First Floor #204 – An Unexpected Revival
a.k.a. An emo-centric interview with claire rousay, plus a round-up of the latest electronic music news and a fresh crop of new track recommendations.
Is emo having a little moment right now? Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it seems like references to the genre are increasingly popping up in unexpected places. Over the weekend, the most recent edition of Sam Valenti’s Herb Sundays newsletter / playlist series passed the aux cord to Huerco S., whose selections surprisingly leaned heavily into what the native Kansan described as “post hardcore, slacker rock, emo, math rock, s******e, indie alt post whatever.”
That post went live just a few days after I’d interviewed ambient / experimental artist claire rousay, who spoke to me at length about her forthcoming album, sentiment, on which she sings, plays guitar and heavily references the “classic” emo sound of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Our conversation was rousay’s first on-the-record chat about the new record, and though it was exclusively published earlier this week for paid First Floor subscribers, the paywall is currently down, so scroll down if you’d like to give it a read. (And yes, there’s a lot of emo talk in there, but we actually cover a wide range of topics, including some of her unfiltered thoughts on life in Los Angeles.)
Admittedly, those are just two examples, but maybe they’re indicative of something bigger. We’ll have to wait and see, but in the meantime, I’m guessing that the majority of First Floor readers aren’t particularly interested in emo, so I’ll just go ahead and move on. Electronic music is still the primary focus of today’s newsletter, and I’ve put together the usual digest of news items, links to interesting articles and new release announcements. I’ve also gone through the glut of new releases that came out during the past week—thanks to Bandcamp Friday, it was even more than usual—and have assembled a list of track recommendations that I hope you’ll enjoy. And if you don’t completely trust my taste, I’ve also recruited experimental artist Nate Scheible to stop in with a recommendation of his own.
We have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.
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 claire rousay. An experimental artist who for years has half-jokingly referred to her music as “emo ambient,” she’s just announced a new album that’s awfully close to emo proper. Ahead of its arrival, she speaks about her history with the much-maligned genre, explains why she took her music in this new direction and shares her worries about how the change will be received.
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, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
It’s probably too soon to start compiling a list of the best electronic music writing of 2024, but this in-depth examination of Jeff Mills’ 1996 mix, Live at the Liquid Room, Tokyo, that Gabriel Szatan penned for Pitchfork’s Sunday review series is a brilliant piece of work. Of course it digs into the particulars of said mix, but there’s so much more in there. Thoughtful, deeply researched and also funny (in a way that doesn’t derail the narrative), the article includes a bevy historical tidbits about Mills, Underground Resistance and the trajectory of Detroit techno, but it also traces Mills’ path in the decades since the mix was released, eventually embarking on a sober analysis of where dance music is at right now, and what exactly is his place in it. If you read one thing this week (or, frankly, this month), make it this piece; in a time when music journalism is seemingly disintegrating and its value is being openly questioned, it’s a wonderful reminder of just how good music writing can be.
There’s an unfortunate irony to the fact that Szatan’s piece surfaced in Pitchfork, just weeks after layoffs and restructuring at the publication triggered the latest round of widespread existential worry amongst music journalists. And while numerous articles have been devoted to the topic of what went down with Pitchfork and its parent company Condé Nast, this investigative article that Max Tani wrote for Semafor provides the most thorough accounting of the situation, examining why Pitchfork was acquired in the first place and tracing how things gradually went awry in the years since then. Longtime Pitchfork CEO Chris Kaskie is extensively quoted, and the piece also includes several “this would be funny if it wasn’t so depressing” details highlighting the cluelessness of Condé Nast decision-makers.
And for those who just can’t get enough inside information about the Pitchfork debacle, Arielle Lana LeJarde has also been doing some dogged reporting for Resident Advisor. In one piece, she spoke to multiple ex-staffers (who are now apparently barred from even contributing to Pitchfork as freelancers), and quoted an anonymous source who remains on staff and describes the publication as a “ghost ship.” A follow-up article echoed that claim, and also reported one small piece of good news: although the Pitchfork and GQ teams are being joined, their websites will apparently remain separate, at least for the time being.
Laurel Halo—who was interviewed by First Floor last August—has sat down with writer Steph Kretowicz for a new conversation that surfaced this week on Nina. The two discussed last year’s Atlas album, the definition of ambient, the genre’s intersection with pop and how Halo found herself staying in an empty LA mansion at the start of the pandemic.
I have to credit Joe Muggs (who, among other things, writes the Bass, Mids, Tops and the Rest newsletter) for alerting me to this, but Plex—an influential London techno party that began in 2006 and ultimately ran for more than a decade—has been actively digging into its archives. During the past few weeks, they’ve posted sets from Donato Dozzy, DJ Stingray, Answer Code Request, Aleksi Perälä, Rrose and several other artists, all of which were recorded at Plex events. They can be found on Plex’s SoundCloud, which also includes previously shared sets from Sandwell District, Mike Huckaby, Neil Landstrumm and many more.
OBLIGATORY BOOK MENTION
My first book is out now. It’s called First Floor Vol. 1: Reflections on Electronic Music Culture, and you 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.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases announced during the past week.
Beth Gibbons, best known as the lead singer of legendary trip-hop outfit Portishead, has completed her debut solo album. Entitled Lives Outgrown and consisting of songs the UK artist recorded over the course of a decade. it will be released via Domino on May 17, but the video for lead single “Floating on a Moment” is available now.
After formally making his return to dance music with last year’s Rosa Rugosa EP for Hessle Audio, Olof Dreijer (who was formerly one half of The Knife), has now teamed up with the AD 93 label for his next record. The Coral EP is slated to arrive on March 6, but its title track has already been shared.
Raptor house innovator DJ Babatr was one of electronic music’s surprise success stories in 2023, as the Venezuelan producer was finally welcomed into the international club and festival circuit, literally decades after he’d made some of his most important tunes. Will the industry make room for another pioneering figure from that era? We’ll soon see, because vintage cuts from fellow Venezuelan raptor house / changa tuki originator DJ Yirvin were reissued last week via ACA—the same label that put out DJ Babatr’s The Tribe (Baila) EP last year—on a record called Changa Fusion. Available now, it includes both some raptor house classics and some examples of Yirvin’s personal style, which he called “hard fusion.”
Earlier this year, Mount Kimbie announced that the group had expanded into a four-piece band, and now they’ve revealed plans for a forthcoming new full-length. Born out of a batch of demos that founding members Dominic Maker and Kai Campos first cooked up in the California desert, the indie- and shoegaze-influenced LP is called The Sunset Violent, and it’s scheduled for an April 5 release on Warp. Ahead of that, two tracks from the record can be heard here, and a video for the song “Fishbrain” has also been shared.
Operating under his k2dj alias, ambient eccentric Ben Bondy has gone a little bit country on “sippin,” a delicate new track on which he literally sings about cowgirls and plays slide guitar. It’s available as a name-your-price download on Bandcamp.
Ital Tek’s excellent 2023 album, Timeproof, deserved far more love than it got, but that didn’t stop the longtime Planet Mu affiliate from quietly self-releasing a new EP, Death By a Thousand Cuts, last week.
Texas techno upstart Decoder, who’s previously worked with Jeff Mills’ Axis label and also makes music under the name Cratan, has completed a new album. It’s called Ghanaprajna, and while it won’t be released by the Fixed Rhythms label until March 14, several tracks from the record are already available here.
It’s hard to believe that I. JORDAN hasn’t yet released a full-length album, but that will soon change, as the UK artist yesterday shared the news that an LP will be arriving on May 10 via Ninja Tune. Entitled I AM JORDAN, it’s billed as a project dedicated to the idea of trans joy, and lead single “Real Hot n Naughty”—which features the vocals of actor Felix Mufti—is out now, along with the song’s official video.
TSVI is set to return to the Nervous Horizon label he co-founded. His new Mediterraneo EP takes inspiration from the Mediterranean progressive sound, which was popular in his native Italy during the late ’90s and early 2000s, and it’s due to surface on March 8. In the meantime, opening cut “Progressiva” has been made available.
Beans will always be known for the years he spent as part of Warp-affiliated avant-garde hip-hop group Antipop Consortium, but the NYC rapper hasn’t stopped taking his music in surprising new directions. He’s joined forces with Sasu Ripatti (a.k.a. Vladislav Delay) on new album ZWAARD, and before the Tygr Rawwk label issues the record on March 13, they’ve shared a first single, “ZWAARD 1.”
NATE SCHEIBLE HAS BETTER TASTE THAN I DO
First Floor is effectively a one-person operation, but every edition of the Thursday digest 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 Nate Scheible, a Washington DC-based artist for whom the the word “experimental” is appropriate, but not wholly adequate. Whether he’s collecting field recordings or salvaging bits of audio from other people’s forgotten relics, he has a unique ability to create oddly poignant work, a talent that is perhaps best evidenced by 2017’s Fairfax (which was reissued in 2022) or last year’s Plume. Later this month, he’ll be inaugurating the Outside Time label with a new release, or valleys and, and before it arrives, he’s dropped by to share an eccentric composition that’s as charming as one of his own pieces.
Lately I’ve been struggling to approach much of my music with an uninhibited sense of play. Rather than being wholly present in the act of creating and experimenting, I worry about how the sounds I’m making might fit into a record or performance, or get too caught up in recording or documentation of processes. This track off Sunflowers Face the Sun by Ailie Ormston and Finlay Clark perfectly encapsulates the type of exploration I’m striving towards. Yes, there’s intention, a concept, but it doesn’t feel forced, and the playfulness is evident. Improvisations on an out-of-tune piano are recorded to a dictaphone, and there’s just enough manipulation to further accentuate the spirit of the source material. The modest instrumentation and recording set-up only emphasize the high level of creativity and spontaneity exhibited by both artists. It’s a piece I’ve revisited many times during the past few years when I’ve been in need of inspiration.
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.
Who else is ready for a proper revival of ’80s freestyle and hi-NRG? If such a thing ever comes to pass, Ready in LED ought to be crowned as its breakout diva. Just a few months over she teamed up with Jordan Nocturne on the neon brilliance of “Over and Over,” the Ukrainian vocalist has popped up on “Free Yourself,” a glamorous standout from NRG, the new EP from Berlin-based duo Soft Crash (a.k.a. Phase Fatale and Pablo Bozzi). The record also includes a head-turning guest appearance by Marie Davidson, but it’s Ready in LED who steals the show, channeling the spirit of early Madonna (and maybe even Paula Abdul) and sprinkling some R&B sass atop the song’s glittery strut. More songs like this one please.
Ylia has spent the past few years establishing her ambient bona fides with releases on Balmat and Paralaxe Editions (full disclosure: the latter label is owned by my wife), but the Spanish artist will always be a raver at heart. Having spent much of her youth DJing at massive breakbeat parties across Andalucia., she put that experience to use with People You May Know, her long-brewing collaboration with Barcelona-based Venezuelan Phran. Megafauna is the pair’s second EP, and its sci-fi electro borrows equally from the legacies of Detroit (Aux 88, Drexciya) and Holland’s West Coast (labels like Bunker, Clone). Especially potent is the EP’s title track; aside from being the most relentless cut on the record, it’s also the tune that’s most clearly ready to rave, its trippy melodies and furious arpeggios barely contained by the song’s boombox-ready rhythms.
The RFR label rarely seems to get much attention from the press or the tastemaker crowd, which is strange because the Munich imprint has quietly served up one quality release after another for several years now. The latest is RNBWS’ genre-hopping new Finest Gear EP, and its title track is a belter, rowdily walking the line between big-room techno and trance as its warbling synths inject a little bit of psychedelia into the mix. “LXTC” isn’t quite so intense, but its chunky electro—which sounds like a slightly funkier take on the razor-sharp rhythms of Gesloten Cirkel—is no less captivating, and not just because the song’s stuttering robo-vocal says “XTC” over and over again.
The release of The Monitors (Redux) was meant to be a joyous affair. A two-track effort from longtime friends and LA techno lifers John Tejada and Silent Servant (a.k.a. Juan Mendez), it was first issued in 2011 and credited to The Monitors, but the two had recently freshened up the material and were already making plans for the reissue when Mendez unexpectedly passed away last month. That casts something of a pall over this record, but its contents are well worth revisiting nonetheless. “Protection” is the more propulsive number, and in contrast to Mendez’s known affinity for darker sounds, it’s actually rather bright, with swirly synths, fizzy hi-hats and hints of ’60s-era sci-fi.
Imagine that it’s 1991, and some Italian dream house producers are trying to make a hip-house record, only they don’t know any rappers. It’s possible that they’d come up with something like “Saragassum,” a highlight of UK artist Bufo Bufo’s new Beelzebufo EP that dropped last Friday. With its swung breakbeat, the song starts out sounding like an old Jungle Brothers record, but as soon as the silky smooth piano licks and cooing diva snippets come in, the location quickly shifts from the streets of NYC to the cool waters of the Adriatic. That’s where it remains, and while no raps ever appear, the track’s deliciously funky bassline prevents things from fully slipping into the chillout zone.
Golden Scales is the latest EP from Italian techno artist Claudio PRC, and it’s a decidedly low-key affair. That’s not a bad thing, particularly when so many of his contemporaries seem intent on pulverizing dancefloors into submission. Claudio PRC isn’t interested in battering anyone, and though it’s easy to say that his music is “deep” and leave it at that, seductive is a better descriptor, as the music’s weighty atmospherics and persistent throb will eventually charm even the most hesitant of ravers. The standout “Monotex” is actually a bit proggy, its sturdy kick marching ever-forward as the song’s chiming tones and rippling textures coalesce into a sort of smudgy, hypnotic cloud.
Appearing on Curvature—an imprint specifically devoted to channeling the sounds of “golden age 90’s atmospheric drum & bass / jungle”—the new Isometric Projection EP has a distinctly cinematic streak, its rumbling Amen breaks as well suited for the IMAX as they are the club. ASC often takes cues from sci-fi film scores, and listening to opening cut “The Construct” triggers the same feelings of awe that a lone astronaut might feel when confronted with a massive space station. Granted, in outer space there aren’t any birdcalls or nature sounds looming in the background, but those elements feed into the song’s innate tranquility; even with its thundering drums, “The Construct” seems far more interested in inspiring wonder than cracking skulls.
It’s a shame that words like “filth” got commandeered by the brostep crowd all those years ago, because even the loudest EDM bass farts sound flaccid when compared to the mangled sonic havoc that The Bug has been serving up for the past few decades. Machine V is the latest (and supposedly last) installment of a series devoted to what he describes as instrumental “pressure weapons,” and EP closer “Exit(Wasteman)” is about as friendly as an oncoming bulldozer. There’s some dancehall in there, of course, but it’s been slathered in industrial muck and jagged static, resulting in a vibe that’s a lot closer to Hades than the Caribbean. Methodical and menacing, the track doesn’t band or bounce; it stalks, laying waste to its surroundings as the vibrations from every drum hit loosen the fillings of whoever happens to be in earshot.
Chaperone feat. Nazanin Noori “motion like catching balance on the moving train” (enmossed x Psychic Liberation)
First released in 2021, Chaperone’s Emotion Hospice album finds beauty in the murkiest of corners, taking what might otherwise be elegant ambient and avant-garde excursions and burying them beneath layers of static and hiss. Newly remastered and reissued, the release at times feels like watching someone empty a trash can on a manicured flower bed, but the Philadelphia artist ultimately lands on a chaotic strain of serenity. That contrast works particularly well on epic opener “morose vandal the white-out memorial,” on which soaring, choir-like vocal fragments are forced to cut through a persistent cloud of scratchy distortion. The more soulful “motion like catching balance on the moving train”—which is taken from a separate, single-track release and features the sampled voice of Nazanin Noori—is similarly encrusted in crunchy detritus, albeit to a lesser degree, and winds up sounding like a long-lost trip-hop cut that someone found on a dusty DAT in the Mo’ Wax archives.
Recorded as part of an installation at a disbanded prison in Sweden, Maria W Horn’s PANOPTIKON carries a lot of emotional weight—its vocal parts were literally meant to serve as the “imagined individual voices of the inmates”—but the music itself is quite beautiful, often reflecting an almost devotional quality. Much of the release combines those vocals with arresting, long-form drones, but “Längtans Vita Duva” follows a more humble path. A stripped-down reworking of a traditional folk song, it’s an angelic showcase of the human voice, the majesty of its multi-part melodies enhanced by nothing more than what sounds like the natural reverb of the space in which they were recorded.
Even before a certain Atlanta rap legend recently brought the flute into the musical mainstream, the instrument was already having something of a renaissance in more experimental circles. It’s at the center of MJ Guider’s new Youth and Beauty EP, but even though the New Orleans-based artist has been playing flute since she was a kid—check her Instagram for proof—the record is less a testament to her classical chops and more of a moody, post-punky dirge. “Grand Couteau” has a tense, almost paranoid vibe, and while those listening closely may hear the delicate whistle of Guider’s chosen instrument, what really stands out are the song’s wavering drones, not to mention its foreboding clips of spoken French and the intermittent sounds of distant explosions. If Sonic Youth had soundtracked a film about trench warfare during WWI, this track would have fit right in.
Le Mystérieux Orchestre Électronique de Paris “Réémergence d'une Promesse un Peu Trop Âgée” (Versatile)
Concrete facts about Le Mystérieux Orchestre Électronique de Paris are hard to come by, but the project’s self-titled debut album—a collection of long-form, ambient-ish pieces that were supposedly created with the help of generative music processes—is a gorgeous effort. ’80s new age is an obvious touchstone, but so is the dramatic flair of someone like Vangelis, and though much of the free-floating LP seems to peacefully glide through the air, “Réémergence d'une Promesse un Peu Trop Âgée” is the one track with a little bit of a percussive motor. That “motor” doesn’t involve any actual drums, but the song’s percolating synths and kosmische pulse do provide a welcome sense of forward momentum. It’s probably still headed toward the clouds, but it’s doing so with a detectable sense of purpose.
And with that, today’s edition of First Floor comes to an end. 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.)
Have a great 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.