First Floor #198 – The State of Things
a.k.a. Dance music's unencouraging 2023, plus a round-up of the latest electronic music news and a fresh slate of new track recommendations.
With 2023 coming to a close, music journalists everywhere are contemplating the year gone by. As you’ve undoubtedly seen already, most of that contemplating winds up manifesting in the form of lists—and yes, my own will be published here next week—but while I was looking back at everything that happened during the past 12 months, I quickly realized that my thoughts couldn’t be properly summed up with a mere tabulation of my favorite tracks and releases from 2023. Of course there was a lot of good music this year; there’s a lot of good music every year! But the more I thought specifically about the state of dance music—not just the music, but the culture and the industry around it—and considered how things are looking right now, two words kept popping up in my head:
So I wrote an essay about that, and based on the initial response when the piece was first published on Tuesday, I’m guessing that many of you are here now wanting to read the complete article. You can find it below—and yes, the paywall has been (temporarily) removed—but there’s also a lot more stuff in today’s newsletter: news, new release announcements, links to interesting articles / mixes and a big batch of new track recommendations. And speaking of track recommendations, I’ve also recruited music journalist Chal Ravens and Local Action founder Tom Lea—who just last week launched a new podcast called No Tags—to drop in with a special recommendation of their own.
No matter how you feel about the current state of dance music, electronic music or music in general, there’s always a lot going on, and hopefully First Floor can at least help to point you toward the good stuff. Let’s get into it.
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 essay looking back at dance music in 2023, contemplating why the culture / industry seems to have doubled down on superficiality—and wondering if a different path might be possible in the years to come.
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.
OBLIGATORY BOOK MENTION
My first book is out now. It’s called First Floor Vol. 1: Reflections on Electronic Music Culture, and folks can order it from my publisher Velocity Press. However, if you’re outside of the UK, I’d actually recommend either inquiring at your favorite local bookshop or trying one of the online sales links I’ve compiled here.
ANOTHER THING I DID
I made a small contribution to Pitchfork’s list of The 100 Best Songs of 2023, expressing my enthusiasm for Hudson Mohawke & Nikki Nair’s “Set the Roof (feat. Tayla Parx).”
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 Spotify devoted much of last week to celebrating the global rollout of its year-end Wrapped campaign—an annual marketing effort that is now causing even broadsheet newspapers to raise a suspicious eyebrow, with The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis describing it as both “creepy” and “meaningless”—the company this week announced that it would be cutting 17% of its staff. That’s equal to about 1500 employees, and it marks the third round of Spotify layoffs this year alone, all of which have been done in an effort to build the company “into a truly great and sustainable business.” Needless to say, this news hasn’t gone done well in music circles, and while there are no shortage of snarky takes to be found on social media, artist Jacques Greene perhaps summed it up best when he tweeted, “crazy they gutted an entire industry for a business model that doesn’t even seem to work for themselves.”
In other less-than-encouraging streaming news, this tweet from music journalist Jeff Benjamin seems to indicate that the entire editorial staff at Tidal was let go earlier this week. The move seems to be part of the previously announced layoffs at Block (formerly known as Square), which has a controlling interest in the streaming platform and last month said that it would be cutting up to 10% of its 13,000-person staff.
Penny Fractions, a newsletter from David Turner that for years has been an indispensable source of music industry news, research and analysis, is coming to an end. In yesterday’s mailout, Turner announced that he’d be closing up shop at the end of 2023—mostly because he recently started a new job that’s cut down on his free time—and that the final edition would be sent out in two weeks.
Fergus Jones is best known as Perko, but the FELT label founder chose to operate under his own name while putting together Truancy Vol. 319, the latest edition of Truants’ long-running mix and interview series. Aside from the mix, the piece includes a conversation between the Copenhagen-based Scotsman and writer Riccardo Villela, who gets Jones talking about life in Denmark, the curation of his label, working with Huerco S. and more.
Universal Harmonies & Frequencies was a collaboration between Hieroglyphic Being and Polish saxophonist Jerzy Mączyński. I say “was” intentionally, as a new feature by The Quietus’ Jeremy Allen reveals that the creation of the pair’s debut album TUNE In—which is already receiving rave reviews—was in actuality a somewhat tumultuous affair, both during the recording process and especially in the year-plus that followed. Getting all the details requires reading the full piece—and even then, some things still don’t seem entirely clear—but it’s fair to say that a second full-length from this project doesn’t look terribly likely.
DVS1 has repeatedly proven himself to be a fountain of techno wisdom over the years, and he turned on the faucet once again in the latest edition of Resident Advisor’s Exchange podcast series. The conversation with journalist Christine Kakaire was actually recorded as a live event during this year’s ADE, and it touches on a variety of topics, including DVS1’s music, the many challenges (both cultural and economic) facing contemporary electronic music and his revenue-sharing platform Aslice.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases announced during the past week.
Andrés has a new album on the way. Four years removed from his last full-length, the celebrated Detroit mainstay will soon be releasing Andrés V, which is due to arrive on December 21 via the Mahogani label. In the meantime, several tracks from the LP can be heard here.
Even the biggest Legowelt fans likely aren’t familiar with all of his aliases, and now the Dutch prankster has added another one. Alpenmarmot is billed as a “power electronics industrial acid ambient noise project,” and its first offering is the Unheimliche Landschaftsgestaltung album, which is available now through his Nightwind label as a name-your-price download on Bandcamp.
Speaking of artists with lots of different aliases, Planet Mu founder Mike Paradinas (a.k.a. μ-Ziq, among other things) last week donned his Tusken Raiders moniker to release a new EP called Bantha Trax Vol. 5.
Back in October, Local Action reissued “Heartbeat,” a classic track from T. Williams and Terri Walker that helped put the London label on the map back in 2010. The imprint has now followed that up with Heartbeat (Remixes), an EP that includes new reworks of the song by Roska, Scotti Dee and NameBrandSound (a.k.a. Bugz in the Attic’s Alex Phountzi and IG Culture), along with previously available remixes from DJ Q and Mosca. The full package is available now.
John Tejada and Nosaj Thing make for a somewhat unexpected pair, but it was announced earlier this week that two LA producers have joined forces on a new collaborative single called “Contrast.” An audio clip of the track was shared as part of that announcement, but the full song will arrive on December 8 (i.e. tomorrow) as a joint release between their Palette and Timetable imprints.
Following her Birds of Paradise album that Dekmantel issued back in October, Nadia Struiwigh has now assembled a remix EP of tunes from her previous full-length, 2021’s Pax Aurora. Slated for a December 15 release via Nous’klaer, Pax Aurora Remixes includes reworks from DJ Nobu, Om Unit, JakoJako and Julia Gjertsen, and several of them have already been shared here.
Kevin McHugh (a.k.a. Ambivalent) is set to return to his LA-4A alias for the second time this year. The Apparitiana album comes on the heels of June’s Folio LP, and though the full release won’t be available until December 8 (again, that’s tomorrow), the record’s title track has already been shared.
Australian outpost Longform Editions yesterday unveiled its latest bimonthly batch of compositions, all of which come with extended runtimes and an orientation towards deep listening. They include P.M. Tummala and Mike Weis’ “A Heron Hidden in the Moon,” Strategy’s “True Believers,” Anqi Liu’s “a window on absurd, evanescent scenes” and Valerio Cosi’s “The Aqueduct Walk.” All four are out now.
CHAL RAVENS AND TOM LEA HAVE 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 Chal Ravens and Tom Lea, former colleagues at FACT who just last week launched a new podcast and newsletter called No Tags. Devoted to the chronicling of underground music culture—considering that Ravens still works as a music journalist and Lea, amongst other things, heads up the Local Action label, they’re well suited to the task—the two kicked off their new venture by interviewing NTS hosts JK & Bempah, and before the second episode of No Tags drops later today, they’ve put together a recommendation that sheds some light on their shared musical worldview. (And yes, it’s also a great tune.)
No Tags is essentially a bit of a tribute to an era of music writing that felt a little more free, a little less rigid and a little more optimistic—a period where Blogspot and Yousendit were still in regular address bar rotation, and Bandcamp still felt like a utopia on the horizon.
We tried to pick a record from that era that A) we both love, and B) captures its freewheeling spirit, and it was hard to look past Lil Ugly Mane’s 2013 opus Three Sided Tape, a gem of early Bandcamp and a bona fide classic to about 100 people—two of them right here. Comprising three “sides” of mixed Ugly Mane productions, spanning breezy Baltimore club, wonky soul edits, throwback jungle, grinding noise, Memphis-inspired rap beats and more, it remains a high-water mark of bedroom beatmaking and as good an example as any of the restless creativity running through the internet’s backwaters in the early-to-mid 2010s.
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.
Although Erika is well established as an expert in all things electro and techno, her Anevite Void album from earlier this year was a relatively subdued affair, one that prioritized nuance and subtlety over low-end bump. That didn’t detract from the end product—the LP was an excellent listen—but any Erika fans left craving something more dancefloor-oriented will be happy to know that the new Anevite Void Remixed EP has enlisted the likes of Mike Parker, Eris Drew, Whodat, Noncompliant and Wata Igarashi to liven up the proceedings. It’s the latter who makes the strongest impression, maintaining the spooky undertones of the original “Wandering Mountain,” but doing so while transforming the track into a vibrantly arpeggiating techno ripper.
I somehow neglected to recommend the original “Sinais” when it dropped back in April, but like many of Bianca Oblivion’s best tunes, it borrowed heavily from classic grime, combined spindly, Ruff Sqwad-style melodies with serrated blasts of heavy bass. The instrumental alone—which she created alongside fellow Angeleno ONHELL—is more than capable of mashing up the dance, but this new VIP version, which has been rechristened as “Badda” and features the fiery flow of London MC Logan, takes things to a new level, adding an extra dose of urgency to what was already a ferocious cut.
When it comes to jungle, few names are more reliable than Sully, and the UK producer has delivered another pair of rock-solid bangers on UH-03. “Extant” is the more mental of the two, and combines its sinister synth stabs with a furious drum attack and a wailing diva who’s been chopped and looped so many times that she sounds like a psych patient. (For good measure, a separate male vocal gets the same treatment in the track’s latter half.) It’s scary, it’s funky and, most importantly, it slaps. Hard.
It takes a certain degree of courage to open a drum & bass track with an extended suite of epic synths and mystical chimes, especially when that intro goes on for nearly three minutes before the first drum hit enters the fray, but Liquid Silk never seems to break a sweat on “Bells of Arptazia.” The British producer, who now resides in New Zealand and also operates under the name Worldwide Epidemic, actually thrives in the fantastical realm he’s created, operating in a zone somewhere between Metalheadz and Middle Earth—and doing it with the theatrical bombast of a vintage Jean-Michel Jarre performance.
Hard and fast techno has (not undeservedly) gotten a bad rap during the past few years, but “C U Slayter” is no braindead banger. The opening cut of Sina XX’s new Adjib EP, it’s a perfect example of how even the speediest techno can still have a serious sense of groove, and the Parisian techno artist further enhances its appeal by tapping into his Persian heritage and weaving in twisted tendrils of traditional Iranian instrumentation. Odd enough to be interesting and funky enough to keep any dancefloor bopping, it’s a high-quality production.
This year’s “Double Dip” might be the biggest tune of Mor Elian’s career—at least so far—but if the Berlin-based artist and Fever AM co-founder had any worries about delivering a quality follow-up, they’re nowhere to be seen on her new two-tracker Glue Kit. “Eso Eso” opens the record, and pretty quickly gets into what might be described as freaky techno, combining thundering, almost tribal drums with tweaky synth wiggles, sci-fi bass groans, ravey (but not overly nostalgic) sound design and a breezy vocal sample that periodically blurts out the song title. It’s a banger, yes, but it’s also eccentric and impeccably detailed, the sort of tune that benefits from a close listen on headphones. Elian should embrace her inner weirdo more often.
Another month, and another impressive—not to mention borderline unclassifiable—tune appears from Mosca. Easily one of the most innovative club producers out there, he’s one of the rare artists who can openly reference the past while consistently delivering tracks that sound like they’re from the future. His latest, “Look After the Dead,” is billed as a tribute to the earliest days of dubstep, a claim backed by the song’s ominous bass wubs, expert use of negative space and ragga vocal snippets. (The latter have been processed to the point of sounding alien, with only adds the song’s spaced-out allure.) Patience is the dominant characteristic here, and while that might mean that “Look After the Dead” is better suited to 11pm than peak time, it’s a fantastic way to warm up the floor.
To celebrate their shop’s first two decades of existence, the folks behind Phonica Records have gone all out, piecing together a massive, 43-track compilation that not only includes a sampling of their label’s best releases, but also a slate of exclusive originals from the likes of Willow, Dorisburg, Gene on Earth, Dam Swindle and many others, including Daniel Avery. His “Bell” actually opens 20 Years of Phonica, and does so with a relaxed slice of melody-driven, static-kissed techno, one that exudes an almost childlike sense of wonder while also channeling the spirits of artists like Aphex Twin and Andrew Weatherall.
Back in 2017, Galaxiid—a sub-label of Nina Kraviz’s трип outpost—reissued Trip Trap, a 1996 album by freewheeling Russian outfit Species of Fishes that ran through ambient, breaks, IDM, electro, techno and more. Now the imprint has gone back even further into the duo’s catalog, offering up Some Songs of a Dumb World, which is essentially a rejiggered version of an LP that was first recorded in 1994. Listening to the record, it quickly becomes clear that the Muscovite pair always had little regard for genre boundaries, as they spend much of the record moving between blissful serenity and jagged cacophony—often in the span of just a few minutes. Yet there’s an undeniable charm to their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, and it shines brightest on “Operators Pt. 2,” an unpolished gem whose opening volley of ambient calm gradually gives way to an onslaught of rapid-fire breakbeats and what sounds like a proto-footwork undercurrent.
Considering that he’s now 89 years old, was a part of pioneering kosmische outfits Cluster and Harmonia, and then went on to make dozens more albums (both solo and collaborative), Roedelius certainly doesn’t need to still be releasing music. Yet anyone who hears his new Zensibility LP (and gets past its admittedly goofy title) will be happy that the German legend is still doing his thing, because the record—which he recorded with Arnold Kasar across just three days back in 2020—is quite lovely, its soft-touch ambient displaying a subtle cinematic streak but never descending into schmaltz. The twinkling “Lifeline” is a clear highlight, its gentle chords, warm textures and skyward gaze making it feel like a kind of lullaby—one that thankfully doesn’t infantilize whoever happens to be listening.
That’s all I’ve got for this edition of 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.)
Back next week.
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.