First Floor #28 – Techno in the Time of COVID-19

a.k.a. It's not easy to stay interested in electronic music during a global pandemic.

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

I don’t know how everyone else is doing, but I don’t feel particularly inspired to write a big essay for today’s newsletter. Simply put, the current state of electronic music just doesn’t feel all that important right now. (Side note: If I see another “music is more important than ever during times like this” message, I’m going to scream.)

It certainly doesn’t help that the situation has already brought out the worst in so many people, particularly online. Less than a week into social distancing, my primary mood can best be summed up by this tweet:

This absolutely includes members of the electronic music community. Admittedly, our industry taking a huge hit right now, and lots of people I know — including artists, managers, booking agents, promoters, venues, journalists, editors, labels, studio engineers, sound and lighting technicians, stage managers and plenty of others too — are facing lost income and uncertain futures. Regardless of what happens with the coronavirus, the music industry will almost certainly be smaller at the end of 2020 than it was at the beginning of the year. As a freelancer, I’m worried too, but seriously folks, right now we have much bigger concerns to think about.

The COVID-19 pandemic is going to be a major stress test for our whole society, and potentially for our entire way of life. And while I’m certainly hoping for the best, it’s unlikely that we’ll be “going back to normal” in two weeks. Hell, even two months feels optimistic at this point.

So yes, I share people’s concerns about lost work and economic insecurity, but I’m honestly a lot more worried about whether the healthcare system or the economy is going to collapse than when clubs are going to open up again. Things could potentially get very ugly for practically everyone on the planet, but that hasn’t stopped a whole lot of artists and industry types from somehow making this crisis primarily about them and their needs. I know that plenty of artists are struggling, and many were struggling even before the coronavirus hit — it’s one of the recurring themes of this newsletter — but to the average person, and even to the average electronic music fan, this sort of “look at me and my plight” behavior is incredibly off putting, and the fact that so many people in our community don’t recognize this shows just how myopic our scene has become.

At the same time, I’m not in favor of viciously attacking these folks either. Even if some people’s conduct has been questionable or misguided, it’s most likely rooted in a genuine fear for their future well being. People are worried, not just about the virus, but about how they’re going to pay their bills; some of them might be clumsy communicators or even flat-out annoying, but they’re not the enemy. Is going after each other online really necessary? With everything else that’s going on, why waste the time and energy? I get that everyone’s social media feed might feel especially obnoxious right now, but the mute and unfollow buttons are always there, and I’ve already found them to be incredibly helpful during this crisis.

Besides, if we are going to talk about the music industry right now, I’d personally love to see a lot less focus on the restoration of the status quo and a lot more talk about how the coronavirus has exposed just how broken the entire music ecosystem has become. Craig Jenkins (one of the best music writers out there) spelled this out brilliantly in an essay that went up yesterday on Vulture, and that kind of big-picture thinking is exactly what we need.

As for helping right now, there are many concrete ways to support artists and other members of the electronic music community, if you’re so inclined. (And I completely understand if you are not.) Resident Advisor has compiled a list of resources and initiatives that could prove useful, both to those looking to lend a hand and to those who need help. Otherwise, now is also a great time to actually BUY merch from your favorite artists, labels and record shops. (Here’s one of my periodic reminders that streaming generates very little income for most electronic artists, even ones whose names we all recognize.) And when it comes to buying music, I especially recommend purchasing through Bandcamp; beyond that, if anyone is interested in compiling and / or sharing lists of music right now (especially music from artists affected by the crisis), then I’d suggest doing it through Buy Music Club, which bakes Bandcamp purchase links into every list. (You’ve likely noticed that I already create a new Buy Music Club list for the newsletter every week.)

Otherwise, if you really want to help right now, just stay home! Unless you’re one of the people still working during this crisis (e.g. medical professionals, supermarket staff, public transportation employees, etc.), the absolute best thing you can do is to stay in your home, even if you feel 100% healthy. At this point, it’s all about flattening the curve, and it’s frankly infuriating to see how many people (including some folks who read this newsletter) spent the past weekend going to parties and festivals, crowding into bars and restaurants or just lounging in public spaces. Stop being selfish, go home and stay there. It’s honestly not that hard.

And if you’re bored and need something to do, then feel free to take a deep dive into the rest of this newsletter, which is full of all the usual recommendations, music news and assorted links that I always provide. Electronic music may not feel like a major priority right now, but I’m stuck inside like the rest of you, so I’m going to keep doing my thing.

We all have to keep ourselves busy, right?


SOME OTHER THINGS I WROTE

  • Back on March 4 (which feels like a lifetime ago), Beatportal contacted me and asked if I wanted to put together an article about how the coronavirus was impacting the electronic music industry and community. I spent the next week researching, interviewing and writing a story that, given the rapidly shifting situation and constant stream of breaking news, was incredibly difficult to complete. The published piece is here, and while there is still lots of good stuff in there (including extensive quotes from artists like Marco Passarani, Jubilee and Lele Sacchi, plus Resident Advisor co-founder Nick Sabine and numerous booking agents), it’s remarkable just how quickly a lot of the information went out of date. At the very least, the article is a good snapshot of the moment just before things got really serious in the Europe and the U.S. and most people were still in a tentatively optimistic “we don’t know what’s going to happen” mindset.

  • Bass-centric Berlin party Mother’s Finest has launched a new record label, which it kicked off with a star-studded compilation. It’s full of quality tracks, and I reviewed it for Pitchfork.

  • DJ Mag published the reviews from its March issue online. Head here (and scroll down) to find my writeup of the Marlon Hoffstadt album, and go here for my thoughts on Interstellar Funk’s new Artificial Dancers compilation on Rush Hour and the new Quinze compilation on Barcelona label Lapsus.

  • Although it’s not technically something I wrote, you may remember that I am a part of Support Organize Sustain (S.O.S.), an organization spearheaded by DVS1 that launched last year with an eye toward preserving dance music’s foundational values (e.g. community, artistry, respect) in the face of the scene’s increasingly industry- and business-oriented outlook. Our first event took place last October in Amsterdam, and we’ve now made available videos of that day’s full compliment of panels, roundtable discussions and presentations. (You can find them all here.) Given that many of us are going to be stuck inside in the days and weeks ahead, you should know that there’s a lot of great material in here, as the first S.O.S. event included artists like Josey Rebelle, DJ Stingray, Juliana Huxtable, Dasha Rush and many others, including (of course) DVS1 himself.


REAL QUICK

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.

  • Resident Advisor has done an excellent job staying on top of cancellations and other breaking news involving COVID-19 and its impact on the electronic music industry. You can keep track of all the latest developments here. On Friday, they also published this feature, which rounded up first-person perspectives from artists, booking agents, promoters and more about how the coronavirus has personally impacted their lives and livelihoods.

  • Pitchfork has also been reporting on the coronavirus. Philip Sherburne put together a wide-ranging look at its impact on the global club scene, while Marc Hogan examined how record shops are being particularly hard hit.

  • Following a lengthy battle with leukemia, Throbbing Gristle co-founder Genesis P-Orridge passed away on Saturday.

  • Tempo-hopping, genre-expanding UK artist Joe, who’s arguably one of the most inventive producers in all of electronic music, is responsible for the latest Resident Advisor podcast.

  • On April 10, NYC producer and “deep reggaeton” originator DJ Python will be releasing a new album, Más Amable, via the Incienso label. I highly recommend reading the note he penned describing the thoughts / emotions behind the LP—you can find that here—along with album cut “ADMSDP,” which is streaming here.

  • Buchla wizard Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith announced a new-full length, which Ghostly International will be releasing on May 15. Entitled The Mosaic of Transformation, it’s said to be inspired by her love of electricity, and the first single, “Expanding Electricity,” is streaming here.

  • Fresh off the release of a new album from his Against All Logic alias, Nicolás Jaar will soon be releasing another LP, Cenizas, under his own name. Although the record is slated to arrive on March 27 via his own Other People label, Jaar has already shared one of its tracks (“Sunder”) online. Stream that here.

  • For those lucky enough to have a DJ set-up at home, it’s quite fortuitous that Octo Octa and Eris Drew have just shared a document with an extensive rundown of DJ tips, tricks and techniques. You can find it on their T4T LUV NRG label website, where it’s available in both PDF and Google Docs formats. Download it and start putting all of this “social distancing” time to good use.

  • Following the success of the first Pacific Breeze compilation last year, the Light in the Attic label has put together a sequel. Due to arrive on May 15, Pacific Breeze 2: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1972​-​1986 promises another deep dive into underappreciated vintage pop sounds from Japan. In the meantime, one of its songs (Piper’s “Hot Sand”) is streaming here.

  • NYC artist Photay dropped a new, pay-what-you-want album called On Hold, a largely ambient record that consists of pieces “completely derived from recordings of ‘on hold’ or ‘call waiting’ music.” (Don’t worry, those recordings have been heavily manipulated, so the music is pleasantly dreamy and atmospheric.) All proceeds from the album will be donated to Food Bank for New York City to help meet the increased need for food during the current COVID-19 pandemic.


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.

Serwed “Shade Lyra” (West Mineral Ltd.)

Hello everyone. I hope you are all well and self-quarantining. We live in strange times, and it feels a bit odd to talk about music when so much is unknown right now. Social media is currently a cesspool of ill-informed, self-appointed experts; if you are prone to anxiety, I think it’s best stay off it and take care of your mental health as well. Take time to look after yourself holistically; I myself am making tape loops and burning candles. Anyway, it’s been raining here in Barcelona, the streets are eerily quiet and I’m currently listening to this new Serwed album on West Mineral Ltd. I hope it provides some therapeutic relief for the situation right now.

Follow Dania on Twitter, or check out her monthly radio show on dublab.es.


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.

Four Tet “School” (Text)

Back in January, I took a bit of umbrage with Four Tet, but I can’t deny that the man is a talented artist. His latest album, Sixteen Oceans, dropped on Friday, and I was definitely keen to hear it, even though I didn’t have the highest of hopes for the LP. It’s not that I expected it to be bad, but at this point, Kieran Hebden has largely settled into a particular sound and aesthetic, and though they’re certainly enjoyable, they’re also known quantities. Even as he’s drifted a bit closer to the pop sphere (see recent single “Baby,” which features the vocals of Ellie Goulding), Hebden still basically sounds like no one but himself. Now, it’s possible that Sixteen Oceans features some major deviations from the usual Four Tet formula, but I actually wouldn’t know because he didn’t make the whole album available to stream on Bandcamp and I’m not on Spotify or any of the other major streaming platforms. (He also made a point to not send advance copies of the album to journalists or pretty much anyone else, as he wanted everyone to hear the record at the same time.) “School” was the one new track he did post on Bandcamp, and despite my relatively low expectations, I have to admit that it’s a gem. It’s still very much a standard Four Tet song, but there’s something irresistible about its bright, bell-like melodies. The beat may be simple and the production is clean, almost to the point of being pristine, but “School” is one of those tunes that just makes you perk up when it comes on. It’s a delicious little electronic pop morsel, and makes me think that maybe I really should check out the rest of Sixteen Oceans.

Marlon Hoffstadt “Mantra of a New Life” (Midnight Themes)

Does anyone else remember Paul Oakenfold’s Tranceport? I know it’s anything but cool to admit this now, but I listened to that mix CD a lot when it came out in 1998. (In truth, it wasn’t all that cool back then either, but I’m sure that I wasn’t the only semi-clueless American who spent a lot of time with that album.) And while it had a lot of big tunes that, depending on your perspective, were either cringe-worthy trash or undeniable anthems, there was one song, Lost Tribe’s “Gamemaster,” that featured a big, new agey spoken word passage in the middle of the track. It’s definitely (more than) a bit corny, but considering just how ridiculous and over the top the entire trance genre can be, the vocal really works alongside the song’s operatic crescendos and insistent beat. Why do I bring all of this up? Because “Mantra of a New Life” reminds me of that song. Although it doesn’t go nearly as big as “Gamemaster” or any of the other tracks on Tranceport, it very much evokes that era with its billowing pads, pastel melodies and, most importantly, its vocal mantra that literally says, “Be kind. Be humble. Take care. Give love. Because only love will set you free.” Taken from the new Planet Love album, it may be a little self-helpy—Hoffstadt says that the entire LP was written during “an intense and emotional time”—but it’s also refreshingly earnest, and it’s telling that even a cynic like me really enjoyed this tune (along the rest of the record, which borrows heavily from trance and other ’90s rave staples).

Mike Slott “Letting Go” (LuckyMe)

Born in Ireland and now based in New York, Mike Slott’s career will always be tied to Glasgow, where he helped found LuckyMe and once collaborated with Hudson Mohawke in the Heralds of Change project. During the late 2000s, Slott’s combinations of hip-hop and electronic music helped lay the groundwork for an entire generation of beatmakers, but over the past decade, he’s been relatively quiet, releasing only the occasional single or remix. “Letting Go,” however, is taken from Vignettes, a new EP that represents his most substantial release since 2009’s Lucky 9Teen. It’s a gorgeous record, and one that finds Slott eschewing beats entirely while creating what he describes as an “inner soundtrack.” (Perhaps that explains why I found myself thinking of Oneohtrix Point Never’s soundtrack work while listening to it.) Much of Vignettes consists of shimmering melodies and looming atmospheres, and the slowly fluttering “Letting Go” feels like the musical equivalent of sitting next to a brightly lit swimming pool late at night and getting lost in the gentle undulations of the water’s surface.

Nico “Common Drum” (Mother’s Finest)

Hodge “Silo” (Mother’s Finest)

I’m generally not a big fan of compilations. It’s a topic I’ve written about before, and it’s why I was a bit skeptical about Berlin-based party Mother’s Finest kicking off its new label with a collection of tunes from a somewhat random group of buzzworthy artists from around the globe. As I wrote in my Pitchfork review, the Mother’s Finest Compilation doesn’t have much of a narrative or purpose; it’s a collection of tracks, some from acts that have played the party, others from artists whose music simply fits the Mother’s Finest vibe. The record could have easily wound up being totally forgettable, but it’s absolutely not. Credit Mother’s Finest founder Franklin De Costa and resident DJ Hodge for their curatorial prowess, because there are so many ace tunes here. I’ve highlighted “Common Drum,” a percussive, Livity Sound / Timedance-esque gem from Mexican producer Nico, along with the more unhinged “Silo” from Hodge himself, but the compilation also features highlights from Mosca, Anunaku, Violet, Dyamo Dreesen, Otik and so many others. For those looking to load up on a fresh crop of club-ready material, Mother’s Finest Compilation will likely prove very useful.

False Witness “Past, Present, Future” (Mild Fantasy)

With everyone stuck at home, I’m not sure how much of a need there is for blistering techno punishment right now, and that’s too bad, because “Past, Present, Future” is a killer tune. It’s taken from Underneath, a new EP from New York-based Brazilian Elle Dee and Berlin-based New Yorker False Witness that kicks off the former’s new Mild Fantasy label. The record features two collaborative tracks along with solo efforts from both artists, but there’s something particularly potent about “Past, Present, Future,” a dark-and-stormy number that injects some fresh energy into the often stale industrial-techno formula. Berghain might not be an option right now, but with the lights turned off and this song blaring from a laptop or whatever tinny speakers are available, a person could still have a lot of fun. Sometimes the best raves are that ones that happen in your bedroom, especially when tracks like this one are providing the soundtrack.

Bochum Welt “Greenwich (Mix 2)” (Isle of Jura)

David Arch “Afro Culture” (Isle of Jura)

As much as I love to get on my high horse about compilations, here I am recommending another one. Both of these tracks are from Jura Soundsystem Presents Transmission Two, a diverse collection that moves through ambient, electro, dubby house, slow disco, library music and more. Isla of Jura is an interesting label, an Australian reissue imprint that’s largely focused on chuggy and Balearic sounds, albeit with a bit more funk and edge than those descriptors would usually indicate. The first Transmission compilation (which came out in 2018) was solid and contained numerous edits and tools from Jura Soundsystem himself, but the sequel is actually stronger. “Greenwich (Mix 2)” is an alternate take on Italian producer Bochum Welt’s wonky, somewhat Kraftwerk-esque electro tune from 1997 (which came out on Rephlex), while “Afro Culture” is a quirky (and surprisingly funky) piece of electronic pop that was originally released in 1986. (There’s nothing particularly “Afro” about the song, save for maybe the drum pattern, but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.)

Scratcha DVA “Sumbodydefinatlydied” (Self-released)

Hyroglifics & Sinistarr “BS6 (Scratcha DVA Remix)” (Hooversound)

There’s nobody else like Scratcha DVA. I’ve been following this outspoken London producer for more than a decade now, and while I haven’t always enjoyed his various musical twists and turns, I’ve always appreciated his obvious appetite for growth and change. He’s a pure creative force, an obviously talented and largely unfiltered figure (both artistically and verbally) who’s seemingly unburdened by careerism and trends. Over the past two years, that creativity has fueled the unique bass manipulations and drum creations of his self-released DRMTRK series, and he flexes those same skills on the gqom-esque rework of “BS6” (in which he completely deconstructs the blazing footwork of the original). However, when I think back on those DRMTRK EPs—and truthfully, Scratcha’s entire catalog—I don’t think I’ve ever heard something like “Sumbodydefinatlydied.” Taken from Dnt Panic, a pay-what-you-want bundle he posted online over the weekend, the solemn (and beatless) song is only 89 seconds long, but there’s a lot of emotion and grace in its mournful strings and wistful synth melody. It’s thoughtful and downright cinematic, and although I know that Scratcha’s main focus is the club, this track makes me want to see him getting into this introspective mode more often.

Artefakt “Ganzfeld Effect” (Delsin)

Artefakt “Delphic” (Delsin)

I don’t know if it’s actually been a banner week for unexpected ambient tunes, or if the global pandemic just has me craving soothing music, but “Ganzfeld Effect” is a lovely surprise from Artefakt. Those looking for the duo’s usual techno stuff will be delighted to hear “Delphic,” a hypnotic and subtly melodic cut with sharp breakbeats and a potent bassline, but “Ganzfeld Effect” feels like something new from this Dutch pair. Eschewing drums altogether—although what sounds like an underwater synth pulse does provide a bit of percussive forward momentum in the song’s latter half—Artefakt is verging on new age here, their soft pads and trickling water sounds coming together to make something that’s better suited for a morning yoga session than a night on the dancefloor. That’s not a critique; the song is beautiful and offers a sense of calm that’s sorely needed at the moment.

Space Dimension Controller “Planète Contraire” (Dekmantel)

The title track from Space Dimension Controller’s new EP, “Planète Contraire” is described by Dekmantel as “deep-space disco,” and while that description certainly makes sense, the song actually got me thinking of video games. Now, I realize that simply saying “video games” is something of a vague descriptor at this point; video games have been around for more than 40 years and the music of the earliest Atari offerings doesn’t necessarily have a lot in common with what’s soundtracking the latest Xbox titles. Given that, I’ll be more specific and say that “Planète Contraire” reminds me of the music I used to hear when I was playing Nintendo 64 and Playstation back in the late ’90s. While the song is not quite silly enough for a Mario title, the bright sound palette and playful synth melody definitely feel like something that would have worked for Zelda or some other expansive RPG. Anyways, even if you have no knowledge of video games (for what it’s worth, I stopped gaming a long time ago), this is Space Dimension Controller at his best. There are nods to ’80s boogie and the sci-fi spirit of Detroit, but the music here never gets too over the top; it’s meditative and maybe even a little sad, which isn’t the easiest mood to establish with a technicolor aesthetic.

Asquith “Tears in the Rain” (Who’s Susan)

The Lobster Theremin founder continues his shapeshifting ways, this time on a record for Amsterdam label Who’s Susan. Although much of the Temple Runner EP is devoted to rough-edged, rave-ready techno and electro, “Tears in the Rain” is a freewheeling jungle track. And while I’m sure that the thought of another UK house/techno producer trying their hand at drum & bass is prompting at least a few eye rolls, “Tears in the Rain” doesn’t feel like the work of a tourist. There are rollicking breakbeats and burly bass blasts, and like most of Asquith’s work, the song is anything but polished. The nods to ’90s jungle are obvious, but “Tears in the Rain” also channels the prankster spirit of old Rephlex material, or even artists like Kid 606; with its sudden stops and starts and rollercoaster-like trajectory, the track makes for a joyously unhinged listen.

Archivist “Cinder Cone (Patrick Russell Remix)” (Secondnature)

Secondnature doesn’t release a lot of records, but this Pacific Northwest outpost just might be my favorite techno label. Its latest release is Cinder Cone, a new EP from Seattle producer Archivist, who delivers three cuts of driving, slightly psychedelic material. However, it’s the fourth track that caught my ear: this remix by habitual rulebreaker Patrick Russell. He’s never been the kind of artist who plays it straight, and here he twists “Cinder Cone” into an ominous, bass-heavy chugger that vaguely resembles drum & bass, at least in tempo. (Those hoping for smash-mouth Amen breaks should look elsewhere.) Is weightless drum & bass a thing? If so, this tune might qualify. It’s a bit weird, and not at all what I expected, but it’s real good.


That brings us to the end of this week’s newsletter, and despite my stated lack of enthusiasm, it still wound up being a pretty long one. If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading, and I really hope you enjoyed the tunes. (Don’t forget, you can find them all on this handy Buy Music Club list, and if you like them, buy them.)

Stay safe out there… and stay home!

Shawn


Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance writer, editor, presenter and project manager. Find him on LinkedIn or drop him an email to get in touch about projects, collaborations or potential work opportunities.