First Floor #9 - Compilation Fatigue

a.k.a. Do we really need all of these compilations?

Hello there.

First of all, I just wanted to welcome to all of the new subscribers. A lot of new people signed up for the newsletter during the past week, and whether it was the Create Digital Music article or something else that inspired you to come and take a look, I very much appreciate your interest and I’m thrilled that you’re reading this.

Anyways, let’s get into this week’s electronic music happenings… and no, I don’t have a “hot take” on the Nina Kraviz cornrows drama. (Multiple people have asked.) In truth, I actually missed a lot of the initial back-and-forth, as I’m currently spending a few days in Italy; once this whole mess came to my attention though, I have to admit that I identified strongly with this tweet:

So, yeah… feel free to catch up on that shit show elsewhere. I do, however, want to talk a bit about a different topic that’s been bothering me for a while now: compilations.

Is it just me, or are there too many compilations these days? I suppose this concern is something of an addendum to my recent newsletter about the insane amount of promos I receive, but I think that compilations fall into their own special category. Maybe I’m just missing something, but do people actually like and/or value these things? Do they secretly sell tons of copies or generate gobs of streams? Do labels just like them because they’re easier to promote? I would genuinely love to know.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with all compilations. Reissue compilations, for instance, especially ones highlighting a particular label, sound, scene or movement, can provide an incredible snapshot of music history. And even when a compilation is focusing on a current sound, scene or movement, they can also have real value, particularly when they provide an entry point to something that’s happening outside of the electronic music mainstream (i.e. the things that Resident Advisor and other sites don’t usually post about).

This “entry point” function is so important. Looking back at electronic music history, compilations have long served as a sort of gateway for listeners interested in learning more, and some releases have been massively influential. 1988’s Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit played a huge role in spreading that music across the Atlantic, and those Rio Baile Funk compilations were essential listening during the mid 2000s. (I’d even wager that plenty of listeners didn’t even know what a favela was when those compilations came out, let alone that such incredible music was coming out of those communities.) Of course, there’s also the famed mix CD; at one point, mix series like Fabric and Global Underground were arguably more important and influential than most artist albums – I know I wasn’t the only one jamming Paul Oakenfold’s Tranceport back in 1998 – but those days are well in the past. In the face of endless online mixes, the relevance (and volume) of mix CDs has waned considerably.

But if we focus on just the past few years, how many truly memorable compilations of new music have been released? Personally, I can think of only one that has really meant something to me: Mono No Aware, a fantastic collection of ambient-ish music that came out via PAN in 2017. (Granted, as someone who’s constantly inundated with new music, I must admit that my memory is fuzzy and perhaps I’m forgetting some other quality compilations. Regardless, Mono No Aware is the only one that comes to mind immediately for me, which I think says a lot.)

Mono No Aware worked because it wasn’t an empty gesture. The record featured 16 tracks by 18 different artists, but it still sounded like a proper album, as its litany of high-quality tunes coalesced into a cohesive and well-curated musical statement. (It also included Yves Tumor’s “Limerence,” which is just a flat-out incredible song.)

If more compilations took this approach, I wouldn’t be complaining. Unfortunately though, most of the compilations I receive feel like borderline random collections of disparate, loosely connected tracks. In a digital world, when most listeners have literally millions of tracks at their fingertips, these kinds of compilations lack utility. Moreover, they have no real purpose. And no, I don’t think a label’s anniversary automatically qualifies as a “real purpose.” It’s not that I don’t understand the impulse – as someone who’s started and run multiple labels myself, I know just how hard it is for a label to survive even one year, let alone five or ten.

At the same time, celebrating these kinds of anniversaries should go farther than simply throwing together a “greatest hits” collection or a sampling of throwaway tracks from artists who’ve previously contributed to the imprint. Yet that’s what usually shows up in my inbox, whether it’s a label celebrating its fifth year, its fiftieth release or some other arbitrary milestone. (Having just received a raft of ADE Sampler compilations, which came on the heels of numerous of Ibiza 2019 compilations, I can assure you that the bar for these “milestones” is now ridiculously low.)

In labels’ defense, it is extremely difficult to get artists to contribute their top-shelf material for a compilation. Why would they? Few artists these days work with only one label anyways, and in an environment where producers have to constantly think about “building their brand,” there’s little incentive to lend some of your shine to someone or something else, even if it’s a label you like. Even for new artists, is it really worth signing over your best stuff to a label when it’s just going to end up as one of fifteen tracks on a compilation? Most of the time, the answer is “no.”

In the end though, the fault here does ultimately lie with the labels. If you’re a label owner putting together a compilation, and the tracks coming in aren’t that special or just plain don’t go together, does it not make sense to just scrap the release? Is there really no other way to commemorate your label’s birthday or whatever it is that you’re trying to highlight or celebrate? Putting out a compilation might be an easy way to drum up some interest in your back catalog and/or get a publication to write a news story, and it’s probably the easiest way to get twelve (or more) different artists all tweeting at the same time about your label’s new release, but unless it’s curated with care, its musical value won’t add up to much. In that case, it’s basically just noise, and I think we have more than enough of that.


ANOTHER THING I WROTE

Last week, Pitchfork published my review of Coconut Grove, the new album from Relaxer. Although the project has been active since 2016, I feel like it’s largely flying under the radar, at least in comparison to Daniel Martin-McCormick’s previous endeavors like Ital, Mi Ami and, going all the way back to the early 2000s, Black Eyes. I also wrote a bit about the dreamy charms of Coconut Grove in last week’s newsletter, but my Pitchfork review dives deeper into the record and how I see it as both Martin-McCormick’s first proper techno album and as a clean break from the anarchic impulses of his post-punk past.


REAL QUICK

  • There’s a new Burial album coming out… sort of. As it happens, this new album isn’t actually new, or even a proper album. Entitled Tunes 2011 to 2019, it’s actually a collection of songs from the various EPs Burial has released on Hyperdub during the past eight years. Although his many superfans are likely disappointed, the record does provide a chance for more casual listeners to catch up with the many twists and turns his music has taken since the days of Untrue. The album will be released on December 6 and oddly enough won’t be available on vinyl; instead, Hyperdub will be selling it as a double CD collection – talk about a throwback! (Digital versions will also be available.)

  • Brotherly UK duo Overmono has announced a new EP, POLY011, which is set to arrive this Friday via their own Poly Kicks imprint. I will almost certainly be gushing about this record once it officially drops, but I love Overmono so much that I wanted to spread the word about the forthcoming EP in the meantime. They’ve already shared one track, “Le Tigre,” and it’s real good.

  • I feel a little silly sharing another article penned by Gabriel Szatan (I swear that there are many other music writers out there whose work I also enjoy), but I’d be remiss not to share this in-depth feature/interview he did for Dazed with the notoriously press-shy Joy Orbison. I also have to admit that I’m a little jealous; I myself did get to interview Joy Orbison back in 2015 as part of a feature that Dekmantel asked me to put together for the launch of its Selectors series (sadly, the piece is no longer online and also included interviews with Motor City Drum Ensemble and Young Marco), but kudos to Gabriel for snagging a proper, independent feature with an artist whose work I’ve long admired.

  • Full disclosure: I have not yet listened to the new Resident Advisor podcast from Japanese DJ Powder, but I will absolutely be making time this week to give it a listen. If you haven’t yet heard her compilation / mix CD for Beats in Space that came out earlier this year, I’d also highly recommend adding that to your queue.

  • Martyn is an artist I’ve raved about many times over the years, and he’s been especially good during the past year or so, offering up the excellent Voids album on Ostgut Ton last year and following it up wth the similarly high-quality Odds Against Us EP just a few months ago. Now, he’s lined up another new EP, One Eye, which also happens to be his first solo release on his own 3024 label in something like four years. The record drops on November 12, but ahead of that he’s shared the percussion-driven “Nerve Centers” to get everyone excited. It worked on me.

  • Thanks to his song “Neutron Dance,” Krystal Klear had himself a huge 2018, and while the Irish producer’s music has been less ubiquitous this year, he’s just announced another EP for Running Back. Entitled Cyclia One, it’s said to be inspired by Jim Henson’s ’60s-era plan for an audio-visual nightclub, and also contains the track “Entre Nous,” which has already been making the rounds with some of your favorite DJs. The EP is set to arrive on November 14.

  • Just a few months removed from his excellent Loom Dream album for Whities, Freerotation resident Leif will now be joining up with Bristol bass outpost Livity Sound for a new EP called Igam-Ogam that’s set for release on November 8.


NEW THIS WEEK

As always, here are some of my favorite tunes that came out during the past week. October continues to be an insane time for new releases – in preparation for this week’s newsletter, I went through nearly 80 records – but thankfully I just wasn’t all that excited about too many of them, which explains how I’ve managed to keep this list to a reasonable size.

Click the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.

Lanark Artefax “Cora Linn” (Numbers)

Well, now we know for sure that Lanark Artefax isn’t going to be a one-hit wonder. Back in 2017, the young Scottish producer blew up thanks to “Touch Absence” (which still sounds great), and since then he’s been occasionally touring his live A/V show while largely keeping a low profile. Last week, however, he surprised us with a new EP, Cora Linn, which lands via the Numbers label and apparently takes its name from a waterfall in the Lanark region of Scotland. (For what it’s worth, I didn’t even know Lanark was an actual place; I had figured it was just some word he plucked out of a science fiction novel or something.) All three songs on the record are worth checking, but the title track is the obvious standout, its chopped jungle rhythms and digital crunch providing an excellent counterweight to the song’s ethereal vocal sounds and moody bassline. After hearing “Cora Linn,” a friend of mine declared that Lanark Artefax is Aphex Twin for the millennial generation, and while I’m not quite ready to go that far, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a very special talent.

DJ Richard “Casca’s Theme” (Flexxseal)

I wouldn’t say that DJ Richard is slept on, but I do think he’s grossly underappreciated. Following long stints in New York and Berlin, he returned to his native Rhode Island a few years back, and since then he’s been releasing some of the best music of his career. (In my estimation, his records for Dial, in particular last year’s Dies Iræ Xerox album, are so much more compelling than his more hyped outings on White Material in the early part of this decade.) His latest offering is Eraser, a wonderfully punishing effort that smashes together bits of techno, electro, industrial and noise into something that feels truly urgent. There’s a lot of heat on this EP, but the serrated breakbeats and horror-flick synths of “Casca’s Theme” won me over; it sounds like DJ Stingray making a gothy EBM record.

PAT “Spirits Roaming on the Earth” (Pioneer Works)

PAT is a collaboration between accomplished visual artist Jacolby Satterwhite and producer Nick Weiss, who you may know from the group Teengirl Fantasy. Before this record, Satterwhite’s biggest musical claim to fame was his work with Solange, for whom he helped direct the visual accompaniment to her When I Get Home album. That’s all well and good, but the PAT project and its first album, Love Will Find a Way Home, is far more intriguing. Much of Satterwhite’s work over the years has referenced his late mother Patricia, a schizophrenic who passed away in 2016 and left behind hundreds of cassette recordings of her own acapella singing, and here, those recordings have been put to use in the creation of a modern dance record. I’m generally not big on concept albums, but Love Will Find a Way Home is a uniquely intimate and emotive listen, even for those who don’t know the music’s full backstory. Over the course of the LP, Satterwhite and Weiss also enlist the help of numerous collaborators, including artists like Kindness and Lafawndah, but “Spirits Roaming on the Earth” is a song where Patricia herself takes center stage, her spiritual musings sounding remarkably carefree amidst a backdrop of dreamy synths, Balearic keys and the lightest hint of a kick drum.

Thugwidow “Hard Rave Aesthetic” (Western Lore)

Western Lore does it again. I’ve undoubtedly said this before, but as far as I’m concerned, this Bristol outpost is the most vibrant and essential hub for jungle and drum & bass right now. Its latest release is Hard Rave Aesthetic, the solo vinyl debut from UK producer (and apparent Limp Bizkit fan) Thugwidow, an artist who has been releasing a torrent of new music over the past year or two, including something like seven or eight album-length efforts and a handful of EPs. On this new record, he actually spends much of his time trawling through a moody, stripped-back strain of jungle, and while those tunes are all quite good, here I’ve highlighted the hard-charging title track, which playfully blends old-school rave riffs with a booming bassline and hyperactive percussion. It’s an intense ride, but it’s also a lot of fun.

Sunn O))) “Kingdoms (G)” (Southern Lord)

I am not, and have never been, a metal guy. Even when I was in elementary school and hair metal was at its peak, I refused to get on board. A few years later in middle school, a kid I rode the bus with lent me his Metallica …And Justice for All CD and I remember that my initial response was “this is really loud.” So yeah, I’m not going to front and pretend that I’m a huge Sunn O))) fan who regularly worships at the altar of Stephen O’Malley. I am many things, but a poseur is not one of them. That being said, I am at least aware of Sunn O))) and the general vibe of their music, which prompted me to check out the group’s latest album, Pyroclasts (a reference to volcanic material flying through the air), which is the second of two full-lengths to come out of sessions the band recorded with legendary engineer Steve Albini. As you might expect, the music is definitely loud, and there’s a raw, churning power flowing through its jagged harmonics. Any of the LP’s four tracks is capable of splitting your head open, but I thought “Kingdoms (G)” best captured the destructive force hinted at by the album’s title.

Gamma Intel “Automatic Illusion” (Brokntoys)

I actually don’t have too much to say about this one. Gamma Intel, a producer out of Rotterdam who also released a nice EP on Pinkman earlier this year, isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, but I always have room in my heart for a well-crafted, industrial-tinged chugger like “Automatic Illusion.” Also, it’s on Brokntoys, which is a top outpost for anyone interested in the fertile intersection of EBM, electro, techno and other ominous sounds.

Sol Oosel “Temple of Names” (Umor Rex)

Umor Rex is a great label out of Mexico City, and while few of its releases come from Mexican artists, Sol Oosel is based in the rural village of Tepoztlán. “Temple of Names” comes from his insanely titled new album, En allégeance à l'inconnaissable — Une étude en chorégraphie pour le flux d'énergie, and while I enjoyed its laid-back spirit and gentle synth noodling, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that what pulled me in was the song’s main melody, which somehow reminded me of Bronski Beat’s classic “Smalltown Boy.” Admittedly, it is 100% possible that I am the only person on the planet who has heard or will hear this similarity, but there are worse things than being compared to one of the best synth-pop songs ever.

PAN-AL “It’s Rigged” (Apollo)

If I’m being completely honest, I have to say that I don’t really like PAN-AL, the self-titled debut from this Norwegian artist. EP cut “It’s Rigged,” on the other hand, feels like a wonderful piece of pop electronica, with a peppy drum & bass rhythm, some bright melodies and more than few notes cribbed from early Aphex Twin. It’s the kind of bouncy tune that I could imagine soundtracking a car commercial, and while I know that comes across like a backhanded compliment, I probably listened to this track more times than any of the others listed in this week’s newsletter. Call it a guilty pleasure or call it an earworm; I’ll just call it good.


Thank you so much for reading, but we have come to the end of this week’s newsletter. I hope you liked the tunes.

See you next time.

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.