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First Floor #186 – The Most Interesting Artists Rarely Do Just One Thing
a.k.a. An interview with Laurel Halo, plus a round-up of the week's electronic music news and a fresh slate of new track recommendations.
I don’t interview many artists here in the newsletter, and even when I do talk to one of them, I always make a point to avoid conversations in which the line of questioning is limited to biographical details and “tell me about your latest album.”
That being said, every once in a while an opportunity comes along to speak to someone who’s so clearly talented that it doesn’t matter whether or not they’re only doing interviews because they’re in the middle of a press cycle. Laurel Halo falls squarely into that category. Having followed (and admired) her work for more than a decade, I knew that she was not just a special artist, but one whose practice didn’t fit into tidy narratives. I wanted to talk to her, but not because I was after her take on systemic issues or some emergent cultural trend in electronic music; I just wanted to ask about her work.
Thankfully I got that chance, and my interview with her—which, in fairness, does include a few of my usual big-picture questions—was published earlier this week. (More on that below.) Since then, I’ve been piecing together today’s edition of First Floor, which includes the usual assortment of electronic music news, release announcements, links to quality articles and new track recommendations. And of course, I’ve also lined up a special guest recommendation, which comes today from Simo Cell.
With summer nearly at its end (at least in the Northern hemisphere), it has been something of a quiet week for electronic music, but as you’ll see, there’s still a whole lot of stuff going on.
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, which is now (temporarily) open to everyone, is an interview with Laurel Halo, who will soon be inaugurating her Awe label with a new solo album. We talked about the record of course, but our wide-ranging conversation also touches upon her ever-evolving practice, how she fits into contemporary dance music, her (limited) forays into the fashion world and the new job that brought her to Los Angeles.
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.
NORTH AMERICAN BOOK TOUR
In a few weeks, I’ll be heading to the US (and Montreal) for a series of talks / Q&A sessions focused on my recently released book, First Floor Vol. 1: Reflections on Electronic Music Culture.
If you haven’t yet picked up a copy, folks can order it directly from my publisher Velocity Press, but if you’re outside the UK, I’d suggest inquiring at your favorite local bookshop or trying one of the online sales links I’ve compiled here. Copies of the book will be available for sale at every stop of the tour.
More details (and all of the individual event flyers) are here, but the complete list of dates is below.
(Please note: the hyperlinked dates require either a ticket purchase or an RSVP, so please act quickly, as space may be limited at some events.)
September 21 - New York, Dripping at Nowadays (moderated by Avalon Emerson)
September 22 - Montreal, OSMO X MARUSAN (moderated by Patrick Holland)
September 23 - Miami, Paradis Books & Bread (moderated by Nick León)
September 25 - Washington DC, Eaton House (moderated by Joyce Lim)
September 28 - Seattle, Vermillion (moderated by Doc Sleep)
September 30 - San Francisco, Public Works (moderated by Mozhgan)
ANOTHER THING I DID
A few months back, I appeared as a guest on Interdependence, the outstanding podcast hosted by Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst. We talked about First Floor and the book, but also dove into the current state of DJ culture (and the industry around it), discussed the inner workings of music journalism and examined how many of the stories we tell ourselves about how independent music culture used to be aren’t exactly accurate. It was an excellent conversation, and though the episode was initially made available only to paid Interdependence subscribers, the paywall has now come down and anyone can take a listen. Find it here.
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.
Over the weekend, the kranky label broke the news that Brian McBride, best known as one half of seminal ambient duo Stars of the Lid, had unexpectedly passed away at the age of 53. Numerous tributes and remembrances have surfaced in recent days, including a Guardian piece by Gabriel Szatan and a Pitchfork article in which Philip Sherburne highlights 10 essential records that McBride contributed to over the course of his life, including several of his solo outings.
Norman Brannon’s Anti-Matter Substack—a revived version of his much-loved hardcore zine from the ’90s—is less than two months old, but it’s already established itself as a home for some truly exceptional music writing. (For the uninitiated, Brannon is a former member of bands like Texas Is the Reason and New End Original, and is currently a touring guitarist for Thursday, but while hardcore is his main theater of operations, his words and observations will surely resonate with all sorts of thoughtful music fans, even if they’ve never had a punk phase.) His latest thought-provoking essay examines the perceived value of work in the independent music sphere, the lengths that artists will go to avoid talking publicly about money, the oversimplified narratives about what constitutes “fairness” and the damaging legacy of the $5 show.
Throughout this year, “raptor house” has been something of a buzzword in electronic music circles, particularly as tracks from the Venezuelan genre’s creator, DJ Babatr, have increasingly landed in the sets of tastemaking DJs in Europe and North America. Yet the full story behind DJ Babatr and the music he innovated has remained largely (and frustratingly) untold, which made this new DJ Mag feature a welcome surprise. Penned by E.R. Pulgar, the article of course addresses raptor house’s current moment in the sun, but it also traces the music’s origins back to Caracas street parties during the late 1990s, and then charts the genre’s many ups and downs in the decades that followed.
DJ Mag is often at its best when it puts together retrospective deep dives into iconic albums, and that trend continued this week with an article that Marke Bieschke put together on Herbie Hancock’s 1983 LP Future Shock. He describes how the genre-busting record laid the groundwork for hip-hop’s eventual move into the mainstream, while also proving to be massively influential for numerous strains of electronic music.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases announced during the past week.
Cybotron is one of the techno genre’s foundational acts, and Detroit legend Juan Atkins—who founded the group alongside Rik Davis, but now appears to be working alongside Laurens von Oswald—has elected to revive the project with a new record. Maintain the Golden Ratio is the first Cybotron release in 28 years, and it’s set to drop via the Tresor label on October 13. In the meantime, lead track “Maintain” has already been shared.
Experimental composer and sound artist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe has been tapped to score Telemarketers, a new documentary series on HBO. The show debuted earlier this month, and its complete soundtrack dropped last Friday on the Invada label.
During the past few years, Machine Woman has mostly stuck to her own Take Away Jazz imprint, but the UK techno eccentric will soon be linking up with the Delsin label for a new EP, When Elegance Becomes Violence. Before it arrives on September 29, she’s shared lead track “Heavy Cream.”
The work of UK artist Thomas Ragsdale has appeared many times here in the newsletter, including last year when “Transmissions,” a song from the Viewers album by his Sulk Rooms project, got the First Floor seal of approval. Now that tune has been given something of a second life, as he last week released Transmissions: Live at Windy Hill, which includes a new live version of the track—which he performed as part of Light in the Tower’s mini-documentary series Exhalations—along with one new song and several “Transmissions” remixes by Patricia Wolf, John Rohek, Kuma and Ragsdale himself (under the guise of a different alias, Two Way Mirrors).
SIMO CELL 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. Today’s recommendation comes from Simo Cell, a French artist who during the past few years has transformed himself from “just another guy on Livity Sound” to one of the most adventurous talents in all of bass music. Unencumbered by the established norms of the UK hardcore continuum, he’s built the TEMƎT label into one of dance music’s most innovative outposts, and has applied that same sort of genre-busting fervor to his own work, including his upcoming Cuspide Des Sirènes album, which is slated to arrive on September 14.
I’ve secretly been hoping for a comeback of filtered house and the French touch vibe for a while now. It feels like the perfect time to actively support its revival, especially with Braxe & Falcon making a return. After experiencing a post-pandemic wave of speediness, deconstruction and brutality, I’m really yearning to reconnect with the groovy and alluring music that’s been missing. With two groovy, loopy and pulsating anthems, DJ Spence’s Fan Needed EP on Montreal-based label Doo fills that role perfectly. I picked the title track here, but both tracks on the record are impeccable.
NEW THIS WEEK
The following is a selection of my favorite tunes from releases that came out during the past week or so. 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.
Between 2018 and 2021, Barker dropped a celebrated EP (Debiasing), an even more celebrated album (Utility) and two sneaky-good self-titled records. In terms of both creativity and quality, this run was more or less unmatched within the electronic realm, and while it solidified the Berlin-based Brit’s standing as one of the genre’s most talented producers, it also made “techno without kick drums”—a prospect that once seemed like little more than a novelty—into a viable musical proposition. Given that, Barker could have easily coasted along, churning out another batch of kickless tunes that, in all honesty, likely would have been pretty good. But coasting isn’t his style, and the new Unfixed EP takes his craft in an almost diametrically opposite direction.
Though it’s not meant to be a concept record, the four-track effort does actively explore “the variability and sonic possibilities of a kick drum,” and impressively manages to do so without ever feeling like it’s bludgeoning the listener with a relentless percussive attack. EP highlight “Wick and Wax” is actually light and effervescent, its bubbly melodies occupying a space somewhere between classical Orbital and old-school trance (the good kind). There’s a classic sensibility to Barker’s work, yet even as “Percussive Maintenance” harkens back to The Black Dog, Plaid and any number of golden-era Warp artists, the track also breaks new ground, its crooked rhythms and jittery eruptions actively expanding the function of the kick drum beyond that of a mere percussive tool.
It was only a few years ago that David Guetta seemingly ruined Martin Luther King Jr. samples for all of dance music, so perhaps it’s fitting that another French artist, Jaymie Silk, has managed to employ MLK’s iconic voice in a decidedly non-cringey fashion. While this should absolutely not be taken as a sign that these samples are now fair game for everyone, “Keep Moving”—the opening cut on Silk’s new Free the Nip EP—amplifies King’s words with a thundering techno drum attack, albeit one that retains a palpable sense of groove. It’s potent stuff, and brings to mind Robert Hood’s early-2010s output as Floorplan, both sonically and spiritually.
While we’re on the topic of drum-heavy techno, the title track of Marco Faraone’s new Any Good Vibe? EP is a stompy delight. With its brawny percussion, the song recalls the heavier tribal house sounds of late ’90s New York, but the Italian artist has both upped the tempo and swung his drum patterns, giving the tune a natural bounce that’s not far off from that of Venezuelan raptor house. Add in some semi-comprehensible vocal samples that loosely resemble the song’s title, and you have all the ingredients for a joyous techno romp.
The groovy opener of G. ZIFCAK’s new NEXA album, “Distance Vision” sounds like Kyle Hall and Suzanne Ciani teaming up on a freaky dub-techno composition. The work of someone like Topdown Dialectic might be an apt comparison, but “Distance Vision” hews closer to the dancefloor, capably weaving its weirdness, its busted boogie-funk bassline and its sparkling synth melodies into the song’s seemingly half-drunk strut.
Despite my well-documented weakness for Italo-flavored tunes, even I can admit that the genre is often excessively bright and cheery, which makes the slightly darker feel of Tom Sharkett’s “It’s 5am Somewhere” a welcome change of pace. Although the track—which appears on the Manchester producer’s new It’s Not That Deep EP—won’t ever be mistaken for a gloomy tour through the underworld, its twinkling melodies and floaty vocal textures do feel understated, which allows the song’s chunky, ’80s-style synth-bass to lead the way. It’s still something made primarily for the club, but it’s less “hands in the air” and more “close your eyes and keep on dancing.”
Of course, when you want something truly dark and menacing, few artists are more reliable than The Bug. “Limbo (Lust and Paralysis)” is a standout from the new Machine III EP, a collection of tunes the vaunted bass veteran describes as both “sci-fi dub” and a “slo-mo mind f-ck.” Terror and discomfort are the baseline here, and things only become more hellish as the’s song deliberate death march (a.k.a. its thundering percussion) trudges forward. Imagine being in the middle of a nightmarish drum circle in which every thump and thud is being struck by a maniacal demon; that’s “Limbo (Lust and Paralysis)” in a nutshell, and with its gnarled sonics and serrated edges, listening the song is about as comfortable as being trapped in a tiny room where every surface is not just jagged, but razor-sharp. Kode9 may have written a book called Sonic Warfare, but it’s The Bug who seems most determined to test out the concept on the civilian population.
Although Demuja usually swims in house and disco waters, the Austrian artist’s new Malibu Beach Club alias is said to be focused on ambient, glitch, IDM and trip-hop sounds. “Fighter Mode” is the project’s first single, and while its laid-back spirit and stripped-down boom-bap wouldn’t be out of place on any number of ’90s-era West Coast rap records, it’s the song’s twinkling chimes and subtle melodic haze that make for a genuinely dreamy listening experience.
Does It Look Like I’m Here?, the 2010 album from Emeralds, is a phenomenal record, and even in the context of the group’s sprawling catalog, it’s quite possibly the finest thing the astrally inclined Cleveland trio ever recorded. That alone makes the LP’s new reissue worth grabbing, especially considering that it includes both a handful of previously unreleased tunes and a pair of relatively hard-to-find remixes of the title track by none other than Daphni (a.k.a. Caribou).
Those extra goodies will surely please the completists out there, but in truth, none of them reach the same heights as “Now You See Me,” a standout track from the original album that perfectly encapsulates why Emeralds was—and, following their brief reunion earlier this year, hopefully still is—such an incredible band. With its softly strummed guitar and glittering synths, the song exudes both Balearic bliss and cosmic wonder, conjuring images of Captain Kirk and the original Star Trek crew cruising through the galaxy on quaaludes, or simply landing the Enterprise on a planet full of nothing but good waves, cool breezes and supremely chilled surf dogs. It’s not often that something this big also feels so profoundly comforting, and whenever it comes on, I feel 100% ready to play it on repeat and settle into a long stretch of cryosleep.
As a former member of cLOUDDEAD and a co-founder of the Anticon collective, Odd Nosdam will likely always be affiliated with the most avant-garde corners of hip-hop, but “End Is Important,” the title track of the Bay Area beatmaker’s latest EP, sounds more like Boards of Canada, or perhaps a particularly colorful dispatch from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. With its ethereal choirs, fluttering melodies and zoned-out rhythm, the song offers a charming bit of new age whimsy, its sonic flight of fancy further enhanced by the fact that the music’s constituent parts include field recordings captured while Odd Nosdam was visiting Salvador Dali’s house in Catalunya.
How do two guys from Toronto put so much seaside flavor into their tunes? Southern Shores’ new Anyplace There Is EP even has a palm tree on the cover, but regardless of whether or not the music’s tropical undercurrent is authentic, the carefree “Sweet There Is” is an unmistakable pleasure. An easygoing house tune with a low-key pop heart, it’s buoyed by marimba-like synth melodies and some deeply laid-back (but still heart-tuggingly soulful) diva vocals. This one has “Ibiza sunset” written all over it.
Pavel Milyakov (a.k.a. Buttechno) has flirted with post-punk minimalism before—most notably on BLUE, his brilliant 2021 release with Yana Pavlova—and pmxper, his new collaborative project with perila, continues down a similarly rewarding path. “Quiet Night,” the opener of the duo’s self-titled debut, bares traces of groups like Young Marble Giants and the more tripped-out offerings of Sonic Youth, and ultimately deals in a sort of soft-focus grunge, the subtle snarl of its guitars nicely offset by perila’s hypnotic talk-singing and weightless vocalizations.
Following up on the Dream the Dream: UK Techno, House and Breakbeat 1990-1994 compilation that he painstakingly pieced together and released earlier this year, veteran UK DJ and record collector Richard Sen decided to give three tracks from that collection a refresh. Dream the Dream: Richard Sen Remixes is the end result, and this rework of UVX’s “Elevator” is the best of the bunch, a patient—it’s literally more than 10 minutes long—piece of proto-trance with a rolling techno groove and warm, spacey synths. When people talk about “good trance,” songs like this are what they’re referring to.
And with that, we’ve arrived at 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.