First Floor #37 – Club Petri Dish
a.k.a. It's very possible that clubbing won't be "back to normal" anytime soon.
|May 12, 2020||8|
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
It was only a few weeks ago that a number of bars and nightclubs in Seoul, South Korea reopened as part of the country’s efforts to ease restrictions after seemingly getting the coronavirus outbreak under control.
Last Saturday, the country’s bars and clubs were once again ordered to close by the government.
The reason? A sudden spike in new cases, many of which can specifically be traced back to the bars and nightclubs of Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood. As of Sunday, 54 new infections were linked to the district, including 43 people who’d visited the area’s bars and nightclubs and another 11 people who were simply acquainted with those club patrons. (To provide some context, prior to this outbreak, the country’s rate of new COVID-19 infections had fallen to less than 10 per day.)
It’s even more worrying that many of these new infections could be traced to a single clubber, a 29-year-old man who visited five different clubs on the night of May 1. Of the 18 new cases the government reported on Saturday, 17 were linked to this one guy.
To be clear, it’s not like South Korea took no precautions when its clubs and bars reopened. Although it seems that policies varied from one venue to the next, some places required patrons to wear masks, performed fever checks at the door and barred entry to anyone who’d displayed symptoms or traveled abroad in the previous two weeks. How strictly these measures were enforced is anyone’s guess, but even with these new practices in place, it only took a couple of weeks before clubs were directly responsible for a new coronavirus flare-up.
I don’t want to be alarmist, but this situation should be a giant wake-up call. Over the past few months, we’ve seen waves of festival cancellations and postponements (along with plenty of hand-wringing about the fate of these large-scale events), but from where I sit, the short- to medium-term future of clubbing feels even more precarious. After all, although festivals do have larger crowds, presumably making them more dangerous, at least they tend to take place in the open air, often outside of major urban centers. A club though? That just seems like a glorified petri dish.
Even if we set aside all of the economic issues that are already making (and will continue to make) life difficult for club owners and promoters, exactly how can a nightclub safely reopen? No two venues are the same, but it’s not a stretch to characterize many nightspots as some combination of small, sweaty, overcrowded, poorly ventilated and even a bit dirty. That griminess may be charming under normal circumstances, but during a pandemic (even one that’s somewhat under control), basic questions like “how do you thoroughly clean and disinfect these spaces?” become very important.
Even if a venue can be sterilized before its doors open, won’t ongoing cleaning be needed throughout the night? How are patrons supposed to regularly wash their hands when the line for the bathroom is 10-plus minutes long? How can those bathroom lines, which are frequently crammed into tiny corridors, even form safely when social distancing requires everyone to stand at least 1.5 meters apart? Speaking of social distancing, will that extend to the dancefloor as well? Will masks and gloves be required? Can we really expect clubgoers to abide by these kinds of precautions? As much as the electronic music community prides itself on celebrating notions of “freedom” and “respect,” those concepts are likely to be at odds when there’s potentially a deadly virus in the air, especially when folks are partying in an “altered” state. The risk of infection are very real, and even if 90% of a crowd follows whatever new rules are put in place, this new South Korean outbreak is proof that it literally only takes one person to infect dozens of others.
After months of being housebound, it makes sense that many people are eager to get back to the club. Coronavirus fatigue has set in, and people miss their friends, the music and simply having a place to let loose and forget the stresses of the outside world. And for those whose livelihood depends on nightlife—a long list that includes venue owners, DJs, promoters, bar staff and countless others—the need to reopen clubs is even more acute. But without herd immunity, a vaccine or the implementation of radical measures like forcing everyone in the club to wear PPE (Altern-8 would probably approve), how could clubbing possibly be made safe enough to resume? I know that clubs tend to be populated with young (and young-ish) people, many of who perhaps feel some level of invincibility, but they wouldn’t be the only ones at risk. Again, this new South Korean outbreak has shown just how easy it is for the the virus to spread from the club into the wider community.
Given that, perhaps it’s time to start recalibrating our expectations. Governments around the world are starting to unveil reopening guidelines—Resident Advisor has published a thorough round-up of how those plans relate to clubs and festivals in various countries—but it’s not unreasonable to wonder just how feasible those plans will ultimately be. Even if things go well, large social gatherings are going to be some of the last things to come back, which means clubbing likely won’t be “back to normal” anytime soon. Yet much of the electronic music industry continues to take a “wait and see” and “hope for the best” approach to the crisis; sticking to that approach could wind up being disastrous for nightlife, both economically and culturally.
If clubs can’t reopen until late 2020 or even 2021, what are we going to do to make sure that these spaces can weather the storm until then? The same goes for all the people who work at or with these venues; although some governments have stepped up to help, the fact that so many people in nightlife are temporary workers or independent contractors means that they’re more likely to not qualify for benefits and simply fall through the cracks. I know there are plenty of fundraisers out there—this round-up from Resident Advisor lists many of them—but I worry that they won’t be nearly enough, and as much as the electronic music world has already embraced livestreaming, that has yet to translate into a sustainable business model either.
These problems are serious, and as I often say here in the newsletter, I don’t have the answers. A lot more discussion is needed, and I’ll likely being doing my part to contribute to that in the months ahead. For now though, the best I can do is try to highlight the scope of the problem.
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.
At this point, the world is basically losing music legends every few days, but the loss of Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider looms particularly large over the electronic music sphere. A brief statement from former bandmate Ralf Hütter confirmed that Schneider passed away last month following a short battle with cancer, and in the days since the news broke, we’ve seen an outpouring of grief and tributes from across the musical spectrum. I have yet to come across a obituary / remembrance that strikes me as definitive—perhaps because it’s impossible to capture the totality of Schneider’s influence, especially when the man himself was so secretive—but these efforts from The Guardian and The New York Times are both solid reads.
I’ve stopped paying attention to every single festival cancellation and postponement—Resident Advisor’s running updates continue to be the best resource for those looking to keep up—but the recent news that Primavera Sound, Sónar and Notting Hill Carnival would all not be happening this year felt pretty major. Summer 2021 is increasingly looking like a washout, and only time will tell if all of the large-scale events rescheduled for September, October and November actually wind up happening.
After nearly 10 years of broadcasting, Amsterdam’s Red Light Radio announced the impending closure of its studio. While the station will continue in some form at a new home base inside the Redlight Records shop, there will no longer be daily broadcasts.
Jake Colvin, better known as UK hard drum producer NKC, penned an interesting article for Insert that talks about the declining value of music in the digital economy. He also takes an in-depth look at Currents, an intriguing new platform that seeks to create a novel kind of revenue stream for artists and curators.
NYC artist Star Eyes, who doubles as veteran music journalist Vivian Host, is someone I’ve known (and admired) for 20 years—we literally worked at the same college radio station—and last week she dropped this incredible mix of “cooling and aqueous drum & bass” as part of an ongoing series by Coral City Camera, an underwater camera streaming live from an urban coral reef in Miami, Florida. Previous installments have come from artists like Jubilee and Nick León, so feel free to dig in and listen while watching some tropical marine life cruise across your computer screen.
Fast-rising Manchester producer Lack is the latest bass-techno alchemist to join the ranks of Livity Sound, and he’ll be releasing a new EP called Inside via the Bristol outpost on May 29. In the meantime, the title track is streaming here.
Rinse FM co-founder and UK bass giant Geeneus has opened up a bit of his archive, posting the majority of the Dump Valve Recordings catalog on Bandcamp. The imprint was an important hub for grime and other low-end-heavy sounds during the early / mid 2000s, and the music now on offer includes tracks from Wiley, DJ Target, Wonder, Wizzbit, Danny Weed, Slimzee and more.
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. I’ve just woken up from a 16-hour sleep to Yeo-Neun, Okkyung Lee’s new record on Shelter Press, and I especially like this song. It is so striking, beautiful, minimal and serene; it reminds me of free improvisation, but this feels more approachable and succinct somehow. The album is actually the work of the Yeo-Neun Quartet, an experimental chamber music ensemble led by Lee on cello that also features harpist Maeve Gilchrist, pianist Jacob Sacks and bassist Eivind Opsvik. Together, they’ve created a perfect deep listening experience.
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.
Back in 2017, Yamaneko released Spa Commissions, a mini-LP of ambient tunes he’d supposedly been hired to make for a European spa. I’ve never been able to figure out if that backstory is real—it certainly sounds like it could be fake—but the album was beautiful, and now the talented UK producer has put together a sequel. Spa Commissions 2 is said to consist of tunes ordered up by the same spa brand, and the music is perhaps even more luxurious this time around. As you might expect, the vibe is one of extreme relaxation; on “Spiral Cloud Passage,” gauzy synths rise and fall like the tide, intermingling with gentle water sounds to create something that feels downright celestial. It’s delicate, but not precious, and while the arrangement is relatively minimal, the music doesn’t feel sparse. On the contrary, it’s like a warm blanket, the kind of record that you’ll happily curl up with as you simply drift off to a more pleasant plane of existence.
Keeping things in the bliss zone, “Cherry” is taken from Still, the gorgeous debut album from Oakland, California duo Night Sea. Operating at the intersection of ambient and dub techno, the group specializes in lush, heavenly sounds whose intensity rarely rises above a slow simmer. As it happens, “Cherry” is one of the LP’s more lively offerings, simply because there’s a steady (albeit smudgy) beat, yet the mood is meditative and the track’s glazed pastels are perfect for getting lost in. Who knew that escapism could sound this chill?
100% Silk actually released four different cassettes last Friday, and while all of them feature some quality music, I’ve chosen to highlight my two favorites. (Just FYI, the tapes not listed here are from Auscultation, better known as Golden Donna, and another Portland artist named Well Being.) Jupiter Jax’s entry is the more ambitious effort, a low-key, 42-minute deep house “mix” that consists entirely of tunes from “short-lived, lost-to-time house imprint Dee-Life Records.” There’s only one problem: Dee-Life Records never existed. It’s a clever idea that could have easily fallen into shallow kitsch, but the Maltese producer has put together a wonderfully hazy homage to the dreamy (and subtly funky) sounds of classic Midwestern house. (Fans of Larry Heard will definitely be happy.) Similarly hypnotic (but lighter on the reverb) is “Reflejo del Derrumbe,” the closing track from Colombian producer Lunate’s second full-length, Médula. Buoyed by a sturdy bassline, it’s full of smooth synths and chiming melodies, which come together to form the sort of tune that usually shows up on labels like Hivern Discs and Permanent Vacation. Lovely stuff.
It’s not often that an Innervisions release finds its way into the newsletter, but “Prana,” the title track of Aera’s new EP just might be the best—or at least the most infectious—thing this Berlin-based producer has ever done. It’s not an anthem per se; there’s no real grandiosity to the music and the song’s beat doesn’t bang, it playfully tumbles. No, “Prana” is one of those whimsical electronic earworms, a relatively simple (albeit vibrant) tune whose bright melodies and delicate piano coalesce into something that flirts with trance tropes but ultimately feels a lot more like a pop song. It’s just plain pleasant, and while there are (thankfully) no lyrics to get stuck in your head, “Prana” is still one of those tracks you’re likely to find yourself listening to again and again.
Some of you might hate this song. I actually expected to hate it myself, as it’s a remix of a cover of Bananarama’s 1983 smash “Cruel Summer,” a song you may remember from its prominent placement in the first Karate Kid film. The original Woolfy vs. Projections cover, which appeared on last year’s Destinations album, had a groove-heavy disco feel, but Musumeci—a Sicilian DJ/producer who’s been active for more than three decades—has delivered two new remixes that crank up the tempo and take the song right back to the ’80s. Between the vocals and the glossy synths, there’s some definite cheese here, but the track effectively straddles the line between Italo, synth-pop and house, ultimately sounding like an upbeat outtake from the Scarface soundtrack. It may not be the coolest song in the newsletter this week, but it’s absolutely one of the most fun.
Another track that places a premium on fun. “Dance Flaw” appears on Spice Up My Life, the rambunctious debut album from UK producer Sammy Virji. An affiliate of Conducta’s Kiwi imprint, Virji is part of a new wave of UK garage acts and “Dance Flaw” is an excellent example of just how fantastically boisterous that genre (and its signature shuffle) can be. The song’s flipped dancehall vocal and frisky bass flutters may not be breaking new ground, but “Dance Flaw” never feels like an empty exercise in nostalgia; the track is electric, and Virji seems a lot more concerned with getting people moving right now than he does in revisiting the magic of days gone by. I’d say he’s succeeding.
Of course, rowdy UK dance music is nothing new, and !K7 has provided a special window into the country’s raucous past by reissuing the seminal DJ-Kicks mix from legendary drum & bass duo Kemistry & Storm. Originally released in 1999, just a few months before the former’s tragic and untimely passing, the mix is something of a drum & bass benchmark, and now it’s been re-released in a variety of formats, including multiple vinyl editions and a digital version that includes all 17 tracks, unmixed. That’s where I grabbed these two cuts, both of which feature hard-charging drums and big, bruising basslines. Upfront and even a little menacing—but still undeniably funky—they capture a unique moment in drum & bass history, right before tech-step fully took root and the genre was temporarily taken over by cartoonishly dark and aggressive sounds. Twenty years later, the whole mix still sounds fantastic, and now that jungle and drum & bass are back in vogue, today’s producers could certainly do worse than taking a few cues from it.
Heading back into the ’80s once again (at least in spirit), “Holzboden” is off Tanzstuecke, the latest EP from Frankfurt producer Shan. At this point, he’s something of a Running Back regular, and this track lives right in the label’s sweet spot; it’s essentially a synth-pop instrumental that’s been beefed up for the modern dancefloor. The song isn’t shy about its anthemic aspirations, but there’s a tangible sense of cool emanating from its hazy neon melodies. The whole “driving a convertible along the Miami coastline at night” vibe has been done before (arguably to death), but in the hands of Shan, a self-described “’80s kid,” there’s still some magic left in the formula.
Dutch producer nthng keeps a low profile, but he’s been a part of the Lobster Theremin family for more than five years now, quietly slipping out dubby bits of low-slung house and techno. Hypnotherapy, his second full-length, lays on the reverb extra thick, bathing even its most propulsive moments in a warm, hazy glow. Dub techno is often a bit sleepy and understated, but the barreling “Heitt” sounds like a Berghain banger that’s been dunked underwater and xeroxed a few times; the track still has plenty of momentum, but its edges have been softened just enough to lend the proceedings a slightly hypnotic undertone. Album closer “With You” dives even deeper into dreamland, dispensing with drums almost entirely and filling the void with washy ambience and a somnambulant vibe that’s simultaneously both welcoming and a little unnerving. These kinds of subtly trippy moments are all over Hypnotherapy, making for a record that feels more rewarding with every additional listen.
A standout from the new album Conversations, “A Warm Day” feels like an updated take on the post-dubstep / bass music sounds we were hearing a decade ago, possibly because of the Athens producer’s heavy reliance on pitch-shifted R&B vocal snippets. But while I do hear echoes of old Mount Kimbie and Ramadanman records here, this shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere retread, as there’s a lot of life in this song’s sumptuous synths, cinematic strings and percolating drum patterns. In the wrong hands, this could have been an overcrowded mess, but “A Warm Day” is very well done.
The lead track from his new Rhythm Hi-Tek EP, “Point Noise Behaviours” might be one of the noisiest tracks that Lurka has ever done. The buzzing tune sounds like a circuit board that’s been overloaded with too much voltage, which means that every note and every drum beat is positively crackling with electricity. As such, there’s a lot of crunch emanating from the song’s bassy blasts and broken rhythms, lending the proceedings something of a distorted electro vibe. It may be grotty, but it’s a keeper.
A majestic piece of music from an artist out of Brisbane, Australia. Cocolas recently returned to her hometown after years spent living in Melbourne, Seattle and New York, and her new album Ithaca is said to document the complex emotions she’s felt during the time she’s been back. Released on Room40 sister label Someone Good, the LP sits somewhere between ambient, experimental and classical, as Cocolas unfurls swirling electronics in one moment and somber piano in the next. “A Basic Understanding” hews closer to the former, relying heavily on twinkling synths and bold pads to enact its grand vision. On a record that’s frequently a bit pensive and melancholy, the track’s tangible sense of awe and wonder feels especially moving.
Morgan Friedrich is an artist and choreographer from Paris, he’s got a new album out called Amplified Finitude and… that’s basically all I know. “New Belonging,” however, is a fanciful tune that largely consists of layer after layer of fervently plucked strings. I have no idea if those strings were played organically or are merely samples, but either way, Friedrich has created something that marries a classical / orchestral sound palette with the fevered energy of IDM, and has managed to do it without sounding kitsch. It’s intense to be sure, but it’s also quite impressive.
Truth be told, “Solo Dance” is not my favorite track on Pictures of Echoes, the latest collection of rare gems from ’80s / ’90s experimenter Michele Mercure. (My two faves, “#32” and “Mask Dance,” are not available to stream on Bandcamp.) That said, “Solo Dance,” which was first released in 1993 as part of Mercure’s soundtrack for the film Shades of Black, is no dud—it’s a genuinely moving piece. Between the weepy violins, graceful piano flourishes and delicate synth melodies, Mercure conveys a whole lot of emotion, despite the fact that whole thing wraps up in less than three minutes. My only regret is that it’s not longer.
Admittedly, this track is maybe an odd choice to highlight from the new Peaking Lights album, as it’s less than two-and-a-half minutes long and doesn’t include Indra Dunis’ signature breathy vocals. As such, fans of the American duo’s “normal” formula will likely gravitate towards other songs on E S C A P E, but “The Caves” does have the group’s usual psychedelic flair, with woozy atmospheres and urgent arpeggiations that harken back to both classic krautrock and the kind of music I used to hear in middle-school science videos. Another one for the “I wish this was longer” pile.
Maenad Veyl probably wishes that I chose another track, as “Walls Fell Inwards” isn’t necessarily indicative of what’s inside his new Reassessment album, which heavily trades in industrial crunch, post-punk squall and techno momentum. All that stuff is fine of course, but “Walls Fell Inwards,” which opens the LP and consists of little more than some slow-brewing guitar and some heavy reverb, sounds like something that Slint or some other ’90s post-hardcore group would have cooked up. (For those needing a more electronic reference, UK duo Raime has sounded like this at times.) Maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic for the days when the Touch & Go label was responsible for a large chunk of my listening diet, but I found this one invigorating.
This week’s newsletter has included a lot of ambient and ambient-ish music, and “Misty Fog Covering the Side Window” also falls into that category. But while most of the previous ambient selections were defined by notions of “warmth” and “chill,” “Misty Fog Covering the Side Window” is full of dread. It’s taken from MOOD, a new album from Berlin producer Rødhåd, who’s best known for dark and driving techno. As such, this new album—which is available as a “name your price” download—is something of a surprise; it’s his first ambient/experimental release, and is kicking off the new Back to Zero imprint of his own (still relatively new) WSNWG label. Yet even though Rødhåd’s signature sternum-rattling rhythms may be gone, there’s a lot of heft and drama baked into MOOD’s 18 tracks. The overall aesthetic is more Ben Frost than Laraaji, which explains why the brooding hum and clanging tower bells of “Misty Fog Covering the Side Window” are so unnerving. It may not be the most calming thing to listen to during a global pandemic, but anyone who’s interested in embracing the terror of it all would be well advised to give this a listen.
That brings us to the end of another surprisingly busy week (at least in terms of new releases). As always, thanks so much for reading the newsletter, and I 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, please buy them.)
Back next week,