First Floor #90 – Are We Still Doing That?
a.k.a. Guestlists, clubbing in the COVID era and all of the week's best new tunes.
Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a weekly electronic music digest that includes news, interviews, my favorite new tracks and some of my thoughts on the issues affecting the larger scene / industry that surrounds the music. This is the free edition of the newsletter; access to all First Floor content (including the complete archive) requires a paid subscription. If you haven’t done so already, please consider signing up for a subscription (paid or unpaid) by clicking the button below. Alternately, you can also support the newsletter by making a one-time donation here.
THERE IS NO GUESTLIST TONIGHT
Rising COVID numbers haven’t stopped the UK from reopening its nightclubs (and everything else) this week, but it’s fair to say that the delta variant is putting a serious dent in the enthusiasm surrounding the return of nightlife. Here in Barcelona, the regional government reinstalled a 1 a.m. curfew last week, while over in California, an indoor mask mandate has been reimplemented, even for those who are already vaccinated. In the Netherlands, where nightclubs had already been shuttered following a brief reopening, news broke last week that more than 1000 people were infected at Verknipt, an outdoor music festival that took place in Utrecht earlier this month. (Even more worrisome is the fact that all 20,000 people in attendance were required to “show a QR code that demonstrated that they were vaccinated, had recently had a COVID infection or had a negative COVID test.”)
Making predictions at this point is difficult, but barring a major reversal of current trends, it’s hard to imagine that nightlife—in the few places where it’s been permitted to start up again—will be “back” much longer. When it comes to clubbing, pessimism (some might say realism) is on the rise, but before it took hold, much of the conversation in recent weeks had been dominated by the euphoric blasts emanating from places like the US and Berlin. Many of these stories have been rather predictable, with party people relishing their return to the dancefloor and the chance to reconnect with like-minded revelers, but as I’ve read these gleeful tales, one thing kept popping up that I was genuinely surprised to see: mentions of the guestlist.
After more than a year of pandemic living, a time when many of those who work in nightlife (e.g. DJs, promoters, venue owners, security staff, bar staff, door staff, sound and lighting technicians, etc.) have been earning little to nothing, are some clubbers out there still expecting to get into parties for free? Apparently so.
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A round-up of of the last week’s most interesting electronic music news, plus links to mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
Earlier this week, Chicago house legend and Dance Mania affiliate Paul Johnson revealed that he’d contracted COVID-19, posting a series of increasingly harrowing videos (literally from his hospital bed) on Instagram. Yesterday, reports of his passing began to circulate online, but according to 5 Magazine, they were premature. Johnson is still alive, but he has been moved into the ICU.
On Monday, the same day that the UK lifted almost all of its remaining COVID restrictions and allowed nightlife to reopen, the government announced that starting in late September, vaccine certificates would be mandatory for anyone looking to enter “nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather.”
Speaking of the UK, last week the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published its highly anticipated report on the economics of music streaming. (The full report can be downloaded here, and the committee has also published a summary highlighting the key points and takeaways.) There’s a lot to digest, but the tone is undeniably critical, as shown by lines like “even successful artists are seeing pitiful returns from streaming.” The committee’s report and various recommendations have now been passed on to the UK government, which has two months to respond.
Fractal Fantasy, the label / platform / portal into the future headed up by Sinjin Hawke and Zora Jones, has just today launched a new club simulator, on which online visitors can create an avatar and enter a 3-D virtual club environment soundtracked by 34 new edits they’ve created alongside artists like Martyn Bootyspoon, Xzavier Stone and Zubotnik. It’s a video game, it’s a party and it seems like a whole lot of fun.
Holly Herndon has unveiled an intriguing new “instrument” of sorts: a vocal deepfake “digital twin” that she calls Holly+. At the most basic level, it’s a website where users can upload audio files, which are then transformed as though they’d been sung by Herndon herself.
Those transformations are downloadable, although the official Holly+ IP is being managed by a new DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) that “will vote on minting and certifying new works created from the voice model.” Eventually, works licensed by the DAO will be made available as NFTs and auctioned off through the ZORA platform. Admittedly, it all sounds complicated—especially for anyone who’s not well versed in Web3 terminology—but Herndon herself has laid out the details more clearly (and thoroughly) in a statement she published last week.
Anyone following independent label chatter over the past year has likely spotted the growing chorus of complaints about vinyl production timelines, which have become absurdly long during the course of the pandemic. Marc Hogan explores the phenomenon in this feature for Pitchfork, although rather than focusing on the technical causes of the backlog, he speaks to a number of independent labels about how the current situation has affected their relationship with the vinyl medium, and whether it’s altered their approach.
Before their new album drops next month, ambient / experimental duo Space Afrika have popped up in a new Crack feature penned by Richard Akingbehin, who digs into the pair’s life and music, the latter of which they themselves describe as “inner city ambient for chaotic living.”
Marking the album’s 20th anniversary, DJ Mag tapped Ben Cardew to revisit Basement Jaxx’s Rooty, an LP that was successful at the time of its release, but now seems downright prophetic in terms of where music was headed. Speaking of Cardew, the most recent issue of his Line Noise program for Radio Primavera Sound includes an interview with A Guy Called Gerald.
Arushi Jain was profiled by Dhruva Balram for Bandcamp Daily, shedding more light on both her backstory and the combination of modular synthesis and classical Hindustani music that defines her new Under the Lilac Sky LP.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases that were announced during the past week.
Livity Sound has long been one of the most reliable outposts for forward-thinking bass-techno hybrids, and the Bristol imprint will soon celebrate its first decade of existence with an expansive new anniversary compilation. Molten Mirrors is slated for a September 24 release, and the 18-track collection includes contributions from such artists as Bruce, Batu, Azu Tiwaline, Al Wootton, DJ Plead and many others, including label co-founders Peverlist and Kowton, whose song “Exhale” has already been shared.
UK veteran Lone hinted at a more ethereal new direction on recent single “Coming into Being and Passing Away,” and now he’s continuing down that path with a new full-length, his first in five years. Always Inside Your Head, which is said to be influenced by artists like Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, will be delivered by the Greco-Roman label on October 22, but in the meantime, opening track “Hidden by Horizons”—a collaboration with vocalist Morgane Diet—has been made available.
This has been happening since late May, but producer Marcos Cabral—who’s previously appeared on labels like L.I.E.S., The Trilogy Tapes, Creme Organisation and Clone—is currently working on a project called Track-a-Day. As the name implies, he releases one new track every day on Bandcamp, each of which also comes with original artwork (and yes, prints are also available). It’s an ambitious undertaking, albeit one that’s already produced a lot of quality music.
The Workshop label has been quiet in 2021, but its first release of the year is the welcome return of UK artist Willow, who debuted on the imprint back in 2016. Her new EP, Workshop 30, is out now and preview clips can be heard 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.
Hello. I don’t think Shawn and I have ever coincided on the same release in one of his newsletters before, but this one is worth mentioning twice. (Shawn’s write-up is below.) I’m a long-time fan of Lucrecia Dalt, going back when she was living here in Barcelona. When I first moved to Europe, I saw her perform in a small local art gallery, and I remember being completely captivated by her music, which was both honest and enigmatic at the same time. Since then, I’ve really enjoyed following her work, and I’m very happy about Lucy & Aaron, her new collaborative album with Aaron Dilloway. This track is especially good, and sounds like a provincial choir sitting on the back of a machine that’s trudging through mud. It’s hard to execute a perfect juxtaposition between sweetness and dirt, but this is just perfect.
NEW THIS WEEK
The following is a selection of my favorite tunes that came out during the past week or so. The ones in the ‘Big Three’ section are the songs I especially want to highlight (and therefore have longer write-ups), but the tracks in the ‘Best of the Rest’ section are also very much worth your time. In both sections, you can 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.
THE BIG THREE
Back in June, Dania wrote that “Sunset Chant” might be her “favourite song of year so far,” and after giving it—and the rest of Hollie Kenniff’s sophomore LP The Quiet Drift—numerous listens, all I can say is: she wasn’t wrong. The album is a gorgeous piece of work, weaving together a blissful tapestry of lush synths, gentle strings, celestial guitars and textured layers of Kenniff’s own voice. Artists like Enya immediately come to mind, especially amongst the pensive waves of “Sunset Chant,” but hints of shoegaze, dream pop, new age and even devotional music all play a role in these compositions.
The bucolic “Flourish” accents its soaring melodies with heavily reverbed, sweetly meandering guitars that could have been lifted from an old Ride record, while the somewhat darker “A Feathered Fog” is all about Kenniff’s voice, which floats alongside clouds of tape hiss and soft reverb. Dense but never burdensome, The Quiet Drift—which was inspired in part by nature, and the nature of Canada (where Kenniff recently relocated with her family) in particular—is a a genuine stunner, a veritable thicket of woods that listeners will gladly get lost in.
The pandemic prompted artists to try all sorts of things to stay busy (and maintain their sanity), but 3024 boss Martyn did something unique: he built a community. More specifically, he launched an artist mentoring program, taking producers from around the globe under his wing and sharing his decades of knowledge—along with that of special guest mentors like Skee Mask, Waajeed, dBridge and James Holden (to name just a few)—with anyone who signed up for the sessions.
Most mentoring programs are strictly top-down affairs, but after more than a year, Martyn has decided to flip the script, spotlighting the talented artists he’s been teaching with a three-part compilation series called It Was Always There. The first volume dropped last week, and it’s stuffed with heaters, but these two tracks are particularly strong. Irish producer White Transit Van explores moody, searching (but not especially dark) drum & bass on the shimmering “Let the Seasons Drift,” while Pharma & J Weaver’s “Red Shift” drifts further afield, its bellowing basslines and off-kilter rhythms walking the line between heady introspection and screwface snarl.
After starting his career with a series of solid, largely dancefloor-focused EPs for labels like X-Kalay, Haŵs, Coastal Haze and Holding Hands, Adam Pits has seriously upped his game—and expanded his stylistic palette—on his debut album A Recurring Nature. On LP opener “As Far As the Eye Can See,” the young UK producer flexes his classical cello skills, the weepy strings providing an intriguing counterpoint to the song’s slow-motion groove and trippy explorations. As the giant mushroom on the album’s cover implies, there’s a pronounced psychedelic vibe to the record, and while Pits does venture onto the dancefloor, he’s often at his best when he delves into the hallucinatory, long-form sounds that once defined ’90s chillout rooms. “Capitulation” brilliantly splits the difference, luxuriating in its tweaky synth noodles before a rave-ready kick and bubbling acid line appear halfway through the track. Pits’ creations sometimes require a little patience, but once they blossom, it quickly becomes clear that the wait was well worth it.
BEST OF THE REST
Two highlights from Overmono’s excellent new Fabric Presents mix, one new and one old. “Lost of Light,” a laid-back cut that nestles its sparkling chimes amongst woozy vocal bits and layers of hazy ambience, is Powder’s first new offering since her own mix compilation, Powder in Space, dropped back in 2019. Tech-step ripper “Bacteria,” on the other hand, was first released a full 20 years before that, but Ed Rush & Optical’s sludgy basslines—which sound like a fighter jet menacingly (and repeatedly) buzzing the control tower—still sound awfully potent.
Keeping things in the drum & bass zone, this pair of bruisers both surfaced last week. “Thor,” the rowdy title cut from UK producer LJHigh’s new EP, roars like a grumpy bear that’s been awaken from its winter slumber, while “Rise Up,” a bouncy standout from Brazilian artist DJ Andy’s four-tracker The Truth, offsets its grotty undercarriage with a rolling bassline and siren-like blasts that are perfect for waking up the neighbors.
Dania already sung the praises of the new Lucy & Aaron LP, but she didn’t mention “The Blob,” which sounds like something Silver Apples might have come up with after listening to a bunch of gamelan records. Amidst the song’s reverb-laden textures and lurching equatorial rhythms, there’s an undeniable pop undercurrent, albeit one that’s ultimately closer to Animal Collective than the Top 40.
A promising Montreal trio fronted by Italians Do It Better alum Tess Roby, Dawn to Dawn specializes in synth-centric dream pop, and “Care,” the group’s latest single, is a subtle earworm that infuses its ethereal sonics with just enough neon to keep things from feeling too somber.
Combining no-wave chug with taut dancefloor rhythms, the angsty “DIA004” is a stripped-down (but undeniably sturdy) cut from the new Dialoge 1 EP, which GEZA—who is better known as Grebenstein, and has previously appeared on imprints like Downwards and Horo—describes as a reaction to his “love-hate relationship with techno.”
Much of Ali, the cinematic debut album from Turkish techno artist Nene H, resides in the ambient / experimental zone, but “Gebet” is the one track on the LP that really lowers the boom, battering listeners with a muscular kick drum as the song’s sinister vocal loops evoke what sounds like some sort of ancient incantation.
The opening track from Scottish artist Dream_E’s new Crushed EP, “Loop II Infinity” is bright and bursting with joy, its pastel melodies and emotive strings soaring through the air as the song’s energetic beat gleefully bounces along the dancefloor. This one is guaranteed to make you feel good.
Soft-focus techno (or maybe it’s lo-fi trance?) from Brooklyn producer nextdimensional, who’s populated “Lifestyle”—a standalone single on the excellent Mechanical imprint—with fuzzy textures and agreeably nostalgic grooves.
An undulating, 10-minute epic, “In Limbo” combines Jay Duncan’s staccato, Hessle Audio-style rhythms with the searching (and often gnarled) saxophone tendrils of fellow UK artist Ben Vince. Alternating between patient passages and fervent bursts of energy, the song at times feels like a descent into madness, but its various twists and turns merit detailed exploration all the same.
Pensive and wondrous, Faith/Reason—the new cassette from the Belfast producer formerly known as LOR—is a modest-sounding effort, albeit one that takes a widescreen view of the world. On “Music for Spaceports,” the song’s gentle, almost folksy vocals and orchestral flourishes conjure images of a great expanse, as though its creator is focused not just on the horizon, but what lies beyond it.
When it comes to capturing the spirit of ’90s jungle, is there anyone better than London producer Tim Reaper? The silky “All the Time” is the lead track from Banoffee Pies White Label Series 01, his collaborative new EP with Toronto’s Comfort Zone, and while its hyperactive breakbeats are certainly top-notch, what makes the song truly special are its soulful spirit and jazzy asides, which nod to the work of legends like LTJ Bukem and Roni Size / Reprazent.
With tracks from Peach, Happa, Gramrcy, Jackson Ryland and others, there’s a lot of star power on the new Peach Pals, Vol. 2 compilation, but “C’s Dream,” a zonked-out cut from Barcelona-based Colombian (and MARICAS collective co-founder) ISAbella, just might be the best of the bunch. Spacious and psychedelic, the song sits somewhere between cosmic new age and late-night trip hop—with a bit of techno thrown into the mix—its warbling synths cooly gliding into the stratosphere as the track slowly picks up steam over the course of nearly eight minutes.
DJ Q does it again, continuing his white-hot run of UK garage singles with the buttery collaboration “I Can’t Stay,” a shuffling, R&B-inflected gem that prominently features the soulful vocal stylings of the similarly iconic Shola Ama. Reminiscent of the days when 2-step actively flirted with the mainstream, the tune has definite crossover appeal, to the point where even the most underground UKG fans would be unlikely to complain if “I Can’t Stay” wound up in heavy rotation.
That brings us to the end of today’s newsletter. 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.)
Until next time,