First Floor #19 – Are journalists listening to electronic music wrong?
a.k.a. The difficulty of evaluating electronic music outside of the club environment.
|Shawn Reynaldo||Jan 14|| 4|
Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a weekly electronic music digest that includes news, my favorite new tracks and (usually) some of my thoughts on the larger issues affecting the larger scene / industry that surrounds the music. If you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to the newsletter by clicking the button below.
ON MY MIND
Back in October, I wrote about music reviews, and how they’re increasingly fueling tension between artists, critics and fans. Long story short, a lot of artists don’t like reviews, and over the past year or so, many of them have publicly (and often angrily) pushed back against the legitimacy of this particular form of critique.
While these outbursts tend to garner the most attention when they’re coming from pop stars like Lana Del Rey or Lizzo, the sentiment also exists within the electronic music realm. Artists pop off on social media all the time, but back in December I noticed this tweet from Matrixxman:
In fairness, this wasn’t a particularly angry tweet by Matrixxman (an artist who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine). If anything, I think he was bemused—and maybe a bit annoyed—by what he thought was an inaccurate review in Resident Advisor. (For what it’s worth, I thought the review was pretty even-handed. It was written by Ryan Keeling, the site’s former Editor-in-Chief, and while I liked the EP better than he did, I’ve always found him to be a knowledgeable and fair critic.)
Still, regardless of what tone Matrixxman intended to convey, his comment prompted tweets of solidarity from artists like Helix, Beau Wanzer, Amelie Lens, Sophia Saze, Vin Sol and others. Even journalist Andi Harriman got into the act, commenting:
Now, I don’t want to spend time today advocating for the value of music reviews or explaining why I think that things like disagreement and a diversity of opinions can be good for “the discourse”—again, I already wrote about that back in October—but I will say that it’s a bad sign when even music writers are joining the choir of review doubters.
Anyways, what I do want to talk about is something that sprung out of my own response to Matrixxman’s tweets. Here’s what I wrote:
That comment, in turn, inspired more conversation, including this tweet from Scuba:
And that, folks, is what I want to discuss. Truth be told, I think Scuba made an interesting point here. Electronic music—and electronic “dance music” (however you want to define that) in particular—is theoretically made with a specific environment in mind. These tunes are literally meant to be played at very high volumes, ideally on high-quality soundsystems, for large groups of people. As such, electronic music is a genre where function is arguably just as important as form, perhaps even more so. Artistry still matters, of course, but so do things like sound design and bass harmonics. And while musicians of all stripes worry about mixing and mastering, when it comes to electronic music, those elements can seriously impact a track’s effectiveness in its intended environment—the dancefloor.
As a music journalist, I obviously know all of these things, but how do I actually listen to music? I do have some nice headphones that I’ll use when I’m on the go (or when I don’t want to disturb my wife), and occasionally I’ll plug my computer into a proper monitor setup I have at home, but a lot of the time, I’m somewhat mortified to admit, I listen to music through the built-in speakers on my laptop. This is undoubtedly horrifying for the audiophile set, not to mention many of the artists and labels who are kind enough to send me their music, but it’s the truth. I know that I’m losing all sorts of frequencies—particularly in terms of bass and low end—but it’s just the most convenient way for me to listen to music, especially when I’m going through promos in bulk, which is part of my regular weekly routine. (To be clear, when I have to actually write a review or something significant about a piece of music, I will of course listen on headphones, at the very least.)
Now, I haven’t taken any sort of poll amongst my colleagues, but I’m going to guess that I’m not alone in listening to music this way. Even amongst journalists who use headphones, although I know some critics have a nice set of AIAIAI or Sennheisers, I’m also willing to bet that plenty of folks are using Airpods (which sound worse than wired headphones), earbuds or some cheapish set of headphones that they were probably gifted at a conference.
Even if we take the actual listening device out of the equation, there’s no question that most electronic music critics who’ve been tasked with reviewing something aren’t going to listen to that release in a club setting. (Unless they have 24/7 access to a venue or a professional studio, I don’t even know how that would be possible.) And no matter how good the fidelity of their setup is, hearing something while riding on a train or sitting at a desk simply can’t compare with the experience of hearing it on the dancefloor.
Knowing this, I think it’s easy to understand—at least in part—why electronic music journalists tend to gravitate toward and praise certain kinds of releases. I said this in my tweet above, but it’s honestly hard to evaluate something like a stripped-down, eight-minute-long techno track; in the club, it might do some serious damage, but coming out of a laptop speaker, there’s a good chance it’s going to sound tinny and boring. It may not be fair, but when it comes to house and techno cuts, things like colorful synths, big melodies and memorable vocal loops are a lot more likely to catch a critic’s ear than a perfectly compressed kick drum.
And if we consider journalists’ increased interest in bass and club music (relative to straightforward house and techno) in recent years, I think it’s fair to say that at least some of that surge stems from the fact that these tunes simply have a lot more going on. A lot of bass and club music tunes may not be very functional, at least not by the standards of “normal” house and techno DJing, but they’re not going to begin with a two-minute kick-and-snare loop either. Maybe streaming services are to blame, or maybe our collective attention spans are just shrinking, but when it comes to a surface-level, “do I want to keep listening or should I skip forward” gut reaction, a lot of house and techno fails to capture the imagination. Oddly enough, one could argue that even ambient and experimental music is better suited to modern listening habits; while they do require patience and what could be described “deep listening,” they don’t tend to be as outright repetitive as tracky house and techno cuts.
Now, of course I’m not arguing that house and techno have fallen off the critical radar entirely, especially amongst journalists who spend a lot of time in the club and hear that music in its intended setting. (It’s not hard for a critic to get excited about a new tune they heard at De School or Nowadays or whatever nightspot they tend to frequent.) At the same time, if we’re talking about music journalists’ everyday routine, when they’re sitting in front of their laptops, wading through through giant piles of promos—and, as I’ve written before, we get a whole lot of promos—it’s not surprising that so many house and techno cuts, even the ones that are impeccably produced and might be capable of doing some serious damage in the club, tend to generate a “meh” response.
Is this fair? Probably not. Are some potential house and techno bangers going to be missed or saddled with lukewarm reviews? Probably. But is it a “big problem,” as Scuba suggested? I’m not so sure. I suppose it is for a certain cadre of house and techno producers, but even amongst that crowd, it’s only truly a problem for artists looking for the press to validate their work. If we go back to that original Matrixxman Twitter thread, I think it’s clear that the unenthused Resident Advisor review hasn’t stopped DJs from playing the record.
Moreover, I take issue with the idea of “proper context” in relation to electronic music. I understand what Scuba was trying to say, and it’s obvious that a lot of tracks are specifically designed to be heard in a club environment, but that doesn’t invalidate all of the other ways that electronic music—even tracky house and techno—can be consumed. Does a recorded mix count as proper context? Given the plethora of podcasts and mix series out there, I would certainly hope so. What about the radio? Is that a proper context? We all know that listening to NTS or Rinse or any other online station isn’t exactly a hi-fi experience, but that doesn’t prevent us from enjoying the tunes. There are so many ways to listen to and digest this music—in a car, on the train, alone in your bedroom—and depending on the circumstances, they can all be meaningful.
Furthermore, I don’t see artists from other genres regularly complaining that their music isn’t being evaluated correctly because critics aren’t listening to it in the proper context. Hip-hop, R&B, funk, soul, disco, dancehall… all of these technically qualify as “dance music,” but the idea that these styles can’t be judged or experienced properly outside of a club setting is downright ludicrous. Think about heavy metal; that world has some of the biggest sound geeks on the planet, but I can’t imagine someone like Stephen O’Malley arguing that a review of his work wasn’t valid because the writer was listening on headphones instead of getting their face melted by a massive array of speakers.
As someone who regularly reviews electronic music myself, I’m obviously biased here. At the same time, I’ve been doing this a long time and have worked with a lot of different writers and editors. From what I’ve seen, the vast majority of them mean well, listen closely and do their best to be fair. Reviewers aren’t perfect, but I don’t think they’re really out to get anyone either. Of course cheap takedowns and potshots do happen sometimes, but if we’re being honest, they increasingly seem to be the exception rather than the rule. (If it was up to me, reviewers would actually be more critical. Too many reviews these days are some variant of “this is pretty good. Not great but good.” Snore.) Could reviews be better? Of course. Do certain kinds of electronic music lose some of their potency outside of the club environment? Yes. Should electronic music critics consider things like utility and club functionality when reviewing music? Maybe.
If people want to have a conversation about what reviews can and should be, then I’m all for it. There’s plenty of room to improve. Let’s be real though. If you’re an artist, and you seriously think that journalists’ listening methods are to blame for subpar reviews of your work, then perhaps it’s time to take a look in the mirror.
A round-up of the week’s most interesting electronic music news, plus links to mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
Fresh off the release of his One Single Thought EP, Joey Anderson announced the impending release of a new album. Entitled Rainbow Doll, the LP is the New Jersey producer’s first full-length since 2015, and it’s slated to arrive on March 10 via the Avenue 66 label. In the meantime, we can tide ourselves over with the one album cut they’ve shared, “Cindy.”
Indiana bass futurist Jlin is the latest artist to contribute a track to the Adult Swim Singles series. The new song is called “I Hate Being an Adult,” and while we can all identify with that sentiment, the music was a bit too close to wobble-bass dubstep for my taste. But that’s just me; stream the track here and judge for yourself.
Romanian producer Borusiade, a specialist in dark and spooky synths who makes her home in Berlin, announced a new album, Fortunate Isolation, which will be released on February 7 by the Dark Entries label. Preview clips can be found here.
Italian techno veteran Donato Dozzy has never been one to shy away from new things, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s added a new collaboration to his lengthy resume. It’s called Men with Secrets, and finds him working with Neapolitan duo Retina.it; together, the trio will be releasing a debut album, Psycho Romance and Other Spooky Ballads, which is said to be rooted in early ’80s minimal wave sounds. The LP will arrive on January 31 via The Bunker New York, and album cut “Cabaret Démodé” is already streaming online.
The new Squarepusher album, Be Up a Hello, is still a few weeks away—Warp Records will be releasing it on January 31—but it’s shaping up to be a rather intense record. Don’t believe me? Check out the frantic rhythms and blazing neon synths of the LP’s second single, “Nervelevers.”
Space Dimension Controller posted an excellent video in which he performs live as Mr. 8040, the time-traveling protagonist from several of his releases, including his recent Love Beyond the Intersect LP. Set inside the hypnotically lit “Electropod,” he shows off an impressive fleet of gear while playing a three-track session of his signature galactic funk sound. And for those wanting a more in-depth dive into his production methods, he’s also done a new Tech Talk video for Electronic Beats.
Last year, Sofia Kourtesis made quite an impression with her dreamy, self-titled debut EP on Studio Barnhus, and now the Peruvian-born, Berlin-based house producer is set to team up with the Swedish label once again for the follow-up. Entitled Sarita Colonia, it’s set to arrive on February 14, but in the meantime you can stream the title track here.
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 not a writer, so I sometimes have a hard time explaining why I like things. When it comes to Fred Frith, I just like how he uses pedals to manipulate the guitar. This track is from his 1974 album Guitar Solos, and it shows why he’s the master of manipulation. Very little of this actually sounds like a guitar, but it is.
NEW THIS WEEK
The following is a rundown of my favorite tunes that came out during the past week. Click on 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.
Despite being well established as one of house music’s most reliable providers of breezy, melody-driven sounds, Project Pablo has decided to change things up in 2020. More specifically, he’s elected to retire his artist moniker and instead operate under the name he was born with, Patrick Holland. (In truth, a smattering of Project Pablo gigs had already been booked and will go ahead this year, but from now on, all of the prolific Canadian producer’s solo releases will done as Patrick Holland.) “Up to You” is the first offering of this new artistic chapter, and aside from what sounds like a slightly more pop bent, this bright and bouncy tune hits many of the same notes that made his work as Project Pablo so enjoyable. Only time will tell if the name change ultimately leads to a more dramatic stylistic shift, but for now, I don’t care what Holland wants to call himself; if he keeps releasing earworms like his, I won’t be complaining.
I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about San Francisco these days—although I do desperately miss the food—but I’ll make an exception for Cold Beat. Fronted by Hannah Lew (formerly of lo-fi garage-pop outfit Grass Widow), the band recently signed to DFA and will releasing a new album called Mother at the end of February. “Prism” is the latest single from that record, and while some readers might feel that this fuzzy, guitar-driven song isn’t “electronic” enough for First Floor, I’ve been totally charmed by its swirly nods to new wave and synth-pop. Listening to the track, I hear echoes of The Cure, Eurythmics, Depeche Mode, Electrelane and even Silver Apples; let’s hope the rest of the LP is just as good.
Attempting to unspool the backstory behind тпсб is a daunting task—at one point, the music was purported to have come from files discovered on a secondhand hard drive (which was a lie)—but regardless of the project’s murky biography, there’s something special about its shadowy, genre-blurring output. Following up on a 2018 album for Blackest Ever Black, “Laika’s Revenge” is the title track of the debut 12” from the newly christened Climate of Fear label, which has sprung out of the Berlin party series of the same name. Loosely rooted in techno and drenched in the sounds of a sweltering rainstorm, the song’s dreamy synths and unpolished textures actually bring to mind the similarly humid Coconut Grove, the recent album from Climate of Fear co-founder Relaxer. The resemblance may be coincidental, but the music is compelling either way; my only regret is that the record only has two tracks on it.
After several years of turning out rough-around-the-edges house and techno, NYC producer J. Albert has noticeably expanded his sonic palette over the past year or so. In 2019, he grabbed the mic and dropped a moody collection of lo-fi R&B (under the name Jio) for Quiet Time, and last week he surprised us with a new ambient(ish) album called My Rave Ended Yours Just Began. While much of the record features delicate melodies and relatively sparse compositions, opening cut “Box Music” has a bit more heft. Bringing to mind the work of Topdown Dialectic, the lurching track feels like it’s slowly disintegrating over the course of its five-minute runtime, its trundling bassline and thicket of crackling distortion seemingly—and compellingly—in danger of flying apart at any moment.
Nous’klaer is a label that deserves a lot more attention. Active since 2013, the Rotterdam imprint has been home to releases from buzzy acts like Upsammy and Oceanic, but its catalog goes much deeper than that. Mattheis has been with Nous’klaer since the beginning, and his latest EP, A Falcon’s Eyrie, contains some of his strongest work to date. With its sparkling synths and lightly rattling rhythm, “Woodlands” sounds like something you might hear in a science documentary for high school students (this is a good thing). There’s a sense of wonder in the track, and I’m happy to look skyward and let my mind wander when it comes on.
In a time when tempos are rising and dance music often feels more hyperactive than ever before, there’s something refreshing about Forest Drive West and the undeniable sense of patience at the core of his productions. Parallel Space is his first EP for long-running dub-techno outpost Echocord, and it finds the London producer in a notably heady space, even here on the record’s propulsive title track. Opening with a heavily reverbed, lightly clanging melody, the song conjures the image of an abandoned dock, gently swaying with the ocean tide in the middle of the night. Things perk up once the dubby percussion kicks in, but although there’s a lot of life in the song’s simmering rhythm, the overall mood is calm and introspective. There’s a luxuriant glow to “Parallel Space”; all you have to do is slow down and take the time to bathe in it.
A lot of teamwork went into this record; not only is it a split release from San Francisco producer gayphextwin and Valencian upstart Pépe, it’s also being jointly issued by Naive and Jacktone, both of which are quality labels in their own right. After listening through a few times, I realized that I couldn’t settle on a favorite tune, so I decided to go ahead and share these two tracks, both of which are Pépe productions. Brightly polished and bursting with sunshine, they showcase the young Spaniard’s penchant for bouncy breakbeats and not-so-subtle nods to sunny ’90s rave anthems. Easy to digest and inherently joyful, there’s a lot to love in these tunes; I found myself particularly drawn to the sticky vocal loop in the “spz1” remix and the billowing trance pads of “Palinka Hammer.”
Anyone missing the golden age of IDM can find some solace in this track. It’s taken from Unstored, the latest album from Barcelona outfit eedl, whose last LP came out all the way back in 2007. In truth, this new record is rooted in sounds much older than that, as its skittering rhythms and spastic composition recall the work of artists like Plaid and Autechre (during their more melodic moments). Densely constructed, this tune is absolutely something for the headphones crowd, as there’s simply a lot to unpack here, from the song’s warbling bassline to its plinking percussion. A bit of glitch has also been thrown into the mix, but it’s all precision crafted, and ultimately takes a backseat to the track’s swirling cascade of sparkling synth melodies.
That’s all for now. As always, thank you so much for reading and I hope you enjoyed the tunes. (Again, you can find them all on this handy Buy Music Club list.)
Until next time,