First Floor #27 – A Love Letter
a.k.a. Thoughts on Barker, MUTEK and keeping it positive.
|Shawn Reynaldo||Mar 10|| 1|
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 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
As of this week, I have been doing this newsletter for six months.
Now, I know that six months isn’t all that long, but it’s not nothing, and I continue to be amazed that people out there are actually interested in reading this thing. I know I’ve said this before, but THANK YOU so much for all the support and feedback. A lot of work goes into First Floor, but I really do feel like people appreciate it, which makes the whole process genuinely rewarding on my end.
I know that some readers might be expecting another one of my critical essays—I’ve certainly noticed an uptick in “keep sticking it to the bastards” sentiment, along with a sort of excited anticipation about who or what I’m going to “target” next—but today, I’d actually like to do something a bit different. I want to keep it positive.
Last week, the MUTEK festival made its annual appearance in Barcelona. I’m admittedly a supporter of the MUTEK organization, and have been to multiple editions of the festival in Montreal, Mexico City and Barcelona. However, I’ve often found the Spanish edition to be a bit lacking in comparison to its counterparts, although I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the organizers’ fault. The budget here appears to be smaller, and Barcelona is already an oversaturated festival market. Furthermore, despite the city’s reputation as an electronic music hub, it’s actually more of a straight-up party town; events that truly cater to the more thoughtful / experimental end of the spectrum often struggle to find traction.
Regardless, I always make a point to check out MUTEK when it comes to town, and this year I was particularly excited to finally see Barker perform live. Regular First Floor readers already know that I love his work—his Debiasing EP and Utility album are some of my favorite records of the past few years, and I also wrote a feature on him for DJ Mag last fall—but I hadn’t yet been able to see how his richly melodic, kick-drum-free techno would translate to a club setting.
That said, I was honestly a bit worried about the show. Not because of Barker, but because of the venue. Nitsa (which happens every Friday and Saturday at a club called Apolo) is one of Barcelona’s preeminent electronic music spaces, and while the programming is usually quite good, the crowd is… well, let’s just say it’s the average weekend party crowd that isn’t necessarily motivated by music. (For what it’s worth, most clubs in Barcelona suffer from this problem.) I’ve often joked that Nitsa always feels exactly the same, no matter if Helena Hauff or Hunee is playing, and this holds true for their MUTEK events as well. When I walked in on Saturday night, the room was full, but it was obvious that most people there weren’t even aware that MUTEK was happening, let alone that Barker was about to go on stage.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Where is this positivity that Shawn promised? This seems like another one of his critical diatribes.” And to that I would respond:
Even when I want to be positive, I’m still me. If you’ve been reading my work for any length of time, you likely know what you’re getting.
Barker’s live show was incredible.
I’ve seen a lot of DJs and live shows over the years, many of them excellent, but it’s rare that I see something that feels truly special.
Barker’s live show was special.
Spanish crowds are famous for only responding to heavy, four-on-the-floor kick drums. (People here often jokingly refer to the “bombo español,” which means “Spanish kick drum.”) This is a big part of why I was nervous; Barker’s whole thing revolves around taking the kick drum out of the equation, and I was imagining that the crowd would respond by aimlessly milling about and talking loudly over the music.
I was wrong.
Although the first half of his set (he played for an hour) featured hardly any percussion, people were locked in. Even without the usual plod of the kick drum, the music had movement and rhythm, and while I expected this (again, this approach is at the core of his past few releases), seeing it live was really powerful. Even when he did bring some heavy drums into the mix, their application was unorthodox; at one point, he diverted into extended bouts of undulating drum rolls, while other passages found his percussion emphasizing the off beats. It would have been easy for Barker to give in and drop into a standard techno beat, even as a sort of climax, but he never did. He walked his own path and amazingly, it worked.
If you haven’t seen Barker perform yourself, allow me to recommend his FACT Mix from last August, which is similar in style and also excellent.
Watching Barker perform, I started thinking about how rigid dance music can be, and how even when artists do attempt to deviate from the usual rhythmic formulas, their experimentation frequently comes at the cost of groove. Bucking convention is easy, but Barker has managed to do so without punting on dance music’s most basic function: making people move. And yes, his music has fuzzy nods to ’90s trance and IDM—during Saturday’s performance, I found myself thinking of Aphex Twin’s more melodic moments—but those reference don’t detract from the innovative and uniquely enjoyable nature of Barker’s work.
It’s funny, but somehow it feels weird to write such effusive praise. After more than 20 years in music, it honestly takes a lot to “wow” me, and even when I do like things, it’s hard to turn off the part of my brain that’s constantly contextualizing everything. This is what my usual internal dialogue sounds like when I’m listening to music:
“Oh, this sounds like ragga jungle, only the sound palette is more like early Chicago house.”
“This has a ’90s Detroit techno vibe, but the drum patterns remind me of speed garage.”
You get the idea.
Thinking this way is certainly useful for my work, and it helps me analyze and break down what I’m hearing, but it’s not the same thing as being as fan. As a journalist, I appreciate a lot of things, but I have to admit that it’s harder and harder to feel that genuine sense of pure excitement that drove me toward music in the first place. A lot of that likely stems from getting older and feeling cynical about the industry that surrounds all this music we’re hearing, but it’s nice to know that I’m still capable of just being a fan.
I’d like to thank Barker for the reminder.
ANOTHER THING I WROTE
DJ Mag published its latest round-up of “emerging artists you need to hear,” which includes I blurb I put together about young rave revivalist Ronan. (Scroll down to find it.) The feature also includes short folks like Karima F, Olive T, J-Shadow, Zakia and others, although I didn’t write those myself.
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.
The coronavirus (officially known as COVID-19) is starting to take a noticeable toll on the electronic music industry. Festivals like SXSW (Austin), Ultra (Miami), Organik (Taiwan) and Beat Hotel (Marrakech) have all been cancelled, while the Italian government has shut down all nightclubs until at least April 3. This is just a partial list of effected events and locales—for those wanting a more complete picture, Resident Advisor put together a handy summary page of coronavirus-related news items—and the cancellations will likely continue to pile up as the virus spreads, so we’ll likely be hearing a lot more about this story in the weeks and months ahead.
In lighter news, a whole lot of new releases were announced during the past week; here’s a quick(-ish) summary:
Four Tet released a new single, “4T Recordings” and said that his new album Sixteen Oceans would be arriving this Friday, March 13.
Italian trance experimenter Lorenzo Senni will be issuing a new LP called Scacco Matto via Warp on April 24. The first single is “Discipline of Enthusiasm.”
Vancouver duo Minimal Violence has linked up with Tresor for a new trio of EPs under the elaborate title DESTROY —> [physical] REALITY [psychic] <— TRUST. The first chapter, Phase One, comes out on April 24 and you can stream EP cut “The Next Screen Is Death” here.
Whities has added JASSS to its impressive stable of artists, as the Spanish-born producer will be releasing a 12”, Whities 027, on March 20. You can check out one of the record’s two tracks, “Turbo Olé,” now.
Following up on last year’s collaborative effort with Kassem Mosse, Detroit’s FIT Siegel has a new solo EP, Formula, that’s slated to arrive on March 31. Preview clips are here.
Róisín Murphy has gone fully disco on “Murphy’s Law,” her new single that was produced by DJ Parrot a.k.a. Crooked Man. It’s out now.
Future Times has signed up Jordan GCZ (a.k.a. one half of Juju & Jordash) for a new EP called Space Songs that will be released on April 3. You can check out a couple of tracks already, “Half-Time” and “Bah Bah Rhodes.”
After launching the WSNWG label last year as a home for his collaborations, Berlin techno stalwart Rødhåd has made big plans for 2020; in the months ahead, he’ll be releasing collaborative EPs with Ø [Phase], Daniel Avery, Rene Wise and Dasha Rush, but first he’s got a record with Antigone coming on April 17. Their track “180702.1” is streaming 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’ve been interested in Jasmine’s work for a while now, especially her investigation into online surveillance, which is what her new album Microphone Permission is all about. (Aside from the new LP, she also previously made a Chrome plug-in called Listening Back that translates internet cookies into sound as the user is browsing online.) Still, this release is not just conceptually compelling; it’s quite engaging sonically too. It’s like walking through a Tarkovsky film, passing dilapidated, post-industrial factories in a landscape full of uncertainty and decay. I think it’s a pretty good backdrop to the current coronavirus hysteria.
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.
As a journalist, I know that I’m supposed to keep my fanning out to a minimum, but after that Barker essay, I suppose the floodgates are open. Anyways, I’ve always found this New Jersey producer to be an incredibly special talent. I’ve said before that something about his music feels a bit off (in a good way), and I think that holds true on his latest album Rainbow Doll, despite the fact that it’s his first LP prominently featuring the human voice. “Heaven Help Us” is an instrumental, but it’s my favorite track from the new record, even though it’s stylistically something of a departure for Anderson. Centered on a guitar melody that’s somewhere between Neu! and Arthur Russell, its slight twang pairs beautifully with the song’s azure melodies and almost Balearic vibe. There’s (eventually) a kick drum too, but this track isn’t necessarily something for the club. I’m not usually one for elaborate metaphors, but listening to “Heaven Help Us,” I found myself imagining a leisurely horseback ride beneath a purple sky on an alien planet. I know that makes no sense, especially since I’ve literally ridden a horse exactly once in my life, but that kind of weirdness is a big part of what makes Joey Anderson such a treasure.
Bartosz Kruczynski has spent the past decade making electronic music, both under his own name and using a variety of different monikers. As Earth Trax, he makes house music (like many these days, with the occasional breakbeat flourish), often drifting into a dreamy, melody-driven zone. Following a flurry of EPs in recent years (both solo and alongside frequent collaborator Newborn Jr.), he’s just released his first Earth Trax album, the simply titled LP1. Lead track “I’m Not Afraid” seems to be garnering the most excitement—a remix EP for the song drops later this month—but I prefer “Deep Dive,” a bucolic number that only hints at the dancefloor while luxuriating in pastel pads and gauzy melodies.
This one’s also a bit dreamy, at least until the song’s tough bassline drops about two minutes in. “Shimmer” is taken from Horizon, a new EP from Melbourne producer Pugilist, who you may remember from the record he did for Whities’ Blue series last year. Australia is rarely cited as a hotbed for bass music—maybe it’s a function of the climate, but the scene there is usually portrayed (at least by outsiders) as being more focused on selector-style house and disco—but Pugilist still fits comfortably into the whole Whities / Timedance / Livity Sound spectrum. In a way, “Shimmer” sits somewhere between those two worlds, pairing club-ready low-end acrobatics with the same sort of woozy, subtly soulful melodies you’d usually expect to hear at a open-air party in the summertime.
There’s nothing sunny about this tune. After getting his start with Hyperdub, Walton was welcomed into the orbit of Pinch’s Tectonic label, and his latest contribution to the catalog is the Abyss EP. “SBWYS” is built atop a thick, lumbering bassline, the sort of thing you can imagine just rippling across the dancefloor and rumbling every gut in the room. That said, “SBWYS” isn’t a lumbering oaf; with its old-school rave stabs and hard-knocking, garage-like drum pattern, the track is downright lively, and the song’s chipmunked dancehall vocal snippet gives the whole thing a cheeky twist. Walton can always been counted on to deliver some screwface-inducing bangers, but on “SBWYS,” the Manchester producer also sounds like he’s having a lot of fun.
Back in 2010, when the LA beat scene was really popping off, some of the best releases surprisingly came from All City, a label out of Dublin, Ireland. While the source was unexpected, All City’s extended series of 10-inch releases—which featured music from artists like Daedelus, Teebs, Ras G, Matthewdavid, Dam-Funk, Samiyam, Tokimonsta and many others—was absolutely essential. Now, a decade later, All City has decided to revive the series for one final chapter from Kutmah. Now based in Berlin, Kutmah was an instrumental figure in the early LA beat scene, but back in 2010, his life and career were turned upside down when he was suddenly deported from the United States. (He’d come over from the UK as a child and had been living there undocumented for several years.) The new EP is called New Appliance, and in classic beat tape style, it includes a variety of scratchy rhythms, some blissful and psychedelic, others more raw and distorted. “Nothing Like This,” which begins with a sample that says “this one is for Dilla,” is unquestionably the most soulful of the bunch; an infectious tune built around a buttery vocal snippet that Kutmah stretches and pulls like silly putty, it harkens back to that magical 2010 era, yet it still sounds fresh.
Technically, this isn’t a single track. It’s an entire side of a limited-edition cassette / digital release from Client_03, a mysterious project from an unknown UK producer who clearly worships at the altar of classic electro (and Drexciya in particular). I know that pretty much everyone (myself included) has had their fill of Drexciya soundalikes at this point, but this Testbed_Output_01 mixtape—which consists of 100% original Client_03 material—is the real deal, a veritable masterclass in retro-futuristic robotic funk. Moreover, it’s diverse; there are Cybotron-style breakdance jams, gurgling acid lines, nods to vintage video game soundtracks and various electro-techno hybrids. “Side B” does include “Hope Repeater,” which first appeared on an EP of the same name last year, but otherwise everything on the tape is brand new, which means that Client_03 is sitting on a treasure trove of amazing tunes. I don’t know who Client_03 is, but they’re absolutely worth watching.
Speaking of revisiting the past, Sheffield bleep techno is currently enjoying another moment in the sun, thanks in part to Matt Anniss’ recent book Join the Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music. (He’s also curated a compilation of the stuff, which is set to arrive later this month.) German label Die Orakel has also jumped into the bleep techno fray with ORKL-0114, a series of three 12”s from Frankfurt producers paying tribute to the influential late ’80s / early ’90s sound. The second installment of ORKL-0114 just dropped, with Benjamin Milz at the helm, and the A-side (featured here) is a melodic (and subtly hypnotic) gem that even folks who have no idea what bleep techno is can enjoy. With its slight rattle, the percussion reminds me a bit of Belgian new beat—although that might just be due to a similarity in the equipment being used—but “OKRL-0114-02 A” also showcases the psychedelic, almost transportive vision that guided many early techno producers during that time. “Journey” might be the most overused word in electronic music journalism, but that’s what this song feels like, and it’s a pleasant one to boot.
Montreal has long been a hotspot for all sorts of different electronic music, and now the city can add another outpost to its ranks: Garmo, a new techno-focused offshoot of the Naff label. The young imprint’s first release comes from Ntel, a collaboration between Priori (a.k.a. one half of Jump Source) and Ex-Terrestrial (a.k.a. Adam Feingold). Their Dilution Effect EP is full of storming dancefloor cuts, but “Melt” feels like a ’90s rave throwback with its squiggly acid bassline, plinky melody and sci-fi diva flourishes. The track walks the line between trance and techno, ultimately leaning more heavily toward the latter, but regardless of the genre classification, this one clearly has a day-glo spirit.
More ‘90s rave devotion, this time from Dublin artist Fio Fa, who also heads up the Pear party / label. “Fantasm,” however, is taken from Rescue Squad, the inaugural offering from Holly Lester’s newly founded Duality Trax imprint out of Belfast. “Fantasm” seems like an obvious reference to Joey Beltram’s classic “Mentasm,” especially with its use of similar hoover riffs and synth stabs, but the vibe here is more relaxed, largely thanks to the song’s spacey pads and cooly tumbling breakbeat. Not many tunes can function with one foot in the chillout room and the other on the main room dancefloor, but Fio Fa has somehow pulled it off.
I never thought I’d find myself getting nostalgic for microhouse, but this tune from NYC synth wizard Steve Moore has got me thinking fondly about old Playhouse records. Although Moore doesn’t seem like the most obvious candidate for the Kompakt roster—he’s prone to long-form ambient / cosmic synth jams, and his clubbier material is usually released on L.I.E.S.—but he actually appeared once before on the famed Cologne label back in 2010. “Gamma Quadrant” is taken from a new EP called Frame Dragging, and while the record does include a couple of his signature synthy forays into outer space, this track is a slow-boiling number whose linear construction and relaxed spirit are offset by a myriad of subtly anthemic melodies. The Balearic guitar riff in the song’s latter half won’t please everyone (there’s some definite cheese in there), but “Gamma Quadrant” still works; aside from the microhouse vibes, it also feels like something of a return to the classic Kompakt sound, which—much to my surprise—sounds pretty good right now.
Of all the genre names thrown at bass music over the years, I think “future garage” has to be the worst, especially now that 10 years have passed since that non-genre’s heyday. But even if we set the misguided nomenclature aside, “Thinking of You” does remind me of that late-’00s era; relying on a simple formula, it’s little more than a ramshackle garage rhythm, a rude, almost dubsteppy bassline and a catchy R&B vocal snippet. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but it’s also damn enjoyable, which is good enough for me.
Every week, I wind up including at least one ominous techno tune, and “Drone” is the latest installment of that (inadvertent) series. Taken from Non Perfect Drone Replication, the new EP from these two Dutch techno producers, “Drone” could have been just another standard-issue piece of industrial-tinged techno. What makes the track stand out is its growling low-end centerpiece; it’s the kind of fuzz-laden sludge you’d normally hear in a dubstep track, or perhaps some sort of sound design-heavy experimental piece, but here it just intermittently blooms, briefly oozing its way across the sonic spectrum before quickly retreating back into the ether. Combined with the track’s pitchy melodies, it makes for an effectively unorthodox approach, and a spooky one at that.
Storytelling #1: Reminiscences Of Inner Scenery, the new album from Lemna, has an intriguing origin story, albeit one that doesn’t sound all that pleasant for its creator. Last year, the Japanese artist suffered a period of intense insomnia, to the point where she suffered a sort of delirium, and wound up writing the entire LP over the course of two weeks, mostly working in the middle of the night. “From the Dark Water” reminds me a bit of Gustavo Santaolalla’s Babel soundtrack, albeit with fewer “world music” overtones and more drawn-out, heart-tugging strings. My wife said it sounds like a string orchestra playing in the rain—which I thought was a pretty solid turn of phrase for someone who’s not a music journalist—but even if you prefer a different metaphor, there’s something enchanting about the song’s cinematic swells and dour atmosphere.
Admittedly, I’m not particularly knowledgeable when it comes to The Cinematic Orchestra. I know that the UK outfit has been affiliated with Ninja Tune for the past two decades, and that 2019 saw the release of To Believe, the group’s first studio album in 12 years. I wasn’t a huge fan of the LP, but all lot of star power has been recruited to remix its various tracks. Assorted reworks have been trickling out over the past year, but now a complete remix package has been issued; entitled To Believe (Remixes), it’s an all-star collection that includes efforts from Actress, Moiré, Dorian Concept, Anthony Naples, Mary Lattimore, Fennesz, Pépé Bradock, Photay, Lucinda Chua, Ras G and others. There are 16 tracks in total, but Kelly Moran’s take on “The Workers of Art” is my favorite; yes, it’s cinematic and symphonic, but there’s a lot of heart-wrenching drama in her fevered piano melodies and soaring string passages. Simply put, it’s gorgeous.
Although it feels like this sort of thing doesn’t happen too often anymore, it can be a lot of fun (albeit moderately confusing) when a label creates all sorts of offshoots and sub-labels. That’s essentially what’s happening in Lisbon, where a couple of the guys from Principe started a different label, Holuzam, back in 2018. While those two imprints aren’t officially connected, Marte Instantânea is an actual sub-label of Holuzam, and has been conceived as an outlet for CD and digital releases of assorted electronic oddities. First up is Electronic Music 1995-2010, a collection of tunes from leftfield producer Vitor Rua (a.k.a. one half of Telectu, whose Belzebu was the first Holuzam release). In truth, it’s not really dance music, and most of the album consists of short, sketch-like creations, but “Music for Computer #5” sounds like a mix of classical composition, new age and gamelan, only if the whole thing was done on a ’90s desktop computer. Hyperactive and oddly beautiful, there’s something compelling and almost hypnotic about its robotic rigidity.
That’s it for this week’s newsletter. Thank you so much for reading, not just today, but for the past six months. And, of course, I do hope you enjoyed the tunes. (Don’t forget, you can find them all on this handy Buy Music Club list.)
Until next time.