and cotton candy. Only two-and-a-half minutes long, it’s also more of an amuse-bouche than a full meal, but Elliot properly stretches out on the also excellent “Diagram of the Universe,” a sprawling sound bath that the Field label very accurately touts as a collection of “clear-headed Arctic daybreak drones.”
Although ben bondy is best known as a rising talent from the West Mineral Ltd. school of ambient, he might want to consider branching out into cutesy R&B love jams, because “heart track”—a brilliant tune from the NYC artist’s new spirit desire album—sounds like a long-lost Usher instrumental from 2014. That said, some of his signature weirdness is still in the mix; the song also sounds like what might happen if Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon’s AI baby were asked to come up with a new song for the ice cream truck to blare at sugar-addled suburban children. LP opener “gimmie a call” is another highlight, and though it has less bounce in its step, the track’s colorful tones and billowing textures—all of them smeared in dreamy reverb—evoke a similar sense of youthful wonder.
Who is Romance? Nearly three years after the mysterious artist first surfaced, they’ve already offered up a litany of releases, most of them steeped in a plush strain of dreamily screwed ambient. (The fact that the project occasionally uses artists like Celine Dion as source material also adds an interesting quirk to the music’s mystique.) River of Dreams is Romance’s second collaborative work with Dean Hurley, and much like their first go-round, it uses audio lifted from YouTube videos of vintage American daytime soap operas. Opening track “Eric Forrester” literally takes its name from a long-running character on The Bold and the Beautiful, and distills the overwrought melodrama of his imagined existence into three-plus minutes of melancholy-tinged, reverb-glazed bliss, its warbling melodies hinting at the VHS tapes the show was likely recorded on in the first place. Is this camp? Is it a serious commentary on the psyche of the average soap opera viewer? Both? Neither? Maybe it doesn’t matter, because the music is gorgeous.
BEST OF THE REST
The term “underwater techno” usually refers to deep and dubby excursions, but “Hebi Water” is a positively brawny effort. Taken from Otodojo’s new Amphibious/Aural Spirits—an album partially inspired by Japanese folklore—the moody track has its reflective moments, yet there’s no mistaking its underlying power, as its glugging rhythm and persistently growling bassline move across the dancefloor with the determination of a shark that’s caught a whiff of blood in the water.
The promo text for Holden Federico’s new Inner Order EP describes the NYC producer as having “one foot in the nineties and another in the future,” which feels like a perfect encapsulation of the record’s closing cut, “Hours and Hours.” It’s a low-key techno roller with some serious bounce, and its gleaming neon evokes images of moonlight reflecting off the chrome of a new sportscar.
With tempos rising all across dance music, speedy tunes are starting to get a reputation for being a bit braindead, but there’s nothing dumb about this “speed mambo” rework that Parisian duo Siu Mata & Amor Satyr have given the title track of Chilean producer Tomás Urquieta’s new 32 Balas EP. Sitting somewhere between warehouse techno and a Caribbean street party, it’s undeniably big and brash, but also feels fresh, its manic flurry of skittering drums and fluttering chops offering an instant hit of playfulness and joy.
Jungle rhythms should be slowed down more often. On “Leggera,” the standout closer on Ehua’s new Clouds EP, the genre’s signature rumble isn’t exactly sluggish, but rather than sprinting, it cruises along with a confident swagger, one the London-based Italian-Ivorian producer has adorned with dive-bombing synths, handmade bits of percussion and thick sheets of subtly undulating bass.
As its title implies, 黑芝麻和朋友们 (translation: Hēi zhī ma and friends) is focused on collaboration, and EP highlight “I Miss You” is something the Australian artist made with the help of best friend Merph. Loosely rooted in drum & bass, the song does feature intermittent outbursts of booming Amen breaks, but in its quieter moments, the track veers towards a wistful strain of avant-pop, its melancholy vibe fueled by an eerily pitch-shifted (but still heart-tugging) voice mail that sounds like a lonely alien phoning up a loved one back home in another galaxy.
The Bandcamp page for Erika’s new Anevite Void full-length lists a jaw-dropping collection of gear that was used in its creation, but while the Detroit producer clearly has some serious love for her machines—she literally refers to them as her “closest friends and family”—she’s also seasoned enough to only use them as needed. Forgoing wonk in favor of spacious textures and effective grooves, the pared-back LP is an impressively restrained affair, which leaves plenty of room for the pastel melodies and acid gurgles of wiggly album standout “Anion” to take flight.
What would happen if Tin Man took his bubbly acid in a more psychedelic direction? What would Boards of Canada sound like if their ambient excursions didn’t have such sinister undertones? Khotin’s “Computer Break (Late Mix)”—which appears on the Canadian producer’s new Release Spirit album—offers a potential answer to both of these questions, its soft-focus melodies and chilled funk grooves coalescing into a delightfully bouncy, not-quite-ambient earworm.
Vaporwave lives! A high point of Piper Spray & Lena Tsibizova’s new Leaving Memory LP, “Lame Line” at times sounds like the background music one might hear being piped into a budget spa at the local strip mall. There are hints of the Twin Peaks soundtrack in there as well, yet as the song’s idyllic tones float along, its creators actively muck up the proceedings, folding in bits of scratchy static and digital crunch that move things in a more chaotic (but not unpleasant) direction.
The last HTRK album—which was fantastic—was a notably stripped-down affair, and Maritz, the new record from Jonnine (the duo’s vocalist) is an even more unvarnished effort. That’s not a bad thing, particularly on hushed standout “Blissfully Unaware (of you),” which opens with a hypnotic minute of hazy tones and noodly bass before Jonnine’s dreamily narcotic voice wafts in to hold down the track’s latter half. At exactly two minutes in length, the whole thing is over in a flash, but it’s wholly appropriate that the word “bliss” appears in the song’s title.
That brings us to the end of today’s 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.)
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.