First Floor #18 – Is the Music Press Just Going to Pretend That EDM Festival in Saudi Arabia Didn't Happen?
a.k.a. The electronic music media's attitude toward MDL Beast has been somewhere between "suspiciously silent" and "alarmingly complicit."
Happy new year everyone.
You know, I was hoping that we could all ease into 2020. This time of year is usually pretty quiet, at least in the music industry, which always needs a few weeks to fully awaken from its end-of-year slumber. New releases are scarce, and even semi-interesting tidbits of news can be hard to come by, so I was initially thinking that this edition of the newsletter would just be a simple round-up of things that had trickled out during the holiday season.
Unfortunately though, I feel compelled to start the year on something of a disgruntled note and talk about MDL Beast. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a (horribly named) festival that took place in the Saudi capital of Riyadh from December 19-21. Sponsored by the kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority (i.e. the Saudi government), MDL Beast appears to have been modeled after large-scale EDM and electronic music festivals in Europe and North America, and apparently attracted more than 400,000 people with its three days of “music, performing arts and culinary craft.”
Oddly enough, I didn’t hear anything about the festival until after it was over, when a rash of articles came out criticizing influencers who’d been paid by the Saudis and flown out to attend the event (and post about it on social media, of course). This tactic isn’t anything new; anyone who watched either of the Fyre festival documentaries has already seen that the enlistment of influencers has become a standard marketing practice, at least for a certain strain of festival organizers.
MDL Beast, however, isn’t just another festival. It’s literally part of a much larger campaign to rehabilitate the image of Saudi Arabia, particularly in the aftermath of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018. In truth, this campaign predates that tragic event; ever since Mohammad bin Salman took control of the country, he’s made a clear public effort to present Saudi Arabia as a new, more tolerant and modern state. Now, I don’t want to get too far into the weeds about Saudi politics—I think the country’s awful record on human rights, particularly for women and LGBTQ people, has been well documented, even in the time since Mohammad bin Salman came to power—but I would recommend this FRONTLINE documentary for those interested in a deeper dive. A particularly illuminating narrative in that documentary is how even as the Saudi government has relaxed some of its more blatant religious zealotry (e.g. lifting the ban on female drivers and limiting the power of the religious police), it remains an authoritarian state, and increasingly seeks to placate its young population by offering Western-style commercialism and entertainment, albeit without many of the individual rights and freedoms that Western societies enjoy.
MDL Beast fits perfectly into that strategy. It’s a way that Saudi Arabia can say, “Look, we’re open, free and modern.” And on some level, it does represent progress, at least for the small percentage of Saudis who are able to partake or participate in this sort of event. To the festival’s credit, there were a lot of Saudi and Middle Eastern artists on the bill, who I’m sure were genuinely thrilled to finally have something like this in their own country / region. It’s difficult to fault them for taking part.
Foreign artists, on the other hand, really don’t deserve the same sort of pass. This, more than anything, is what’s been bothering me for the past few weeks. Post-festival, once the wave of articles criticizing the influencers in attendance hit, there was a fair amount of chatter about MDL Beast on techno Twitter, much of it taking aim at some of the artists on the bill. Peggy Gou, one of underground electronic music’s favorite punching bags, not surprisingly took most of the heat, but darts were also thrown at folks like Kerri Chandler, Black Coffee, Solomun, Jamie Jones, Cassy and a few others. (Oddly enough, I saw almost zero online grumbling about EDM artists like Steve Aoki, David Guetta, Afrojack, Tiesto and Martin Garrix; maybe people simply assumed that those guys have no morals anyways, so of course they would play a music festival sponsored by the Saudi regime.)
In truth, most of the Twitter conversation had flamed out by the time that Christmas hit, but what’s really been strange is the utter lack of of commentary by the music press. Maybe the holidays are to blame, but could none of the sites that seriously cover electronic music be bothered to even post a quick news story about this? Remember how many articles were written about that Amazon-affiliated festival when it got announced a few months back? People were furious! Back in 2018, the Meteor festival in Israel provoked all kinds of online hand-wringing, along with some seriously intense debate and a major campaign pressuring artists to drop out of the event; the press covered all of it. What about Coachella founder Philip Anschutz? How many articles have discussed his right-wing ties? Hell, even the debate over Berlin’s ://about blank club and its refusal to host pro-BDS artists has been thoroughly dissected by the electronic music media. In comparison, how was MDL Beast greeted by nearly every major music publication? With silence.
MDL Beast certainly wasn’t a secret—press releases went out, corny promotional (some might say propaganda) videos were made and there was literally an event page on Resident Advisor—but nobody said anything. I know that media outlets have limited resources, and journalists aren’t in the habit of scanning event listings in Riyadh, so I can understand if folks simply didn’t realize that the festival was happening—like I said before, I didn’t know myself. But once MDL Beast did happen, and the news broke in outlets like The Guardian and The Washington Post, surely some of these editors and writers must have seen something.
And yes, the music industry slows down during the holidays and most offices close for at least a couple of weeks, but I think this is a case where saying “Well, it’s the holidays” just doesn’t cut it as an excuse. Electronic music is literally rooted in queer and minority culture—a truth that most electronic music outlets claim to support and seem determined to loudly repeat ad infinitum—but when that music and culture was literally co-opted by one of the least LGBTQ-friendly regimes on the planet, at an event featuring a handful of artists from our scene, all of our go-to publications stayed quiet. Why?
Truth be told, I did find one bit of coverage: a review of the festival on electronic music website Data Transmission. Unfortunately, the author of said review—who I can only assume was also flown out to the festival—seemed to have an incredible capacity to sweep concerns about the Saudi government under the rug. Here’s a particularly choice passage:
Let’s tackle the elephant in the room first. It would be remiss of me to stick my head in the sand (pun intended) and gloss past the fact that a lot of eyes have been on Saudi Arabia recently and not all of that has been positive. There are however positive changes afoot in KSA and General Entertainment Authority Chairman Turki Al-Sheikh is behind a huge push to promote the arts and entertainment in KSA and the sense across the festival is that the attendees are fully embracing the forward motion.
“A lot of eyes have been on Saudi Arabia recently and not all of that has been positive.” That’s certainly a creative way to describe the government-sanctioned murder of a journalist, not to mention public executions, widespread allegations of torture and the ongoing repression of women, LGBTQ people and religious minorities. In truth, the whole review is poorly written and borderline embarrassing, but that sort of thing happens all the time; publishing an overly laudatory article is one thing, but greenlighting something like this, where the general message is “I went to a dope festival in Saudi Arabia” with almost zero additional context about the larger political / human rights situation, is downright irresponsible.
All that said, I don’t want to focus all of my ire on a single review, especially one from a site like Data Transmission, which isn’t exactly a top-tier outlet. When it comes to this conversation—or lack of conversation—there’s plenty of blame to spread around, whether we’re talking about the various publications that said nothing or the Twitter warriors whose only major takeaway from the situation was “Peggy Gou sucks.” To be clear, I don’t mean to insinuate that anything intentionally untoward was going on inside these media outlets; it’s not like I think the bosses at Resident Advisor (or anywhere else) put out some kind of secret order to ignore MDL Beast (although I’ve certainly seen plenty of ridiculous accusations to that effect on social media). Unfortunately though, regardless of whether or not they’re intentional, these kinds of lapses do undermine the integrity of the media outlets that cover this music, not to mention their sincerity during a time in which the entire electronic music community is putting a premium on the examination of political and social issues that affect our scene, both on and off the dancefloor.
We can do better. Talking about something like MDL Beast is not just complicated; it’s potentially very messy and requires a lens that goes way beyond the music. I get that. Nevertheless, if we’re really serious about being good citizens and protecting the values our scene was founded upon, it’s a conversation that needs to be had, or at the very least acknowledged, especially by the media outlets tasked with documenting this music and the larger community that sustains it.
MY WIFE HAS BETTER TASTE THAN I DO
My wife Dania is a wonderful person, but she has little regard for my taste in electronic music. As the head of the Paralaxe Editions label, she often describes the music I like with words like “cheesy,” “simple,” “predictable,” “boring” and, worst of all (in her mind), “happy.” In contrast, I think she has a fantastic ear, and I’m constantly amazed by the obscure gems she unearths, both from record bins and the dark corners of the internet. Given that, I’ve asked Dania to share some of her finds with the First Floor audience. Each week, she highlights something that she’s currently digging, and adds some of her thoughts as to why it’s worth our attention.
I’m currently in Australia (my home country), so I thought I should pick something from here. SPK is an ’80s industrial band from Sydney, and “Metal Dance” is actually one of their least serious songs. However, with its lyrics about “suffocating” and “stinging eyes,” it feels oddly appropriate given that Australia is presently suffering an unprecedented level of bushfires—it’s estimated that 500 million wild animals have perished already. Please consider donating to the relief effort; you can go here for more information about how to help.
Climate change is real.
Barcelona label Hivern Discs announced the forthcoming release of Fragments, a box set of 28 entirely new tracks across six pieces of vinyl. Featuring music from label founder John Talabot, Inga Mauer, Samo DJ, Cooper Saver, Marc Piñol, Sapphire Slows, Pional and many, many others, the limited-edition box set is scheduled to arrive on January 23, although the individual 12”s will also be released in the months that follow. You can preview the collection here.
Keeping things in Barcelona, the long-running Lapsus label (which also functions as a boutique festival and weekly radio program) announced a compilation of its own called Quinze (“Fifteen” in Catalan). Slated for a late February release, the double LP will include music from the likes of Karen Gwyer, Telefon Tel Aviv, Gacha Bakradze, Leif, Steve Hauschildt, Johanna Knutsson and several others, and 15 “collector’s edition” copies of the compilation will be sold that literally include a “bespoke cement case” for the collection.
Ghostly International and Adult Swim teamed up once again, dropping a compilation called Ghostly Swim 3 with new music from DJ Python, Aquarian, Black Noi$e, LNS, Yak, Ouri, Bullion and others. The whole thing is available on a pay-what-you-want basis via Bandcamp.
Back in March, L.I.E.S. released Eminent Domain, a massive compilation of “American electronic scum” that included tunes from Nick Klein, Beau Wanzer, S. English and many others. Over the holidays, it was made available as a pay-what-you-want download on Bandcamp.
Teklife offered up a free compilation of its own to kick off the new year. Entitled TEKLIFE VIP 2020, it’s a 17-track collection of new music from DJ Spinn, Gant-Man, DJ Paypal, Taso, Slick Shoota, DJ Manny, DJ Tre and several other crew regulars, including DBK, whose footwork flip of Adam F’s drum & bass classic “Circles” was surprisingly delightful.
L-Vis 1990 is turning the page in 2020, putting the moniker on hold so he can instead focus on his work as Dance System full-time. To mark this new era, he cleaned out his hard drive and dropped Decade of Dubz, a 16-track collection of previously unreleased dubs, edits, collaborations and original material. And yes, you can name your own price when you grab it on Bandcamp.
Another artist who cleaned out his hard drive over the holidays is Tony Fairchild, a Pittsburgh DJ who’s probably best known as the head of the is/was, was/is and TerraFirm labels. Pulling together a bunch of edits, mash-ups and fixes he’d done over the past few years, he calls the collection Greatest Tweaks Vol. 1 and has made it available via Bandcamp on a name-your-price basis. Given all of the copyrighted material inside, my guess is that this one won’t last long, so grab it while you can.
Although it’s already sold out, I just had to mention that Jacques Greene released a literal blanket with a design that matched the cover of his recent Dawn Chorus album. The limited-edition blanket also came with two new remixes of, you guessed it, his song “Blanket,” both of which are still available digitally on Bandcamp.
NEW(ISH) THIS WEEK
Normally, this is the part of the newsletter where I highlight my favorite tunes that came out during the past week. However, given that the regular First Floor routine was on pause during the past few weeks, and before that was hijacked by my year-end lists, we basically have a whole month to catch up on. As such, this edition is a little longer than usual.
As always, you can click on the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.
He really did it. Last spring, Paul Woolford promised to release four albums in 2019, but when only three had surfaced by the time the calendar flipped to December, I figured that he was running a bit behind schedule. I was wrong. Right before the end of the year, he offered up Zero Fucks, a rollicking collection that’s heavy on jungle and hardcore rhythms, not to mention samples that could never possibly be cleared. That’s likely why the LP is being offered as a name-your-price download, apparently for a limited time only. Although the record is rife with screwface-inducing anthems, I found myself gravitating to the more restrained “Quiet Storm,” a somber number that folds some sad piano and disembodied divas into the mix. Whatever you do, grab this record—Paul Woolford is on one hell of a roll.
Keeping things in the drum & bass realm, veteran producer ASC—who’s based in San Diego, of all places—actually dropped two releases in December. One was Realm of the Void, an excellent new full-length album that’s full of moody tones and impressive displays of sound design. “Clear Skies,” however, is from a different vinyl release that showcases a couple of atmospheric drum & bass tunes from 2006 - 2008 that he recently found on an old hard drive. Both tracks are great, but the 12-minute “Clear Skies” is a soulful, melodic epic that sounds like the work of a less jazzy LTJ Bukem. It’s fantastic.
Another drum & bass veteran doing impressive work. Workforce is the new-ish solo project of Jack Stevens, better known as one half of UK duo Spectrasoul. The Your Moves EP is his first outing on dBridge’s Exit label, and the insistent title track combines some pert percussion and a sturdy bassline with sultry vocal snippets that exemplify R&B cool.
Finn and India Jordan aren’t just friends—they’re some of the brightest talents on the Local Action roster. “H.U.R.L.” is the lead track from the pair’s debut collaboration, and it’s a rave-ready screamer. Although the percussion hurtles along so quickly that the drums occasionally sound like they’re in danger of tripping over themselves, it’s the song’s bubbly melodies that steal the show, bopping around like hyperactive anime characters as Finn and India channel the carefree spirit of ’90s hardcore. This one’s a lot of fun.
This one surprised me. I’ve been following Ejeca ever since he first started releasing music back in 2012, and while he’s always had production chops, I’ve frequently found his output to be pretty hit and miss. That being said, his new Dance Trax Vol. 25 EP (his third contribution to Unknown to the Unknown’s floor-focused series) is stuffed with booming techno cuts that make me think maybe I need to go back and re-evaulate the Ejeca catalog. How long has he been making techno? Has it always been this good? Any of the EP’s five selections could ably perk up a dancefloor, but “Whiplash” stands out with its trancey melodies and relentless kick drum.
Speaking of hard-hitting techno, few artists are doing it better these days than Matrixxman, whose Planet X EP is his first outing on the young Icelandic label of the same name. Although Resident Advisor’s lukewarm review of the record caused a bit of Twitter consternation on Matrixxman’s part, he shouldn’t worry too much because the contains some serious heat. Moving away from the paranoid sci-fi vibe that often colors his work, Planet X is a darker, more menacing effort; the drums here pummel more than pulse. “Power Drain,” a thundering collaboration with label boss Exos, certainly isn’t friendly, but there’s a perverse joy to be extracted from the song’s warped synth blasts, which sound like the discharge of some sort of terrifying new laser cannon. (They also wouldn’t be out of place on any number of UK bass records.)
I can’t explain why so much quality jungle and drum & bass came out during the holidays, but Blankness, the debut EP from a new collaboration between Jozef K and Thomas Ragsdale, certainly falls into that category. Although the record is loaded with rowdy ’90s jungle rhythms, “Scythe” stands out by pairing its drum & bass ruckus with a bright synth arpeggio that wouldn’t be out of place on an old trance record. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Joey Anderson is one of my favorite producers. Sitting somewhere between house and techno, his music often feels a bit alien; it’s hard to describe, but there’s always something just a bit off about his tunes, although this ultimately only makes them more compelling. “Someday” closes out his latest EP, One Single Thought, which is also the New Jersey artist’s first release on the Uzuri label. Of the four tracks on the record, this one feels the most hopeful, its squealing, slightly meandering melodies cruising skyward as a murky lo-fi rhythm bubbles underneath.
I don’t know who His Master’s Voice is—the press release refers to him only as a “mysterious German producer”—but his new Transition EP is a compelling blend of techno, electro, IDM and ambient. In truth, I almost highlighted the original version of “Eve,” a more subdued number that goes for long stretches with no percussion at all, but Vril’s take is even better. His rework thickens up the track’s bassline, sharpens the percussion and tightens the composition; the song’s alluringly moody melodies are still present, but here they’re presented in a much more potent package.
Why are people sleeping on P.Leone? I know he’s not exactly unknown, but I feel like this Brooklyn native (who’s now based in Berlin) has released so many strong records and deserves way more attention. His latest effort is Raw Emotion, which arrives on his own E-Missions label, and it kicks off with “Never Alone,” a breakbeat house cut with a definite retro feel. Journalists these days tend to say that just about everything sounds like the ’90s—I’m super guilty of this myself—but to me, this tune actually feels more like something from the early 2000s, just because the production is so obviously dialed in for big rooms. There may be a certain charm in music that sounds rough around the edges, but “Never Alone” is confident in its rave aspirations, and all the better for it.
Okay, this one really does sound like the early ’90s, and for good reason—that’s when this UK artist got his start. Most of the project’s early records came out on XL, but his latest EP, Toxic Drop, arrived via Parisian outpost Tripalium Corp. Liquid’s originals are intense, hoover-filled slammers with a heavy Belgian influence, but this Minimum Syndicat actually dials back the mayhem of “Toxic Drop,” leaving plenty of breathing room for the track’s organ stabs, swirling synths and EBM bassline to wreak havok on the dancefloor.
When techno is described as “unhinged,” I usually expect to hear a dark, punishing stormer, but Vladimir Dubyshkin’s music might be grounds for re-evaluating that stereotype. “Rural Woman,” which leads off his new Budni Nashego Kolhoza EP, is totally bonkers, but its delirium comes in technicolor. Bounding along at 140 bpm, the song’s true centerpiece is a dizzying melange of seemingly endless vocal loops and what sounds like a repeating sample of a canary. It’s intense, to say the least, but descents into madness have rarely been this enjoyable.
As a Barcelona resident myself, it’s always a nice surprise to come across a new producer who lives there. Apparently, Aire debuted on Glacial Industries back in 2018 with an EP called JMA, but he’s now returned to the label with one-off single “Sophia,” a twisted club tune that drapes spooky atmospherics and eerie synth melodies over its booming bass stabs and frantic (if slightly muddy) percussion.
For seemingly as long as I can remember, Martyn Bootyspoon has been Montreal’s unofficial party ambassador, a beloved figure (and talented visual artist) who never takes himself too seriously and is seemingly comfortable DJing in just about any environment. Over the past year or two, he’s been stepping up his production game, first appearing on Sinjin Hawke and Zora Jones’ Fractal Fantasy label. His more recent work, however, has drifted towards irreverent takes on raw, upbeat house, channeling the spirit of classic labels like Dance Mania. His most recent effort is the No. 1 Crush EP, which leads off with “Tom Tom Club,” a track whose title appears to reference the drum sound, not the ’80s dance group. Although the clattering percussion takes the lead here, it’s the song’s spritely melodies that steal the show, sounding like a dream sequence from an old Super Mario game.
Finally, a proper ambient tune for this week’s newsletter. Hailing from Manchester, Bates recently delivered Fantasy Modulation, a collection of low-key hardware tracks she apparently composed and performed in real time. Clocking in at more than nine minutes, “Trying to Be Good” is a dreamy journey populated by a rich tapestry of twinkling melodies, percolating synths and deep, elongated bass tones. A deliberate effort, the music never rises above a simmer and changes only slightly from one moment to the next, but this is one of those songs that you don’t mind getting lost in.
Speaking of dreamy, “Toulouse” has some patches of wispy, ethereal melodies that certainly fit that description. There’s a real lightness to this track, yet the Georgian producer has also worked some chunky basslines into the mix, along with the skittering drum patterns that are rapidly becoming his signature. Taken from his new Extensions EP on Bassiani offshoot Horoom, it’s another quality effort from an artist who seems to be on a serious upswing.
Leandro Fresco & Rafael Anton Irisarri “Mientras Más Me Alejo De Ti, Menos Me Importa Cuan Lejos Estoy” (A Strangely Isolated Place)
Unquestionably the longest song title of the week, this sprawling piece of gently ominous, fuzz-filled ambient is the product of an intercontinental collaboration between Fresco (Buenos Aires) and Irisarri (NYC). Taken from their second LP, Una Presencia En La Brisa, it’s the sort of thing that should be soundtracking some sort of wondrous sci-fi flick. Yet this isn’t a one-note piece of cinematic ambience; closer listening reveals thundering blasts of underwater bass, weepy tendrils of strings and soaring, reverential melodies that might sound downright religious in other context. Beautiful work.
I actually posted a link to this track last month when Julianna Barwick’s new EP was first announced, but Circumstance Synthesis—which is available either digitally or on a limited-edition cassette—is such a beautiful record that I have no problem sharing the song again. Created using “generative music technology,” the tech angle is sure to get some folks excited, but irrespective of the process involved, “Night” is a gorgeous showcase of Barwick’s knack for layering her angelic voice atop loping waves of slow-moving synths. The music may be delicate and airy, but the emotion it conveys feels so tangible, weighty even. She’s a very special talent.
Craigie Knowes was one of my favorite labels in 2019, and the Glasgow imprint closed out the year with Darkroom, a four-track collection of moody electro-techno hybrids from UK producer James Shinra. “Kord” is built atop the peppy breakbeats you’d expect from a Craigie Knowes release, but it stands out thanks to the track’s wistful pads, which give the otherwise upbeat song something of a melancholy vibe. It’s an unusual contrast, but Shinra has made the most of it without veering into full-blown “tears on the dancefloor” territory.
I’ve written enthusiastically about the Kiwi label before, so I’ll keep my emotions in check and just say that the UK garage outpost wrapped up its impressive 2019 with a compilation EP of remixes called Juiced. Each track finds a Kiwi artist remixing a song from another act on the roster, and here, label founder Conducta injects some extra bounce and garage swing into “Peace & Love,” making this lively, chipmunk-voiced rework even more fun than the original.
That’s all for now. I know that for many of us, 2020 already seems to have gotten off to a rocky start, so thank you so much for coming back and reading First Floor. I hope you liked the tunes, and I’ll be back next week with another newsletter.