First Floor #50 – Music Journalism Isn't Built For This
a.k.a. The music press lacks the tools (and the skillset) to tackle the chaos of 2020.
|Shawn Reynaldo||Sep 15, 2020|| 5|
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
I wasn’t trained for this.
When I think about 2020 and how it’s affected my chosen profession, that’s the thought I keep coming back to. It’s not an easy admission to make—I’ve been a music journalist for more than a decade now, and while there have been plenty of challenging moments, never before have I felt so utterly unprepared to effectively do my job.
It’s not that music journalism was easy before the pandemic hit. Long hours, low pay and a lack of stability were all part of the gig, and things weren’t getting any better in the face of widespread media consolidation, shifting content consumption patterns (e.g. people getting more and more information via social media) and a music industry that had become increasingly hostile to any reporting that didn’t function as an extension of their PR campaigns.
Still, when it came to the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts work of being a music journalist, I had a relatively good handle on things. Writing, editing, copy editing, interviewing, transcribing, sorting through mountains of promos, seeking out new music, pitching ideas to editors… that’s a just a partial list, and it was a lot, but there was a rhythm to it all, and the job was (somewhat) manageable.
Once the coronavirus lockdowns began, however, much of that rhythm went out the window. New releases have kept coming of course, and artists are still doing their best to engage with the traditional promo cycle (at least when they have a new album coming out), but in the face of a global pandemic and large-scale civil rights movements, a lot of what music journalists used to do seems a whole lot less important. And while music media outlets have done their best to expand their focus, be it discussing the impacts of COVID-19 on the industry or reporting on how the Black Lives Matter protests have reshaped the cultural landscape, the hard truth is that, by and large, even the most veteran music journalists are woefully underequipped to properly tackle these issues.
Take the COVID-19 crisis. I don’t know one music journalist who could describe themselves as even moderately well informed about epidemiology and public health policy, but over the past six months, media outlets that previously spent most of their time interviewing DJs have been tasked with providing “expert” commentary about what’s happening with the virus, at least in relation to the electronic music industry. For what it’s worth, I do think places like Resident Advisor have done a decent job keeping track of government announcements and things like club and festival closures, but they’re largely just passing along information. There’s not a lot of actual reporting going on, and nobody on their staff is equipped to provide—or even present—anything resembling authoritative analysis on these issues. This isn’t unique to Resident Advisor; music journalists in general simply don’t even have the public health and government contacts to solicit expert commentary on the pandemic, let alone the investigative skillset and knowledge base to ask probing questions and obtain concrete information.
I myself have written about pandemic partying, and have openly advocated for people to stay away from the dancefloor right now, even when it’s been deemed “safe” or legal. But I’m obviously no expert, and wouldn’t present myself as such. International health professionals and government officials can’t even agree upon what’s truly safe when it comes to COVID-19, so why would I, an electronic music journalist, know any better? Yes, I’ve made calls for people to avoid partying, but they largely stem from an overabundance of caution. I can’t say for sure that pandemic raving—legal or illegal—is going to kill anyone, but until we know more, I’d personally argue that it’s not worth taking the chance. It’s not a bad argument, or even an unreasonable one, but it is based on moral grounds and not any sort of scientific, fact-based analysis. (There’s also the fact that a lot of these “safe” parties simply don’t look very fun, but that’s a separate issue.)
Even worse, the pandemic is just one issue among many in which music journalists are largely operating outside of their depth. In recent months, we’ve seen the music press tackling topics like structural racism, systemic discrimination and a renewed focus on rape culture, misogyny and sexual harassment, and while many of these conversations were necessary and long overdue, there’s something absurd about them being led by people whose usual beat is talking about techno. To be clear, I’m not making excuses for anyone, and I’m not advocating for silence on these issues. It’s a good thing that these topics are finally on the table for discussion, even when those discussions are awkward, and I’m hopeful that they’ll contribute to positive change.
At the same time, anyone expecting some sort of large-scale pivot, in which the music press suddenly becomes a crack team of investigative, advocacy-minded journalists is bound to be disappointed. Even before the pandemic started, most media outlets were struggling to produce a steady stream of non-consequential content (e.g. news, reviews, podcasts, interviews, etc.). How are these outlets supposed to now expand their operations to include investigative reporting, which is not only expensive and time-consuming, but rather difficult?
For instance, if allegations surface about a well-known DJ being a serial sexual abuser, does an outlet like Resident Advisor or DJ Mag or Mixmag have the resources to investigate that properly? Does anyone on their staff have contacts in law enforcement, the judicial system or victim advocacy groups? Are they trained in how to find sources, or the ethical framework that goes into telling a victim’s story while protecting their anonymity? Do any of these outlets have fact-checking departments? Do any of their editors have experience in shaping these kinds of stories? Is there any sort of framework in place that considers the legality (not to mention the ethics) of publishing unverified accusations against public figures? Across the board, the answer is no, which is a big part of the reason why when these do stories pop up, music media coverage tends to be either nonexistent or limited to re-posting whatever has already surfaced on social media.
That’s unfortunate, especially when media silence on these issues is often misinterpreted as complicity. The problems that electronic music (and the music industry as a whole) are facing are serious, and often extend beyond the boundaries of the dancefloor or the “scene.” Pandemics, racism, rape culture—these are real-world issues that require “real” journalism, but the mainstream press is rarely interested (that is, when the story is limited to the context of underground music) and music media, as currently constructed, generally isn’t up to the task. Music journalists need more training, more support (both financial and logistic) and probably some more experienced personnel in the mix, but it’s hard to imagine any of that happening when the pandemic has sapped ad revenue and music fans remain largely unwilling to pay for content.
I wish I had a solution, or even a recommendation of where to begin, but for what it’s worth, I’d personally love to exit the standard promo cycle and write more about things of “substance.” I suppose that happens a bit here in the newsletter, but there’s a difference between opinion / conjecture and actual reporting. The former has its role and tends to get people clicking, but the latter can actually make a difference. Let’s try to find a way to prioritize that moving forward.
ANOTHER THING I WROTE
Back in March, right before most of Europe and North America went into lockdown, Beatportal commissioned me to put together a wide-ranging look at how the coronavirus was impacting electronic music. Six months later, the world looks very different, most of the industry is sitting on pause, and Beatportal has asked me to take another look, this time with a multi-part series examining where things stand in the midst of a pandemic that doesn’t seem to be going away. The first installment was published last week, and focused on how artists—and touring DJs in particular—have coped with having their livelihoods upended, and what they’re thinking about their prospects of getting back on the road anytime soon.
A round-up of the last week’s most interesting electronic music news, plus links to mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
As much as I dislike the term “plague raves,” this Ed Gillett-penned feature for DJ Mag offers a comprehensive look at pandemic partying—both legal and illegal—and constructively examines the ethics involved without devolving into full-blown finger wagging.
On a similar note, this Resident Advisor piece, in which Will Lynch interviews Sebastian Voigt (the booker of Berlin’s open-air Else club), provides an interesting window into the challenges—both financial and ethical—that clubs are facing right now, along with the logistical difficulties of throwing parties that are “safe,” or at least comply with all government health regulations.
Pioneer unveiled the new CDJ-3000 last week, and while it’s unlikely that many clubs are clamoring for new equipment at the moment, this updated version of what’s become the industry-standard CDJ does feature plenty of new bells and whistles. (Ironically though, the new model doesn’t play actual CDs anymore.) The company’s flashy promotional video quickly runs through the new features, but those seeking something a bit more thorough should check out this analysis from DJ Mag’s Declan McGlynn.
Theo Parrish has a new album on the way. Entitled Wuddaji, it’s slated to arrive this Friday, September 18 via the Detroit veteran’s own Sound Signature label. In the meantime, preview clips of the LP’s nine tracks can be streamed here.
Bristol drum & bass legend Krust has announced a new full-length, The Edge of Everything, which is surprisingly scheduled for release on Damian Lazarus’ Crosstown Rebels label. While it’s unclear exactly how those two came together, the album is due to arrive on November 6. Ahead of that, a 12-minute LP cut, “Constructive Ambiguity,” is streaming here.
Ana Roxanne turned a lot of heads with her 2019 ~ ~ ~ record, and now the Los Angeles ambient / experimental artist has linked up with the Kranky label for a new LP, Because of a Flower. Set for a November 13 release, it’s said to be a “a chemistry of wisps and whispers, sanctuary and sorrow, conjured through a fragile balance of voice, bass, space, and texture.” Album cut “Suite pour l’invisble” is already streaming here.
Fresh off his Polychrome Swim EP for The Trilogy Tapes, UK producer Parris already has another record on the way, this time for the Wisdom Teeth label. Entitled Terrapin and featuring a collaboration with Minor Science, it’s scheduled for an October 2 release, but lead track “Soft Rocks with Socks” is already streaming here.
The Boomkat family of labels had another impressive week, offering up a new Demdike Stare collaboration (with guitarist Jon Collin) called Sketches of Everything, along with two new editions of its music-created-in-quarantine series, Documenting Sound. The first, Strada, comes from Australian ambient / experimental explorer Laila Sakini, while the other, Instant Dry Yeast, is a long-form percussive excursion from Cairo beatmaker 3Phaz.
While many prominent festivals are putting together hybrid editions and / or going online—MUTEK Montreal took place last week, while a special edition of Sónar Barcelona kicks off this Friday—the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival has gone a different route, skipping this year’s festivities and instead assembling a 137-track benefit compilation called CTEMF 2020 : Friends & Frequencies. The collection includes new music from Four Tet, DJ Food, Black Coffee, Ectomorph, AUX 88 and many, many 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. 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. RIP Simeon Coxe, part of the psychedelic Silver Apples. I'm listening to their debut album from 1968—what an album! It's hard to pick a favourite song, but let’s go with Program,” the one with the radio samples. (They were sampling in the ’60s!) On the album, Simeon played the oscillators, flute, and also provided vocals. For those who don’t know, the story of Silver Apples' beginnings is actually quite fascinating; Simeon, who was part of a traditional rock band, began experimenting with early electronics, gradually incorporating more and more vintage oscillators into the group’s live performances. Other members of the band, however, didn't like the strange sounds he was making and left the group, until only Simeon and Dan Taylor remained. The pair renamed themselves Silver Apples, and the rest is history.
In the process of his experimentation, Simeon had created a sort of accidental synthesizer, complete with oscillators, effects pedals and 86 different manual controls—and telegraph keys!—that became known as the “Simeon.” I love this quote from him that appeared in the Guardian last year: “I had heard the word synthesizer, but I had no idea what it was,” Coxe says. “We were dirt poor and used what we had, which was often discarded World War II gear.”
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.
I was 100% ready to gush about Zora Jones’ new Ten Billion Angels album last Tuesday, but the album hadn’t yet surfaced on Bandcamp when the time came to publish the newsletter. As such, these tunes have already been circulating for a week, but my enthusiasm for this Austrian-born nomad remains undiminished. First Floor readers—and frankly, anyone who’s been following my work in recent years—are likely already familiar with my passion for all things Fractal Fantasy, the unique audio-visual hub (they don’t like to call it a label) that Jones runs alongside her partner Sinjin Hawke. The latter has generated a lot of the headlines, but Jones has quietly been honing her craft as well, first with 2015’s brilliant 100 Ladies EP and now with Ten Billion Angels, her debut full-length. Though it’s not exactly a sea change from her past work, the album is an stunningly impressive display of her talents, as songs like “Melancholy Princess” and the bruising “Low Orbit Ion Cannon” combine R&B gloss and hip-hop bombast with a myriad of gleaming, futuristic club sounds. Then there’s “Sister’s Blade,” which sits somewhere between Three 6 Mafia, Night Slugs and sugary-sweet anime soundtracks. (Did I mention that Japanese tentacle porn was one of the album’s major inspirations?) Across the LP, Jones serves up plenty of low-end acrobatics, but she also proves remarkably adept at chopping, tweaking and twisting her own vocals into otherworldly pop hooks, tugging at your heartstrings even as her booming basslines rumble your gut. And for a more immersive experience, there’s also an interactive visual album on display at the Fractal Fantasy website, offering a deeper dive into Jones’ little universe. It’s a wild ride, but I’d suggest jumping right in.
Code Walk has been around for a few years, but my introduction to the group was 2019’s Distance, a hard-charging EP for Peder Mannerfelt’s eponymous label that enjoyably ping-ponged between inventive bass manipulations and high-octane techno. Now, the Danish duo has returned with the <i>Phases Triptych</i>, a trio of EPs that promises a continued expansion of their sound. “Clock,” which appears on the first EP Separate—the second and third chapters will arrive in the weeks ahead—isn’t terribly far off from Distance, but it is a crunchy techno stormer, and a menacing one at that. Still, this isn’t some Berghain ripoff or warmed-over industrial techno cut. “Clock” is fun, and while it does feature ominous pads and intermittent blasts of distortion, the track never feels overwhelming or cartoonish. Code Walk have wisely built in plenty of breathing room, a technique that only enhances the song’s raw energy and infectious bounce.
Is Kareem Ali the most prolific producer in house and techno? Possibly. In 2020 alone, the Phoenix producer has dropped more than 20 releases, and last week he put together a collection of tunes called X Filez. Culled from his archives and available as a name-your-price download on Bandcamp, it pulls together a heap of largely unmixed and unmastered tunes he made between 2015 and 2017. As such, it moves between numerous moods and styles, striking gold with “Density,” a warm bit of subtly groovy deep house. Powered by a washy synth and a dubby, after-hours rhythm, it’s the sort of tune that truly shines during the final moments of the night, when the vibe is winding down and everyone is feeling good (and a bit exhausted) after a long night on the dancefloor.
For all its talk of futurism, electronic music is a genre that thrives on nostalgia, often in the form of flat-out mimicry. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing—I’ve certainly sung the praises of countless ’80s and ’90s soundalikes over the years. Still, there are other, arguably more inventive ways to engage with the past. Take <i>Amber Glass</i>, the debut album from Tom Jarmey; it’s absolutely drenched in nostalgia, but rather than attempt to recreate the sounds of dance music’s glory years, the young Manchester producer embraces the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia itself. Even during the record’s most upbeat moments—the colorful synths and bubbling melodies of “Cascade” share some DNA with acts like Bicep—there’s a wistful sensibility to the LP, which retains the fuzzy, soft-focus warmth of a faded Polaroid. Although the music is presumably new, it’s as though time has sanded down its rough edges, leaving behind something that’s equal parts cherished memory and maudlin longing. It’s an effective technique—especially for retired ravers and / or those who primarily consume their electronic music outside of the club—and reaches its zenith with the lush pads and dreamily pitch-shifted diva tendrils of “Pale Sky,” a song that’s seemingly tailor-made for a bit of “back in the day” reminiscing.
Picking a single track from Lucrecia Dalt feels… I don’t know, inadequate somehow. Like many experimental acts, she’s not really a singles artist, and her music is just so immersive that focusing on any one song provides only a fragment of a more textured and deeply rewarding whole. Her latest album, No Era Sólida, absolutely merits a complete listen-through, but I’ve highlighted “Revuelta,” which is arguably one of the weirdest tracks on the record. Where her last LP, Anticlines, offered a trip through sparse sonics and psychedelic spoken word, the new album is darker, denser and maybe even a little disturbing, particularly on “Revuelta,” an ominous number that sounds something like a recording from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, only played in reverse. (Maybe I’ve been influenced by Dalt’s admission that the new LP is rooted in ideas of possession and also stars a mysterious alter-ego named Lia, but I get some definite “Paul is dead” vibes from “Revuelta,” especially once the disembodied howls enter the fray about halfway through the song.) Dalt’s work has always been a little mystical, but here she sounds downright spooky; still, she’s such a talented artist that I’ll gladly follow her into the darkness. (Just FYI, I’d also recommend this in-depth interview she gave to Joshua Minsoo Kim for the Tone Glow newsletter.)
Nearly two years after we last heard from Laksa, the UK producer has returned to Batu’s Timedance label with a new EP of sweaty drum workouts and percolating bassweight. “Sen on One”—the record’s title track—is the most potent of the bunch, largely thanks to its hard-hitting, African-sounding percussion and darting drum patterns, which repeatedly stop, start and swing from side to side—all without sacrificing any of the song’s forward momentum. Fleshed out with energetic vocal bursts and subtle melodic flurries, it’s an inventive banger that’s easily one of the most upfront Laksa tunes has ever done—not to mention something that’s not terribly far off from what artists like Anunaku and DJ Plead are doing. The UK bass hive mind is always evolving, and is only growing stronger as its members expand their focus—and their sound palettes—beyond the borders of the British Isles.
One of Washington, DC’s best labels, 1432 R’s latest dispatch comes from producer Jackson Ryland, who probably best known as one half of the group Rush Plus. His new EP Stealth Mode is no-frills affair, four tracks of machine-made house and techno that nimbly balance analog grit and soulful grooves. That said, “no frills” shouldn’t be mistaken for “no funk,” particularly on the record’s deceptively cool title track. At first listen, it might seem like a standard-issue techno offering, but the song’s rubbery bassline and fuzzy pads lend the proceedings a confident swagger, one that’s nicely offset by Ryland’s penchant for crunching squelch and unpolished analog sounds. This one’s a sleeper, but with a little patience, it’ll have you strutting in no time.
Kebrada is a new label from Dengue Dengue Dengue, and given that the imprint’s name is essentially a slang spelling of the Spanish word for broken (“quebrada”), it’s no surprise that the Peruvian duo sees their new venture as a celebration of Latin America’s uniquely broken rhythms. Sticking to that theme, Discos en 3/Cuartos is the young label’s first release, a compilation that features new music from artists like Siete Catorce, DJ Python, Nick León and a variety of artists from across the Americas, including Dengue Dengue Dengue themselves. Here, they appear (under their new-ish DNGDNGDNG alias) alongside N.A.A.F.I. affiliate Debit, whose “Omeya” sounds something like a screwed version of tribal guarachero crossed with ambient music. It’s not often that these kinds of seasick rhythms can sound this pensive, but the unusual combination works, and based on the artists that Kebrada has lined up, it’s a safe bet that this won’t be the last time that the young imprint helps to expand the boundaries of Latin music.
These two tracks are not technically related, but they did both get me thinking about slowcore bands like Codeine and Low. It’s not that Neinzer or Ground actually sound exactly like slowcore—although both of these tracks do move at a deliberate pace and prominently feature guitars—but they do share a certain introspective vibe, one that’s better suited for bouts of thoughtful introspection than wild nights on the dancefloor. That feeling is especially strong on “Almost Life,” which cinematically smears waves of soaring drone atop the echoed twang of its principal guitar melody. (Just FYI, this Ground is the bicoastal American duo of Benjamin Kitchens and Eric Brannon, not the Japanese producer who’s previously appeared on labels like ESP Institute. “Almost Life” appears on their debut EP Correspondance.) More overtly electronic is “Hemdabu,” off Neinzer’s new Shifting Values EP. He’s always blurred the lines between genres, but “Hemdabu” has a jazzy, almost post-rock feel; it’s almost like an updated take on The Sea and Cake or Tortoise, with just a hint of IDM and UK bass pressure in the mix. I realize that’s a lot of comparisons for a single track, but it’s just one of those tunes that defies easy description—in a good way.
The solo project of Stephen Hindman (a.k.a. one half of The Golden Filter), Isolating debuted earlier this year with an EP for Dark Entries, and he’s now followed it up with a proper full-length, Perennial. There’s always been something of a dark current to Hindman’s work with The Golden Filter, but this new endeavour dives much deeper into the abyss, largely casting aside colorful melodies and pop flirtations in favor of grotty distortion and rigid industrial rhythms. “Sacrament,” however, sits somewhere in between Hindman’s two worlds, offsetting its gnarled crunch with a little bit of electro-techno bounce and a surprisingly regal melody. Easily the most “fun” track that Perennial has to offer, it’s also a reminder that in a sea of darkness, a little bit of light can go a long way.
Formed in LA and now based in Berlin, 333 Boyz have just released an album called Yours, the duo’s first new offering since 2015. Playing with pop tropes is at the core of their artistic vision, and while the new LP feels a bit deeper than their past outings, it’s still a record that gets downright goofy at times. “Poison Mask,” however, goes beyond mere pranksterism; it’s still playful, but it also sounds like a collaboration between Oneohtrix Point Never and Nguzunguzu, pitting rowdy percussive bursts against glassy synth melodies. It’s not a club track per se, but these two have clearly spent some time on the dancefloor, and appear determined to hold up their favorite bits to the proverbial funhouse mirror.
Tennessee isn’t generally regarded as an electronic music hotbed, but Knoxville’s Alex Falk is doing his best to put Appalachia on the the techno map. Following up his much-loved OOF EP from last year, he’s just dropped a follow-up on Physical Therapy’s Allergy Season label, a new five-tracker called Movefast. DJs might reach for other tunes on the record, but “U Wont” closes out the EP on a wonderfully hypnotic note, its crackling, unpolished pulse topped with a delirious melange of soft piano and swirling vocal snippets. (I can’t tell if those vocal snippets were lifted from an R&B cut or some anonymous “lite rock,” teen pop or adult contemporary song, but regardless of where they came from, Falk has whipped them into something delightful.) On paper, “U Wont” makes for an odd combination, but in practice, it’s a blissful techno lullaby.
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.)
Have a great week,