First Floor #45 – What Now?

a.k.a. With the pandemic still raging, the dancefloor—and real change—feels very far away.

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

Before we get started, I have two quick notes:

1. I’ve decided to extended the newsletter’s biweekly publishing schedule through the end of August. It’s not a permanent change—weekly newsletters should resume in September—but for the time being, the next two editions of First Floor will go out on August 11 and 25.

2. First Floor readers already know about Dania from the “My Wife Has Better Taste Than I Do” segment of the newsletter, but she was recently profiled for Pitchfork by Philip Sherburne, who dove into her double life as an emergency room doctor and the head of an experimental music label. Obviously I’m biased, but it’s a good read about a special person.

For as long as I can remember, July and August have been slow months for music journalists. New releases are scarce, the industry is focused on the festival season (at least in the Northern hemisphere) and wide swaths of the listening public deviate from their normal routines, whether they’re taking vacations or simply being lured outside by the summer sun.

This year, things have once again felt slow in July, albeit in a very different way. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, clubs largely remain shut, while festivals around the world have been postponed or cancelled altogether. DJ livestreams attempted to fill the void for a while, and I suppose they’re still happening, but now that the novelty has worn off—and lots of people have realized that watching a string of DJs play music in an empty room isn’t the most engaging of experiences—they’ve largely disappeared from the cultural conversation. (I’m sure the fact that hardly anyone was getting paid also had something to do with it.)

New releases are still popping up—and thanks to Bandcamp, it feels like more music is finding its way into the world than ever—but the conversation around them (and music in general) tends to be fleeting, if it happens at all. That’s unfortunate, because 2020 has actually been a pretty great year for electronic music albums; over the past several months, we’ve seen great new LPs from Hodge, Andrea, Beatrice Dillon, Moodymann, DJ Python, Space Afrika, Joey Anderson, Minor Science, The Soft Pink Truth, Julianna Barwick, Kate NV and probably a bunch of other folks I’m forgetting, but it often feels like their records have more or less evaporated into the ether. Back in April, I wrote about how COVID-19 had thrust the music world into what felt like a bizarre alternate timeline, but now that this timeline has become an enduring, concrete reality, I do find myself longing for the conversations that these records could have inspired.

At the same time, in the face of a global pandemic and large-scale social movements against racism, police brutality and anti-Blackness, it’s hard to fault anyone who’s not up for discussing the merits of new music. I too have struggled to care as much as I used to, and while thoughts of “does anything I’m writing really matter?” have always been an intermittent part of life as a music journalist, they’ve been particularly hard to shake in 2020. I still love music of course, and I’m happy to continue sharing my favorite new stuff here in the newsletter and via my work for other outlets, but with everything that’s going on in the world right now, I’d be lying if I said that any of it felt terribly important.

It doesn’t help matters that the electronic music industry—which has always been one of the main focal points of First Floor—has effectively come to a halt. Most people who work in music—myself included—are either underemployed or unemployed right now, and with COVID-19 once again surging around the globe, it’s unlikely that we’ll be fully getting back to work anytime soon. And while having everyone stuck at home has undoubtedly fueled some long overdue (and occasionally inspiring) conversations about topics like sustainability, inequality and structural racism within the industry, it’s not unreasonable to wonder how much concrete change we’re really going to see, even if things eventually get back to “normal.”

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the conversations we’ve seen about racism and inequality within electronic music were unnecessary. Change is often messy, and although I don’t always agree with people’s tactics or appreciate how conflicts tend to play out on social media, there’s no denying that ideas like structural racism and anti-Blackness are now being considered more seriously than ever before. The elevation of these issues is a positive thing, and there’s an inherent value in holding people to account and simply seeing underrepresented people’s perspectives, critiques and concerns being taken seriously. At the same time, while we’ve seen plenty of social media platitudes and surface-level reforms, with the pandemic having brought the industry to a standstill, more profound changes have been harder to come by.

Take electronic music journalists, who’ve faced plenty of criticism lately and are theoretically positioned to take immediate action since they’re technically still working. But if we look at a place like Resident Advisor, whose reputation has taken a real battering in recent months, the site has pledged to make changes, and there’s subsequently been a visible shift toward Black and POC artists in their editorial, but there’s no getting around the fact that their staff—and the staff of most major (and minor) electronic music publications, if we’re being honest—continues to be almost all white. That clearly needs to change, but change isn’t all that feasible when the site’s primary revenue streams (i.e. ticket sales and advertising) have all but dried up, freelance budgets have been cut and much of the staff has already been furloughed.

Whether it’s at RA or elsewhere, where does the money come from to hire new Black and POC writers and editors, or to take more drastic action and do things like create mentorship programs and paid internships for aspiring journalists from underrepresented communities and backgrounds? Some folks have suggested that real systemic change will require that some white people (i.e. staff writers and editors) lose their jobs, and that’s probably true, but it’s hard to justify laying anyone off in the middle of a pandemic.

Another option would be to find a new revenue source, and many outlets—RA included—are attempting to move to subscription-based models, but barring a major shift in readers’ willingness to suddenly start paying for content en masse, it’s unlikely that model can raise enough income to sustain even a small publication (at least one that pays its contributors), let alone a media operation of any significant scale. So again, we’re left to wonder exactly when and how real change is going to happen; will any of the most prominent electronic music media outlets even be able to keep the lights on long enough to make a serious attempt? In moments of anger and frustration, there’s an inherent appeal to the idea of tearing down institutions and starting anew, and I’ve seen plenty of folks cheering the idea of RA and other outlets collapsing, but when a pandemic makes building something new almost impossible (at least for the time being), is demolishing everything the right thing to do?

I don’t have much love for the old status quo—back in March, I openly advocated for tearing out the rot that had infected the electronic music industry—but despite all the apologies, sober statements and well-meaning gestures we’ve seen on social media and elsewhere during the past few months, there’s still no guarantee that we’re actually going to see large-scale changes in terms of staffing, reporting, representation, compensation, recognition and general sustainability. The discourse might be popping right now, but with the actual business of electronic music largely on pause, it’s difficult for companies, professionals and even fans to put their money where their mouth is, simply because there is so little money being made and spent right now. What’s worse, many of the entities who’ve shown a genuine willingness to engage on these issues are the ones most likely to be teetering on the edge of collapse. When things open up again—if they open up again—it will be the monied organizations who’ve sat on the sidelines that are best positioned to resume business, and it’s unlikely that anything more than basic lip service to Black Lives Matter will be on their agenda.

Knowing all of this, it’s hard to stay engaged with electronic music; pushing for change is great and these efforts will hopefully continue, but as the pandemic drags on, conversations about the music—and the industry around it in particular—feel increasingly abstract and hypothetical. One thing the pandemic has made abundantly clear is just how poor of a substitute social media is for real-world community. Although electronic music culture has been very online since the early days of the internet, at its core, it’s still rooted in human connection, whether you’re losing yourself on a crowded dancefloor, chatting with friends in a dark corner of the club or running into some pals at the local record shop. Without those experiences, what are we left with? Twitter? Articles about music that you can’t actually hear at a club?

I don’t mean for this to sound like a eulogy for electronic music, or even the music industry, but I do feel like the culture and infrastructure we knew is most likely gone for good. The music is bound to continue, and that’s a good thing, and I’m confident that human ingenuity will eventually usher in a new chapter for the culture and the industry, hopefully one that’s more equitable and sustainable for everyone. In the meantime though, all of that still feels very far away, and for an electronic music lifer like myself, the summer of 2020 is the slowest one I can remember.


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.

  • Following the success of its first four Bandcamp Fridays—which began in March and have already generated more than $20 million in music and merch sales—Bandcamp announced that it would extend the monthly sales series through the end of the year. As it’s done previously, the company will be foregoing its usual 10-15% commission on the first Friday of every month, ensuring that 100% of revenue goes directly to artists and labels. The next one will be happening on August 7, so start filling your wishlists now.

  • Last month, I put together a basic how-to guide for writers looking to get into electronic music journalism, but Berlin’s Groove Magazine has taken things a step further. Teaming up the Goethe-Institut, they’ve organized a two-week workshop for aspiring writers; 10 applicants will be accepted, and each one will work toward creating a long-form feature on their local scene, for which they’ll be paid €500. The program is designed for non-German speakers—which means that applications won’t be accepted from Germany, Switzerland and Austria—and the deadline (August 3) is coming up fast, so head here for all the details and take advantage of what looks like a great opportunity.

  • Gabriel Szatan spent a year diving into the history of UK garage, and put together an extensive feature for Resident Advisor that thoughtfully examines the past, present and future of this once-maligned and newly resurgent genre. (Sadly, the piece apparently generated some physical threats against Gabriel and some of the folks who he spoke to for the article, prompting him to take a break from social media.)

  • In the face of an online petition to change her artist name, Marea Stamper dropped The Black Madonna moniker and announced that she will now go by The Blessed Madonna. The next day, Dave Lee pledged to stop using the name Joey Negro, while Patrick Holland shared a statement admitting that his decision earlier this year to stop going by Project Pablo was partially rooted in sidestepping critique from Latin people who found the name problematic.

  • Earlier this year, I penned a lengthy profile of Martyn Bootyspoon, and now the Montreal producer—who happens to be one of dance music’s most entertaining figures—has a new EP on the way. Entitled Lickety Split, it’s out this Thursday, July 30 on the 2 B Real label. Ahead of that, the title track and EP cut “Ice Cream Mane” are already streaming online.

  • The Adult Swim Singles series has long been a reliable source for great new music, but it’s taken an intriguingly ambient / experimental turn lately with new tunes from Sarah Davachi and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. You can stream those songs (along with rest of the series) here.

  • Fade to Mind boss Kingdom will soon be releasing his sophomore album. Neurofire will arrive on September 18, and is said to be a “faster, more turbulent and experimental” effort; it’s also stuffed with guest vocalists. Two tracks from the LP are already streaming online: first single “No More Same (feat. LUVK)” and “High Enough (feat. Tiara Thomas).”

  • LA-based harpist Mary Lattimore has finished a new full-length for Ghostly International. Slated for release on October 9, it’s called Silver Ladders and was surprisingly produced by Neil Halstead, whom shoegaze aficionados will likely remember from his days in the band Slowdive. Album track “Sometimes He’s in My Dreams” is streaming here.


MY WIFE HAS BETTER TASTE THAN I DO

My wife Dania is a wonderful person, but she has little regard for my taste in electronic music. 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.

Shuta Hiraki “Molecules That Gather in the Horn” (Unfinished House)

Hello. I recently finished Pauline Oliveros’ book Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice, which gave me a renewed appreciation for long-form pieces like this one. “Molecules That Gather in the Horn” is a meditative, 18-minute ambient drone track, and to fully appreciate the music’s restrained metamorphosis, I’d recommend listening with headphones or inside a quiet space with no other atmospheric interference. It’s difficult to make something this long and deliberate without it sounding monotonous, but Hiraki has created something beautiful that patient, thoughtful listeners will surely find rewarding.

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 or so. 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.

Actress 88 (Self-released)

This one isn’t streaming on Bandcamp—and it’s no longer available as a free download, either—but it’s well worth purchasing, because, well, it’s a new album-length effort from Darren Cunningham, who’s easily one of the most unique and talented artists in all of electronic music. A surprise release and a precursor to his forthcoming Karma & Desire LP—which is slated to arrive in October—88 was issued as a single, 48-minute, 49-second track, but it’s not a continuous mix; the UK producer posted a full tracklist which indicates that the record contains 22 separate productions. As such, it’s something of a disjointed listen—he moves through numerous styles and some of his productions last only a few seconds—but the music is unmistakably Actress, with crackly drum machine rhythms, a litany of analog blips and bloops and an aesthetic that’s equal parts moody and metallic. It’s possible that 88 could be a glorified dump of tunes that were sitting on Cunningham’s hard drive, but even if that’s the case, a collection of Actress’ leftovers still sounds better than 99% of the tunes that land in my inbox each week.

Al Wootton “Starlight Xpress” (Trule)

Al Wootton “Gloamer” (Trule)

Witness has been out for less than two weeks, but it already feels like one of the most massively slept on albums of 2020. Although Wootton has delivered some impressive work before as Deadboy and J.V. Lightbody, his more recent output under his own name makes clear that that UK producer has found another gear, one in which he tastefully distills numerous strains of British dance music into a coherent—and remarkably potent—sound. Dub plays an outsized role on Witness, and the album is absolutely dripping with sludgy reverb, but there are also elements of garage, jungle, house, techno and dubstep at work. Making comparisons to Basic Channel almost feels sacrilegious, but that’s what comes to mind when I hear the chunky bassline and lush strings of a song like “Gloamer.” With its echoing Amen breaks and nods to old-school drum & bass, “Starlight Xpress” is a bit livelier, but it’s not exactly a club track either; the song’s woozy melodies are better suited for staring into the void and pondering the meaning of the universe. Even when Witness does venture onto the dancefloor, there’s a notable sense of restraint, and the music is better for it; most artists cringe at the idea of their music sounding “mature,” but Wootton has never before sounded this comfortable and confident.

Jessy Lanza “Anyone Around” (Hyperdub)

As tempting as it is to simply write another gushing blurb about “Lick in Heaven,” I want to stress that the appeal of Jessy Lanza’s new All the Time LP isn’t limited to its highly infectious first single. “Anyone Around” opens the record, and quickly establishes the album’s unashamedly pop bent, which pulls heavily from ’80s bubblegum and breathy R&B. Yet this isn’t some sort of nostalgia piece, as the clapping drums and clicking hi-hats could have been lifted from a contemporary rap cut. Lanza’s vocals are more front and center than ever before—and the myriad ways they’ve been tweaked, distorted and pitch-shifted throughout All the Time are highly enjoyable—but at its core, this song is another hybrid gem from the Canadian artist, who’s built a career out of gleefully blurring the lines between hooky pop music and sounds lifted from the electronic underground.

Alan Dixon “Acid Drop (Swimming Mix)” (Running Back)

With the world melting down and showing few signs of improvement, it’s not exactly surprising that there doesn’t seem to be much of a demand for sugary blasts of dancefloor-ready revelry right now. That said, London producer Alan Dixon has proven to have a real knack for infusing his tracks with a palpable sense of joy, and he’s done it again on “Acid Drop,” two versions of which appear on his new Piano Drop EP. While the original is the obvious big-room anthem, I’ve opted here for the “Swimming Mix,” which strips out the wonky acid bits and dials back the piano vamps, leaving behind a groove-laden bit of glossy, Italo-flavored house music. There’s still enough cheese here to put a smile on your face, but it’s not so strong that you’ll feel guilty for enjoying the track.

Kara-Lis Coverdale “Undo” (Boomkat Editions)

Considering that 2017’s Grafts is widely considered to be the best thing that Kara-Lis Coverdale has ever done, people likely won’t need much incentive to pick up Boomkat’s new expanded reissue. That said, the new edition of the record—which was originally released as a one-sided 12”—does include a previously unheard b-side, “Undo,” a similarly stunning piece that sits somewhere between generative synthesis and classical composition. It’s minimal, yes, but it’s also wonderfully detailed and bursting with emotion, the song’s trundling rhythms and fluttering melodies exuding a sort of quiet grace as the music delicately unfolds over the course of 20 minutes. It’s fantastic stuff, and a welcome reminder of Coverdale’s singular talent.

KMRU “Why Are You Here” (Editions Mego)

Another one for the more patient listeners out there. “Why Are You Here” is the 15-minute opener from KMRU’s new album Peel, which he incredibly recorded in only 48 hours. Although the Kenyan ambient artist makes his home in Nairobi and says the LP was partially inspired by a recent trip to Montreal, “Why Are You Here” feels untethered to any specific geography, its slow oscillations conjuring images of water quietly lapping against the shore or a batch of freshly hung laundry gently swaying in the breeze. From a production standpoint, the music is rather minimal, consisting of little more than a cloud of mushy reverb, a softly repeating melody and what sounds like a tiny echo of a human voice, yet that’s more than enough to create a palpable sense of serenity.

Bruno Bavota “Apartment Loop #3” (Temporary Residence Ltd.)

Italy was hit particularly hard by COVID-19, and like most Italians, Bruno Bavota was filled with fear during the early days of lockdown. As the pandemic wore on, however, his feelings of dread gave way to inspiration, and he started making music. Although piano is usually the Naples-based artist’s instrument of choice, his new Apartment Loops Vol. 1 EP contains a trio of synthesizer compositions. The third one is particularly moving, especially once its timid opening passage gives way to a majestic explosion of devotional melodies. Bavota clearly isn’t just another homebound synth noodler, and the crescendo of “Apartment Loop #3” sounds like the work of a virtuosic church organist.

Kara “Sing” (Leaving)

It’s not often that I get to write about Inglewood—for those of you who aren’t from Southern California, it’s a small city right next to the Los Angeles airport—but the place actually has a lot of sentimental value for me. My grandparents lived there for decades after immigrating to the United States, and while that has nothing to do with Kara or his music, I do get a small thrill whenever I see Inglewood (his hometown) on a press release. A longtime saxophonist, Kara is currently in Basel, Switzerland continuing his studies of the instrument, but he’s also developed a love for beatmaking and electronic music that’s now getting some shine via his debut release Colors, which is essentially a 20-track beat tape for Matthewdavid’s Leaving Records. The dreamy “Sing”—one of two tracks featuring the vocals of Jenna Noelle—sounds like a Julianna Barwick song that’s been remixed by a Dilla acolyte, and given that it abruptly ends before the two-minute mark, my only regret is that it’s not longer.

Daniel Szlajnda “Rebirth (feat. Resina)” (U Know Me)

Hailing from Krakow, Poland, Daniel Szlajnda spent most of the past decade making club-focused fare as Daniel Drumz. His new EP Komorebi is the first time he’s released something under his own name, and it also represents a drastic change in direction, as Szlajanda has fully plunged into the world of modular synthesis and a sound that he’s jokingly dubbed “acid ambient.” There are no tweaky acid blips on “Rebirth,” but the song does offer plenty of drama, particularly during its opening salvo of grey atmospherics and gloomily lurching strings. Things lighten up once the synths kick in around the two-minute mark, as Szlajnda quickly casts his gaze skyward with a playful array of tinkling keys and cosmic melodies.

Pontiac Streator “Trizlang Gem (feat. Ulla)” (Motion Ward)

Best known for his collaborations with Ulla Straus on the West Mineral Ltd. label, ambient / experimental artist Pontiac Streator now has a proper debut album of his own. Entitled Triz and arriving via Los Angeles imprint Motion Ward—another key hub for the dreamy / druggy sounds that West Mineral Ltd. has championed—it’s a complex (and often beautiful) record that moves between smudgy soundscapes and jittery electronics while maintaining a weirdly blissful vibe. “Trizlang Gem,” on which he once again teams up with Ulla Straus, is one of the LP’s more elegant offerings, with gentle guitar and disembodied vocals coming together in a moving bit of swirly calm.

Tristan Arp “Reflex” (Darker Than Wax)

Eams “Você Não Pode Dançar” (Human Pitch)

NYC producer and Human Pitch co-founder Tristan Arp is one of those artists whose music defies easy categorization, so perhaps it’s not surprising that “Reflex” feels like an outlier on the jazz- and funk-leaning new Various Channels Vol​.​1: NYC compilation. With its squirrelly rhythms and slightly goofy strut, the song feels like an updated take on what oddball groups like Yello were doing in the ’80s, sounding a lot like those unclassifiable records one often finds in the “jazz fusion” bin of your favorite record shop—not because the music is actually jazz, but just because there’s nowhere else to put them. Similarly jittery, if a bit more dancefloor-focused, is Demode, the new EP (and debut outing on Human Pitch) from Eams, an artist from Guadalajara, Mexico who’s infused his leftfield club sounds with a hyperactive strain of Brazilian funk carioca. “Você Não Pode Dançar” (translation: “You Can’t Dance) adds a bit of high-stepping drama to the mix, bringing the to mind the neon-hued flair of Classical Curves-era Jam City.

Tommy Holohan “Bluelemonade” (Unknown to the Unknown)

Not even a pandemic has slowed down DJ Haus and his insanely prolific Unknown to the Unknown label, and “Bluelemonade” comes from the latest installment of the imprint’s Dance Trax series, which tends to focus on hard-hitting club tunes. Tommy Holohan is a producer out of Dublin, Ireland, and the brightly colored “Bluelemonade” channels the manic energy (and silly spirit) of happy hardcore while delivering something a bit more palatable for the average club kid. It’s still fast, clocking in around 155 bpm, and the hyperactive breakbeats are a lot of fun, but they ultimately take a back seat to the song’s insanely catchy, day-glo melody, which sounds like something one of the PC Music gang might have cooked up. (For what it’s worth, I’m not a big fan of PC Music, but “Bluelemonade” conjures a similarly irreverent energy that really works.)

DJ Soch “Underground Night” (Distant Hawaii)

At first listen, “Underground Night” reminded me of the hypnotic house grooves of early ’90s NYC outfit Dream 2 Science, but a more apt comparison would be the dream house sounds that were coming out of Italy around the same time. A veteran Italian producer himself, DJ Soch likely heard some of those dream house records the first time around, and he’s tapped into a similarly smooth deep house vibe on his new EP, The Power of Poetry. The record is full of tunes that are perfect for a leisurely afternoon by the pool—don’t sleep on “Peter Pan” or “Round the World”—but the plush pads, soulful strings and lazy piano melodies of “Underground Night” come together in a particularly pleasing fashion.


That brings us to the end of today’s newsletter. As always, thank you so much for reading First Floor, and I 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 in two weeks,

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.