First Floor #39 – So Far, The New Normal Is Not Looking Great

a.k.a. The COVID-19 crisis has stoked an appetite for change, but not a whole lot of concrete action.

Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a weekly electronic music digest that includes news, my favorite new tracks and 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

By now, I’m guessing that most of you have seen this video.

Yes, an actual party at an actual club happened at a club in Münster, Germany last week, with none other than Gerd Janson headlining the event. A few hours after this tweet went out, Resident Advisor posted a more complete news story, which included quotes from the venue and Janson, along with a number of key details about the party, including its 70 euro entry fee and the fact that only 100 tickets were made available, all of which sold out in just 15 minutes.

Like a lot of people, my first response to the video was “that looks horrible.” Even if you set aside the insane ticket price and the fact that multiple people are clearly violating social distancing guidelines, this version of clubbing obviously pales in comparison to the real thing. (The utter lack of vibe is even more apparent in this news report from German public broadcaster WDR, whose story includes a lot more footage of the event.)

It’s not surprising that the dance music internet has had a bit of a field day since this news broke, but I honestly don’t want to be just another naysayer who’s lining up to shit on everyone involved in this event. As ridiculous as that party looked from afar, its organizers were at least trying to do the right thing, enacting all sorts of safety measures (requiring masks, putting up plexiglass at the bar and around the DJ booth, assigning attendees to particular dancefloor circles and tables, etc.) and keeping the capacity limited despite the clear public demand to get back on the dancefloor. The club claims that it made no profit from the event, and framed the whole thing as a sort of test run for when the legal capacity for parties is raised to 250 people and beyond.

That last part, however, is what troubles me, because it’s clearly rooted in a desire to “get back to normal,” whatever that means. This mentality isn’t limited to dance music of course; after two-plus months of quarantine and social distancing, our collective unease (both psychological and economic) has fueled a growing push to re-open economies and resume some semblance of normality. It may not be the wisest course of action, but the impulse is understandable, and it’s managed to trickle down into just about everything, including dance music. Just look at Resident Advisor’s initial framing of the Münster event in their tweet; the phrase “how they pulled this off” was probably written without much thought, but it nonetheless carries an underlying message of success, ginning up the idea that yes, parties are indeed coming back and maybe sooner than you think.

I get it. People are bored. People miss their friends. Lots of folks have been out of work and need to start earning money again. It’s all very reasonable, but as things stand, our only roadmap to reopen is one that lists the old status quo as a final destination.

Two months ago, I wrote here in the newsletter that “the scene isn’t worth saving,” underscoring the idea that the dance music industry was seriously broken, and that as bad as the pandemic was, it did present an opportunity for us all to take stock and enact some major changes. At the time, the piece was greeted with a lot of enthusiasm, and though I certainly wasn’t the first or only person to put forth big-picture critiques of the dance music industry, it did seem like there was an increased hunger out there for major change. In fact, it was less than a month ago that I wrote another newsletter describing my tentative optimism, a feeling sparked by the increased discussion I’d seen around the idea that the music industry was in need of serious structural reform.

Unfortunately though, with countries now beginning to open back up and the potential end of the pandemic on the horizon, it feels like the momentum around those discussions has begun to flag. When it comes to dance music and particularly a return to clubs and festivals, the dominant question is now “When?,” not “How?,” and that’s a recipe for disaster.

There’s hope that nightclubs will begin to reopen over the summer, with festivals potentially to follow in the autumn. But have any clubs or venues laid out plans to make their operations more sustainable? Have any of them pledged to reduce their carbon footprint and put a cap on the number of artist flights they’ll finance each year? Addressing the audience side of the equation, have promoters thought about reducing techno tourism by limiting the amount of tickets they’ll sell to people outside of their own countries? Has anyone announced plans to shift their bookings away from international headliners and instead focus on promoting their local scenes? The answer is no, and many festivals whose 2020 editions have been scrapped are not only not promising change, they’re vowing to reassemble the exact same line-ups in 2021.

Artists and labels haven’t necessarily been much better. Will any DJs be willing to voluntarily limit their total air travel and urge their fellow DJs to do the same? There’s been a lot of talk over the past couple of months about the income imbalance between DJs and producers, but I have yet to see many DJs offer to give up a percentage of their fees, or even promise to log the tracklist of every single set with performance rights organizations. Speaking of PROs, where is the push for them to get their act together when it comes to electronic music? Why hasn’t there been a massive campaign by artists and labels to make sure that as many producers as possible are getting registered with (and properly paid by) these organizations?

And when it comes to organizing, what is it going to take for artists and labels to disengage with the major streaming platforms? I’ve banged this drum before, but in the wake of the news that Spotify just signed up Joe Rogan for $100 million, it feels increasingly ridiculous that a music community that frequently touts itself as progressive and fair-minded would continue to do business with companies with such blatantly exploitative business models. Why have we not seen a wave of labels removing their catalogs from Spotify and other platforms? For what it’s worth, the livestreaming landscape is just as bad, as DJs seem to have settled on Twitch as their platform of choice, largely because it’s the only place where streams aren’t being actively taken down due to copyright violations. Never mind that Twitch is owned by Amazon, or that its lack of takedowns stems from the fact that the company hasn’t yet finalized a proper licensing scheme, which means that it’s ultimately even worse than Facebook, Instagram and YouTube when it comes to paying the artists whose music is being played (without their permission, I might add).

I could go on, but I think it’s obvious that the problems are numerous, and while it’s been heartening to see more thoughtful discussion about this stuff within electronic music circles, it’s going to take more than talk to enact real change. As the world starts to reopen and the music industry climbs back on its proverbial hamster wheel, these conversations are bound to get shoved aside, unless we start moving now to make sure that they’re woven into the fabric of whatever the new normal looks like. Otherwise, we’re likely to get stuck with a “new” normal that looks a whole lot like the old one, or maybe something even worse.


ANOTHER THING I WROTE

  • Regular readers of the newsletter likely remember that a few weeks back I was gushing about The World I’m Going to Hell For, the latest album from Nathan Micay. First released last year as a limited-edition cassette, it was due for a proper release this autumn, but the Berlin-based Canadian decided to surprise everyone instead and post it online as part of the most recent Bandcamp Friday. Shifting away from the dancefloor and moving into some cinematic, politically-charged territory, the record is a pretty big departure for Micay (albeit a successful one) and I somehow convinced Pitchfork to let me review the album and expound on why I think it’s so great.


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.

  • Julianna Barwick has a new album on the way. Her first full-length since 2016’s Will—a record I adore—the new LP is entitled Healing Is a Miracle, features contributions from Jónsi (of Sigur Rós fame), Nosaj Thing and Mary Lattimore and will be arriving on July 10 via Ninja Tune. In the meantime, opening track “Inspirit” is streaming here, and the song also has a rather scenic video that’s worth a look.

  • In news that will surely dominate social media today, Omar S has announced a new album called Fuck Resident Advisor. It’s due out next month on his own FXHE label, which will also be selling t-shirts bearing the title. Maybe he wasn’t too happy with their review of his You Want album earlier this year? Yikes!

  • This is coming a bit late, but earlier this month Rush Hour released a collaborative EP from Jordan GCZ (of Juju & Jordash) and Detroit techno veteran Terrence Dixon. Entitled Outnumbered, it’s only available on vinyl (at least for now), and track previews are available here. A full collaborative album will also be released later in the year.

  • It was just a few weeks ago that beloved (and sadly defunct) Cleveland trio Emeralds put up a Bandcamp page featuring a huge chunk of the group’s back catalog (including several out-of-print releases), and now a couple more items have been posted on there, including their brilliant 2010 LP Does It Look Like I’m Here? (Side note: “Now You See Me,” which appears on that album, is one of my favorite songs ever.)

  • I meant to mention this in an earlier newsletter, but Palmbomen II has a new album of sorts on the way. I say “of sorts” because it’s being released under the name Cindy, as in Cindy Savalas, the titular (and fictional) muse of his prior Memories of Cindy album, who was in turn inspired by a different fictional character from the X-Files whose name he used as the title of a song on his 2015 self-tiled LP. The mythology of it all is fascinating (albeit a bit complicated), but this new Cindy album, I’m Cindy, is meant to be a “lost” LP of shoegazey Italo that the Memories of Cindy character created before her mysterious death, which of course never happened, because, again, she’s fictional. I’m Cindy is coming out on June 5 via Palmbomen II’s World of Paint label, and ahead of that some videos have been made for singles “Never Let Me Go” and “2y & 6m.”

  • The charity and benefit compilations keep on coming, and here are some of the most interesting offerings that popped up during the past week:

    • Hivernation Volume 3: The latest quarantine collection from John Talabot’s Hivern Discs label includes a dreamy acid cut from the label founder himself, along with additional efforts from artists like Katerina, Phran & Priori, Ylia and Lamusa II.

    • Music Activists 2020 (From Home): French label InFiné has assembled a massive 34-track compilation that includes tracks from Ital Tek, Deena Abdelwahed, Carl Craig, Stimming, Murcof, Rone, Kaito and many others.

    • Positive Education Remixes: Glasgow’s Riverside Festival has teamed up with Soma Records to release a special charity remix EP of Slam’s “Positive Education,” with three new reworks by Paul Temple, Skream and JD Twitch.

    • Tender Squads: Coinciding with last weekend’s Balance Club / Culture Festival (which normally happens in Leipzig but of course had to take place online), this “name your price” collection includes music from TSVI, Kelman Duran, Animistic Beliefs and a number of other artists.


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.

Waswaas What Remains (Trilogy Tapes)

Hello friends. So I'm listening to this right now in the middle of a tropical storm, as I clean up all the mud that's pooled in my bathroom—I'm really feeling 2020. As for the tape, it’s a mix of all-original Waswaas music. It's got this very retro, intergalactic space journey vibe going on, which is kind of irrelevant to the cleaning process, but is somehow making the experience a little more palatable.

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.

Rafael Anton Irisarri “Arduous Clarity” (Dais)

Rafael Anton Irisarri “Mellified” (Dais)

Over the past decade, Rafael Anton Irisarri has amassed a pretty enormous catalog, especially if you add in his work as The Sight Below and as one of electronic music’s go-to mastering engineers. And though his music, which tends to reside in the realm of ambient and drone, is often quite excellent, it’s also easy to overlook, especially when his name pops up so often. (For what it’s worth, I too am absolutely guilty of this.) His latest album, however, is something special. Entitled Peripeteia, it’s his first full-length for Dais, and somehow it just feels bigger and more urgent than many of his past releases. The music is still bathed in a soup of dense static and distortion, but there’s a real weight to it, even on “Arduous Clarity,” which has a dainty melodic arpeggio at its core. “Mellified,” a collaboration with Spanish composer Yamila, is a bit darker, its soaring choirs channeling the spirit of sacred music amidst a foreboding, dread-laden hum that slowly builds throughout the track. These are just two of many highlights on the LP, which elsewhere finds him tapping into elements of classical and doom metal. Ambient and drone are often warm and relatively unassuming, but Peripeteia exudes a sense of grandeur and drama that suits Irisarri very well.

India Jordan “For You” (Local Action)

India Jordan “I’m Waiting (Just 4 U)” (Local Action)

I have a feeling that India Jordan’s For You EP is going to go down as one of 2020’s best—and most fun—records. The London-based producer made a big splash with a trio of releases last year, but this new six-track effort is a major step up, not to mention an intensely personal effort that exercises old demons while serving up a collection of infectious dancefloor smashers. Other songs on the EP effectively step into various flavors of colorful, melody-streaked rave (there’s even a drum & bass tune), but the two tracks here find Jordan cutting up glamorous bits of filtered house and disco, resulting in a couple of irresistibly hooky and upbeat gems. There’s major crossover potential here, and if we lived in a just world, Jordan’s tunes would be in regular rotation on pop radio. Until that happens though, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves by simply listening to the tracks on repeat; trust me, you won’t get sick of them anytime soon.

Moodymann “Taken Away” (KDJ)

There’s not much to say about Kenny Dixon Jr. that hasn’t already been said. The man is a legend, a true Detroit original whose music and charismatic, larger-than-life persona encapsulate decades of Motor City cool. Taken Away is his latest album, and even by Moodymann standards, it’s heavy on funk and soul, frequently slowing down the beat and turning up the swagger, often with the help of guest vocalists. First single “Do Wrong”—which is excellent—relies heavily on an Al Green sample, although it’s Dixon Jr. who does the heavy lifting on the mic. (Just FYI, the song has an entertaining new video.) Elsewhere though, Taken Away does offer a few housier cuts, including a collaboration with Chicago legend Jamie Principle, but it’s the strutting title track that DJs will likely be reaching for. Armed with an intensely funky bassline, the song actually has a something of a dreamy aesthetic, with lush synth swells and a no-nonsense, gospel-tinged diva turn courtesy of Roberta Flack’s 1971 track “Sunday and Sister Jones.”

Raymond Richards “Denton, Texas” (ESP Institute)

It’s not often that pedal steel guitar features prominently in the records that land in my inbox, but it’s all over The Lost Art of Wandering, Raymond Richards’ new album for Lovefingers’ ESP Institute label. At first glance, the two make for an unlikely pair, but they actually first linked up during the late ’90s, when elements of country music had seeped into Los Angeles’ indie rock scene. (For a time, the two were even in a band together.) ESP Institute has been around for more than a decade now, but Lovefingers says that he’s always wanted to do a pedal steel guitar album with Richards, and now it’s finally seeing the light of day. It’s a beautiful record, albeit one that most electronic music fans will likely find too twangy for their tastes, but for anyone in search of expansive, ponderous country music—don’t worry, there are no vocals—this is top-notch stuff. “Denton, Texas” leads off the LP, and its gentle lilt actually reminds me of Aphex Twin’s classic “Stone in Focus,” if Aphex Twin had been using a pedal steel guitar of course.

Matthewdavid’s Mindflight “Tract of Bell & Flute Magic” (Leaving)

LA producer Matthewdavid has gone all-in with ambient and new age music over the past several years, and while it can be tough to keep up with every single release on his Leaving Records label, its become an essential outpost for spiritually minded leftfield sounds. Matthewdavid’s Mindflight is the outlet for his own new age productions, and his latest offering is Care Tracts, which contains three 10-minute excursions. “Tract of Bell & Flute Magic” sounds exactly like you’d expect given the title, and though the song is clearly rooted in a sense of calm and tranquility, its airy melodies are sunny and subtly playful, gently twisting and tumbling like a leaf in the breeze. New age can often feel deadly serious, but here, there’s an almost childlike sense of wonder at work, which makes for a much more rewarding listen.

FFT “Open” (Bruk)

FFT “Forward” (Bruk)

Previously known as Alma Construct, FFT has been quietly busy over the past year, dropping releases on Trilogy Tapes and his own Super Hexagon label (for what it’s worth, the Trilogy Tapes record was just re-upped on Bandcamp) before showing up on new Berlin outpost Bruk with two separate releases. The first, which arrived last month, was a bass-heavy dispatch of twisted soundsystem music, but “Open” and “Forward” are from the second release, Total Self-Fulfilment, a cassette stuffed with ambient ruminations. Foregoing drums entirely, both tracks present minimal (albeit warm) compositions, with pindrop melodies and washy atmospheres that intermingle with tightly controlled bass rumblings (and in the case of “Forward,” some angelic vocal snippets) to create something that feels invitingly pristine.

Quaid “Mystery (feat. Shepherd)” (Apron)

Hailing from South London, Quaid is the latest addition to Funkineven’s Apron family, and “Mystery” appears on Dreem Static, an album that explores various strains of cosmic funk. The confident strut of “Mystery” channels some heavy Prince vibes, with Shepherd’s falsetto, come-hither vocals smoothly gliding atop the song’s astral melodies and synth-funk slap. It feels like a lost classic from 1986, but this one is brand new and damn near irresistible.

Foul Play “Feel the Vibe (Again)” (Sneaker Social Club)

Foul Play “Finest Illusion” (Sneaker Social Club)

Collecting tracks originally issued across of series of EPs in 1992 and 1993, Origins is an absolutely vital reissue that exemplifies that key period when hardcore was mutating into jungle and drum & bass. Foul Play was a UK trio from Northampton, and both “Feel the Vibe (Again)” and “Finest Illusion” demonstrate the group’s love of sheer mayhem. Skull-rattling breakbeats, chopped-up diva wails, chimpunked vocal snippets and urgent organ stabs all factor into the equation, and despite the initial shock of just how intense the music sounds, there’s something undeniable about its boundless energy, reckless abandon and gleefully rough-around-the-edges raving.

Matrixxman “The Constant” (The Grid)

Matrixxman has always been a prolific fellow, and apparently the Berlin-based techno producer has been putting his quarantine time to good use, as he suddenly posted three new EPs online last week. Offering up 10 tracks in total, he’s dipped into a variety of styles, from brute-force bangers and housey drum workouts to hypnotic techno chuggers and sci-fi bubblers. “The Constant” falls into that latter category, and while its beeping computer melody and NASA-ready rhythm keep things moving, the track does feature a gnarled, slowly mutating synth bloom that lends the proceedings a subtly ominous air. It’s dancefloor material, to be sure, but it’s just unsettling enough to keep it interesting.

Regis “The Sun Rose Pure” (Downwards)

Regis “Everything Is Ahead of Us” (Downwards)

Speaking of unsettling techno, Sandwell District and British Murder Boys alum Regis dropped a new solo album last week, his first in nearly 20 years. In truth, Hidden In This Is The Light That You Missed isn’t exactly a techno record; Regis himself prefers the term rhythmic noise, and the LP is full of broken rhythms that echo classic post-punk, industrial and even the swinging sounds of UK garage (minus that genre’s usual syrupy R&B vocals). “The Sun Rose Pure” clocks in at more than 11 minutes, its stop-and-start clang engaging in a hypnotic tribal dance with the song’s intermittent bass blasts and slowly cresting waves of atmospheric crunch. (Upping the weirdness factor even further is the fact that the track’s final three minutes go in an entirely different direction, ditching the drums for disembodied whispers and a funereal organ riff.) More straightforward is “Everything Is Ahead of Us,” which closes the album with a steady (albeit still broken) techno beat and muscular EBM synths, although it too takes an exaggerated left turn in its final stretch, devolving into a sort of somber piano dirge. The whole record is like this; it’s a bit weird, but perhaps that’s what makes it such an intriguing listen. Regis played a big part in popularizing industrial- and EBM-flavored techno in the first place, but it’s good to see that he’s still finding ways to subvert the aesthetic now that the scene is lousy with Sandwell District soundalikes.

Hammer & James Shinra “Navigator” (Permanent Vacation)

I’m not a big fan of compilations, but even though “Navigator” is taken from the new Permanent Vacation 6, the song was to good to ignore. (For those of you who are wondering, the collection also features tracks from Patrick Holland, Terr, Panthera Kruse, Alan Dixon, Bawrut and a bunch of other producers.) A collaboration between UK producers Hammer and James Shinra—who have apparently been spending a fair bit of time in the studio together—the song is described by the former as a “melodic brain twister,” which is pretty spot on. “Navigator” is full of soft pads and coolly winding synths; there’s a steady house beat, but the melodies are what make the track, playfully evoking the spirit of Jan Hammer and any other ’80s soundtrack that was designed to accompany scenes of cruising in a convertible, preferably along the coast late at night.

Optmst “Oracle” (R&S)

This one surprised me, and not because I had any preexisting opinions about Optmst—I had actually never previously heard of the Belfast-based producer before—but because I’ve previously found the RV Trax compilation series to be pretty lackluster. Curated by R&S founder Renaat Vandepapeliere, the collections commendably do tend to step outside of dance music’s usual circuit of hyped artists, but “Oracle,” which appears on RV Trax Vol. 5, is the first time I remember a track from the series really grabbing me. It’s essentially a laid-back breakbeat cut, although I’m guessing the song won’t be for everyone, as it has a slick production style that echoes the pop electronica of the late ’90s and early 2000s, an aesthetic that’s particularly evident in the track’s ethereal white girl diva vocal. Simply put, it’s a bit cheesy, but somehow it just works, in the same way it worked when Sarah MacLachlan sang on that Delirium record back in the day. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, as “Oracle” isn’t a trance record and it’s nowhere near as over the top—Tiesto and Matt Darey will definitely not be enlisted for remix duty—but the song’s chilled rhythm does harken back to a particular era of commercial dance music that may not be especially “cool,” but absolutely has its charms.

Swoose “Introspective” (Lost Palms)

Raised in Belfast and now based in London, Swoose has just landed on Shall Not Fade offshoot Lost Palms with the Introspective EP, and title track is a colorful gem with the same sort of Italo-ish flair that often defines many of the best releases on labels like Running Back. The song actually pulls a bit of a bait-and-switch, opening with a jazzy sparkle and some looped tape noise, but once the synths kick in, “Introspective” is anything but; the drums get beefier and the melodies head skyward, playfully bopping amongst the clouds as a celestial vocal clip adds to the otherworldly atmosphere. This is a fun one.

Fluxion “Cliff” (Vibrant)

Molly “Conspiracy” (Dial)

Linkwood “Citrus” (Neroli)

These tracks actually come from three different releases, but I’ve grouped them together here because they all share a certain low-key, late-night / early-morning vibe that sounds especially good during these times when home listening is pretty much all we’ve got. Fluxion hails from Athens, and he’s a veteran dub techno producer; “Cliff” is off Perspectives, his ninth album, and the song features an elegant, subtly soulful groove that’s accentuated by lush strings and soft horn blasts. Similarly sensuous is “Conspiracy,” although this hypnotic tune from French producer and RDV label head Molly has a bit more pep in its percussion. It’s taken from the first installment of the new Dial 2020 compilation series, which has been put together to celebrate the storied label’s 20th anniversary and also features contributions from Joey Anderson, XDB and a handful of others. “Citrus” also comes from a 20th anniversary compilation, The First Circle, on which Italian label Neroli has assembled tunes from K15, Aybee, Patrice Scott, Fred P. and many others. Linkwood’s track is the scruffiest of the three I’ve featured here, but its light fog of distortion can’t obscure the song’s impressively funky bassline or its whimsically swirling melodies.


That’s it for this week. (I figure that 20 track recommendations is probably more than enough for just about anyone.) As always, thank you so much for reading the newsletter, and I really do 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 with more next week,

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.