First Floor #32 – Techno and the Alternate Timeline
a.k.a. What happens when highly anticipated albums drop in the middle of a pandemic?
|Shawn Reynaldo||Apr 7|| 3|
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
A few weeks ago, I was asked to write something about what electronic music will look like after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Although it sounded like a interesting sort of thought experiment, I ultimately wound up passing on the assignment, partly because I haven’t been feeling terribly inspired to write while the world is teetering on the edge of collapse, but mainly because I was hesitant to write something that would essentially be a totally speculative piece. (For what it’s worth, I’d love to read this article, assuming that someone a little less literal than me was willing to take it on.)
At this point, we really have no idea what the world, let alone the electronic music landscape, is going to look like when the pandemic is over. Right now, much of the industry seems to be hoping that things will “go back to normal” within a few months, but the longer this crisis drags on, the more that seems like wishful thinking. There are just so many unanswered questions. When will clubs open again? Which clubs will even be financially able to open again? Will people have the money to go out and party? And if so, will it be safe for them to cram into confined spaces and dance the night away? Will international travel for DJs be affordable, or even possible? Will promoters be able to pay anything approaching the fees they were paying before? Where will festivals fit into the picture, and how the hell are people going to be able to afford the tickets to keep them viable?
I’ve been thinking about all of these questions, but I won’t try to answer them here. They’re simply too big and there are too many variables. One thing I’ve found interesting, however, is that while we’ve collectively hit the pause button on events and nightlife, the new releases keep on coming. Granted, the vast majority of new music we’re hearing right now is from releases that were in the works long before the coronavirus hit—I suppose we can finally thank that global vinyl pressing backlog for something—but it’s still bizarre to see the industry’s promotional wheels keep on turning, especially when a lot of the music I’m checking out was specifically designed for use at events that have essentially (and hopefully only temporarily) become nonexistent.
Even amongst electronic music fans, I’ve seen a lot of talk in recent weeks about how lots of people have no appetite for dancefloor-oriented sounds. I haven’t gone that far, but I certainly don’t have much patience right now for anything that’s overly abrasive. (My apologies to the noise acts sending me music these days.) Beyond that, I think most of us have found solace in older, more familiar music, a topic that Jeremy Larson tackled yesterday in this excellent article for Pitchfork. I recommend reading the whole thing, but he digs into human brain chemistry and how we’re naturally wired to reject sounds that are unfamiliar, and then manages to segue into an impassioned plea for listeners to avoid that impulse and continue exploring new music.
First Floor has always placed a big focus on new music, even before the newsletter started and it existed as a weekly radio program. As long as the new releases keep coming, I’ll continue to write about them. At the same time, I’ve been thinking a lot about the weird fate of all the records that happen to be coming out in the middle of this pandemic. Just yesterday, I was specifically thinking about Second Language, the Minor Science album that dropped last Friday on Whities.
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I feel pretty confident in saying that 2020 was poised to be a big year for this Berlin-based British artist. The Second Language reviews are still surfacing, but the album’s sound—an intellectual, albeit danceable blend of broken techno, inventive bass music and IDM-style experimentation—is very “now,” and even before the LP dropped, social media was full of accolades, often from the same folks who champion artists like Objekt, Beatrice Dillon and other critical darlings. I don’t say any of those things dismissively; for what it’s worth, I think the album is great, and have been telling people that it’s most likely something that will end up on a lot of Best of 2020 lists. At the very least, I’ve been under the impression that Second Language was going to elevate Minor Science to a new, more substantial tier of recognition, one with more press, more gigs and more fanboy fawning. (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s what I’m doing now.)
Now that the record is out, however, I’m not so sure. In many ways, this pandemic feels like a weird alternate timeline, and what might have happened to Minor Science—or any artist—under “normal” conditions is a possibility that’s effectively slipped away into the ether. For artists in this particular boat, especially the ones releasing their debut albums, this has to be incredibly frustrating, as this major document of their work is being greeted by an environment in which even hardcore music fans are sometimes struggling to pay attention to or maintain serious interest in new music. Fans aren’t clamoring for insights into artists’ processes; they want updates on when it’ll be safe to go outside again. And while this situation undeniably sucks for the artists affected, there isn’t even a whole lot of empathy out there, because folks can only feel so bad about a disrupted album rollout when literally thousands of people are dying every day.
Knowing this, some artists and labels are opting to postpone their releases until later in the year, although that route is also fraught with risk. Rescheduling a release date is tricky when nobody knows how long this crisis is going to last, and whenever it does end, the market will almost surely be flooded with a glut of new releases. If the Minor Science album had been pushed back to, say, October, would it make a bigger impact? Would the music still sound fresh? Releasing the record now may seem like a bad idea while everyone is worried about the coronavirus, but with the global economy largely shut down and people home from work, audiences also have a lot more free time in which they could (theoretically) check out new music. So maybe staying with the originally scheduled release date was the right move? I have no idea, and there really are no correct answers here.
I should probably clarify that my thoughts here do go beyond the new Minor Science album. That LP just happened to come out during the past week, and felt like a good example of this “what might have been” mental sojourn. Looking ahead, DJ Python and Laurel Halo have albums out next week, and in May, new full-lengths from Kelly Lee Owens, Peaking Lights and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith are all on the calendar. What will happen to these records? Will they become unexpected quarantine classics? Will they be released and ignored? Or maybe they’ll just be quickly forgotten? Again, I’m not really sure. None of us are. Whatever happens though, it’ll certainly be different than what these artists were hoping for only a couple of months ago. We’re all stuck in this alternate timeline, and at least for now, all we can do is wait and see what happens.
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.
Are you curious about the latest round of event cancellations and postponements in the dance music world? This round-up from Resident Advisor, which is being updated regularly, continues to be the best resource.
Despite my previous Minor Science-related musings about what “might have been” in relation to his new album, he’s still showing up in the press. Go here for an in-depth interview and exclusive mix he did for Dazed.
Last week, Octo Octa surprised everyone with a brand-new mixtape, Love Hypnosis Vol. 1, which dropped via the T4T LUV NRG label she runs alongside her partner Eris Drew. The mix can be purchased here in limited-edition cassette or digital form (with 50% of profits going to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project), while a full stream can be found here.
The latest Dekmantel podcast is a new mix from rRoxymore that’s described as “a leftfield selection of humid and tropical rhythms that dangle like vines in a jungle before morphing into broken and syncopated beats with a heavy low end.”
Miami native Danny Daze has decided to help out an independent record shop in his hometown. Technique Records will be receiving 50% of the sales of Daze’s new Propaganda & Manipulation EP, which is set to arrive on May 6 via his own Omnidisc label. Ahead of that, lead track “Mindfluck” can be streamed here.
Luke Slater is at the helm of Berghain Fünfzehn, a special 15th-anniversary edition of the long-running Berghain mix series. A unique session created with entirely new tracks that Slater constructed using bits and pieces of the entire Ostgut Ton catalog, the mix is available here, both as a stream and free download. For those interested in getting their hands on some of the individual tracks, a double-vinyl collection with seven of Slater’s creations will be released on April 17.
British Murder Boys, the collaborative project of Regis and Surgeon, released a cover of Lou Reed’s 1978 song “Real Good Time Together.” It’s available here as a name-your-price download on Bandcamp.
The I Love Acid label has been a staunchly vinyl-only outpost for many years, but given the severity of the current crisis, label boss Posthuman has made most of the catalog available digitally on Bandcamp. All proceeds from sales of these digital releases will go directly to the artists.
Tons of benefit compilations have been hastily assembled in an effort to help artists right now, and while I can’t list them all—I’ll leave that to Resident Advisor, who are doing an admirable job of keeping track here—some of the more intriguing releases include:
Intensive Care, Vol. 1, in which Montreal’s Oracle Agency brings together tunes from D. Tiffany, Priori, Overland, Olin and others.
The Italian Resistance is a collection from Roman techno label Suburban Avenue that includes music from Italian acts like Alessandro Adriani, Neel, Hiver, Max Durante and others.
The Birds That Mimic Solitude, Vol. 1 was curated by UK artists Jay and Sam Purcell and features experimental sounds from Bianca Scout, Toby Tobias, Jay herself and more.
Isolation Therapy comes from Stamp the Wax, who challenged artists to make a track from scratch in three days. It includes music from Prequel, Anna Wall, Autarkic and many others.
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.
Hello all. This week I’m choosing the aptly named “Ventilator” by Container, from his new LP Scramblers. I actually write this as I am revising ventilator settings, just before I head into night shift in the emergency department. This song is not for the faint-hearted; it’s nauseating, noisy techno that hits like a punch in the guts. Also recommended if you want something to listen to whilst doing quarantine house chores.
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.
Yes, I’m mentioning Minor Science again, and yes, it’s probably a bit of overkill on my part. Regardless, I love his new Second Language album and while I was initially planning to make a serious effort to describe its various twists and turns, I have to admit that Philip Sherburne’s Pitchfork review paints a vivid picture that nicely captures the LP’s wild vibe. “Gone Rouge,” like most of the album, bops along at what feels like an incredibly rapid pace (apparently it’s around 150 bpm), but the track’s glistening melodies are the main attraction, their sparkling tones ringing out amidst a flurry of snares and quirky organ riffs. It’s playful, to say the least, yet it’s somehow still one of the most straightforward cuts on the record. It feels like Minor Science indulged every impulse when making Second Language, and while he could have easily fallen flat on his face, he’s instead managed to stick what was surely a very tricky landing.
WAV is a new collaborative project from Wata Igarashi and Voiski, so I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that the music sounds great. 9719 is their debut EP, which finds a fantastic middle ground between Voiski’s technicolor trance flirtations and Igarashi’s neatly tailored cosmic techno. Opening track “Pronom” might be the most low-key cut on the record, but it’s still suitable for the dancefloor and there’s something beguiling about its pitter-pat rhythms and soft, dreamy pads. Given the distance between Voiski (who lives in Paris) and Igarashi (who’s based in Tokyo), it’s hard to know whether WAV will be an ongoing enterprise or if this record is simply intended as a one-off, but either way, they’ve done some quality work here.
It’s hard to believe that Rhythm Section has already been around for five years. Since 2014, the distinctly London outpost has carved out its own unique corner of the electronic music sphere, combining ramshackle UK rhythms with elements of jazz, funk, soul, R&B and various strains of Midwestern dance music. Assembled to celebrate its five years of activity, SHOUTS is the label’s latest release, a massive, 36-track compilation that brings together tunes from a diverse slate of artists that includes Yu Su, Tolouse Low Trax, Valesuchi and Katerina, along with Rhythm Section regulars like LT, Mallard, Prequel and others. The highlights are numerous, but here I’ve selected a couple of my favorites. “Hydralite” is a driving techno cut from Australian duo Sleep D—listen for the bright, almost Japanese-sounding melody in the track’s latter half—while “Level 7” is a groovier house tune from Washington, DC producer Dawit that recalls Larry Heard with its smooth synths and chunky rhythms.
Apparently, not even life in quarantine can extinguish Paul Woolford’s hot streak. After releasing four albums in 2019, his first offering of 2020 is “I Wish Time Didn’t Matter,” a name-your-price download that surfaced late last week. The track is essentially a jungle flip of Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra’s 2017 track “Time,” a song that was also famously sampled by Drake. There’s a classic, ’70s/’80s soul sensibility to her wistful vocals, and Woolford has largely left them intact, which is perhaps why the song initially had me longing for the days of liquid drum & bass. As the track proceeds, however, his signature grit becomes more and more apparent, particularly once he unleashes a booming ruckus just after the 90-second mark. I’m not sure if jungle tearjerkers were much of a “thing” back in the ’90s, but they’re certainly in short supply these days, and with all of us feeling a bit emo right now, this tune is especially resonant.
Last year, Brazil-based Chilean Valesuchi released her debut album Tragicomic, and now the Mamba label has followed it up with a collection of remixes, all of which were done by South American artists. Many of them opted for dark and distorted takes on Valesuchi’s source material, but this rework of “Peace” by Sao Paulo’s Mari Herzer—a resident of the city’s infamous Mamba Negra parties—goes down a different path. While the song’s slamming breakbeats are still encrusted with plenty of grit, its melodies are downright luminous, bringing to mind the vibrant synth swirls of an artist like Nathan Fake. It’s an excellent example of the magic that can happen when hi-fi meets lo-fi, and considering that Mari Herzer built it out of Valesuchi’s beatless and almost ambient original, it makes me hope that we’ll hear more of her productions in the future.
I feel like Kiwi often gets overlooked by journalists and tastemakers, possibly because his music (which often comes out on “uncool” labels) isn’t particularly challenging. It’s not that it’s bad, but it is relatively easy to digest; it’s feel-good, straight-ahead house music with a synth-loving pop heart, and while some of it may be forgettable, I think he’s turned out quite a few gems over the years. “Italian Heat” is nothing if not enjoyable, a synthy tune that—as the title implies—borrows heavily from neon-streaked Italo. It’s a formula that’s been done countless times before, but that doesn’t make the song’s Miami Vice riffs any less fun. I could absolutely see this one getting rinsed by someone like Gerd Janson, and it’s not too far from what Krystal Klear’s more recent offerings have sounded like.
Athens is a city that rarely gets mentioned in the larger electronic music conversation, but Trial & Error—a label and promoter crew based in the Greek capital—would like to change that. They’ve just released Athens UHD, a compilation featuring some of the city’s brightest electronic music talents. Bonebrokk, who curated the album, is one of the few names that most people might recognize, but there’s a lot of great music here, much of it trending toward the darker end of the broken techno spectrum. AΣTYTEKK is the founder of the Lower Parts label, and “Meta Leak” is an imposing slice of industrial-tinged club fare that sounds like Hiro Kone trying to make a DJ Stingray track. It’s sharp, metallic and perfect for anyone who’s a fan of what labels like Pinkman are doing.
This bass-heavy buzzsaw is the title track of the latest EP from Tomás Urquieta, a Chilean producer based in Mexico City. Although its low-end heft and rollicking drum patterns pull from the larger bass music sphere, the track’s forward momentum displays a sort of techno sensibility, resulting in something that’s perhaps more functional than a lot of the avant-garde club sounds that have come out of Latin America in recent years. The only real downside is that the song is only about three minutes long, but those three minutes pack a serious wallop.
After years of bouncing around different labels, J. Albert has so far spent 2020 self-releasing music on Bandcamp, sharing some really great tunes in the process. January’s My Rave Ended Yours Just Began was an intriguing venture into ambient-ish territory, but the new From What I Remember EP finds the NYC producer back on the dancefloor. “She-So” has the shuffle of a UK garage track, with a hooky R&B vocal to match, but halfway through this twinkling, starry-eyed tune, Albert ups the intensity level, adding in extra percussion and tilting toward what sounds like a slowed-down take on drum & bass. It’s a neat trick, especially because he keeps the song’s moody, late-night vibe intact, even as the rattle of the drums grows louder and louder in the mix.
Mark Broom is a machine. The UK producer has been releasing music for nearly 30 years, yet he still manages to put out a new record every few months. The Raver EP is his first outing of 2020, and it finds him in top form, updating ’90s rave and techno templates for a new generation of club kids. While most DJs will probably flock to the banging tunes on the record’s A-side (“Raver” and “Insta”), my pick is “Midnight,” which employs a vamping piano and walking bassline that gives the track a slightly jazzy—but still propulsive—feel. The song reminds me a bit of Robert Hood’s work as Floorplan, albeit with a loopy, cut-and-paste aesthetic that gives the music an infectious bounce. It may not be as over the top as the EP’s title track, but this one is still ready for the rave.
Has anyone else noticed that the cello is a hot instrument right now? Oliver Coates, Lucy Railton, Lucinda Chua, Okkyung Lee… and that’s just a partial list of cellists doing interesting work in the electronic realm. Brooklyn’s Clarice Jensen is another one, and she’s just released a captivating new album called The Experience of Repetition as Death. “Holy Mother” is the LP’s elegiac standout. I’m not sure why, but I’ve increasingly found myself drawn to music that references religious / sacred sounds. Although this song was actually inspired by Mount Everest, there’s a sort of towering grandiosity at work, its haunting loops and cinematic swells reinforcing a sense of just how small we are in the face of whatever grand forces—natural or otherwise—control the universe. I’ve said before that I’m not a religious or even spiritual person, but there is something uniquely rewarding about feeling humbled by a piece of music, especially when it’s a stunning creation like “Holy Mother.”
Brock van Wey has released something like 40 albums, but his latest, Ten Times the World Lied, is the first time that he’s created music without vocals. Following a strict chronological regimen in which he recorded one take on the 10th day of the month for 10 months straight, he’s come up with an LP that’s downright opulent. In truth, it’s also a bit samey, but in limited doses, his soaring behemoths can be quite moving. “Not Yours to Give” starts slow, its whispering ambience gradually building into a maelstrom of devotional bliss and billowing static before quietly retreating back into the abyss.
Meditative sounds from this French artist, whose new Everything Evaporate EP is described as “a sustained moment of focus during a period of transition.” The title track is actually the shortest song on the record, but it’s still easy to get (blissfully) lost in its minimal composition and quiet undulations. Atkinson herself is at the center of the song, her nearly monotone voice leading a hypnotic sort of guided meditation. It reminds me a bit of Lucrecia Dalt’s vocal work on her Anticlines album, but where Dalt’s spoken word was oddly provocative, Atkinson sounds intriguingly detached, as if she’s piloting a journey into her own subconscious and has simply allowed us to come along for the ride.
I know that this section of the newsletter is usually reserved of single tracks, but Music for Screen Tests is a 54-minute live session from UK producer Leif. Created to accompany a film screening of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests at the Barbican Centre, it technically consists of 11 different pieces, so there’s a lot to digest here. Like most of Leif’s work, it’s largely ambient, but his instrumentation and sound palette varies quite a bit from one section to the next, drifting between textured waves of static, wafting reverb, field recordings, gently plucked strings, colorful keys, field recordings and more. It’s not easy to do something that’s both subtle and cinematic, but Music for Screen Tests strikes the right balance.
Thanks so much for reading this week’s newsletter. That’s all I’ve got for today, but I’ll be back next Tuesday, and in the meantime I hope you enjoy the tunes I’ve highlighted today. (Don’t forget, you can find them all on this handy Buy Music Club list, and if you like them, please buy them.)
Until next time.