and departt from mono games
[Tri Angle; 2019]
Dance music has always stirred up feelings of unease in my head. My earliest encounters with it, when I was maybe three or four years old, were intimate and unfamiliar in much the same way that violence is to a child’s imagination: You feel it, but you lack the capacity to make sense of it. I grew up in a flat directly above a nightclub where my dad worked, in a small post-industrial city on the coast of northeast England. Most nights I’d lie in bed surrounded by noises that I couldn’t place, loud and deep, rising up from below and surging through the darkness. Things around my bedroom — picture frames, lamp shades, curtain rails, toys on shelves — trembled in sympathy. The frame of my bunk bed picked up all the lower-pitched sounds and channeled them directly into my ears. Overpowering everything else was a constant throbbing, which at the time I imagined as a monster pounding on the ceiling below, sometimes accompanied by a sharp drone that I heard as its anguished voice. It would keep me awake for hours.
A sense of anxiety lies just under the surface of dance music. For the most part, it’s left unexpressed, safely contained in drawn-out moments of tension and the skittish, restless energy of the club. Yet still it remains a present force in our aesthetic experience: an emotional void that looms below, dark and silent, as the music drags us up toward euphoria. This same anxiety — or at least the negation of it — informs the core appeal of clubbing. It helps us “escape” from reality, “break free” from the banality of everyday life, or “forget” our problems and personal struggles. In her latest project for Tri Angle, and departt from mono games, Manchester producer LOFT has ambitions to do the exact opposite: to confront those very aspects of our inner-lives that dance music compels us to escape.
In both sound and structure, and departt denies the listener any sense of direction. Typically, to step foot on the dancefloor is to step outside of ourselves and surrender our egos to some kind of collective euphoria. Everything in the accompanying music — the repetition pushing us forward, the intensity projecting us outward, the loudness propelling us upward — steers us on autopilot toward pleasure and away from pain. But what if the music gives us nothing to latch onto? Nothing familiar or stable enough to catch us and sweep us away? Although LOFT roughly adopts the gestures and motifs of club aesthetics, she recasts them in such a way that confuses, or even repels the listener, ultimately forcing them inward. At various points on the record, she leaves us with no more than an impressionistic swarm of noise, floundering in a pile of scattered, broken drums. There’s movement, but it’s erratic and aimless. Moments of climax are so overblown as to feel violent, like a drug so intense that it thrusts the user straight into a comedown. When we do find ourselves locking into the rhythm, pockets of abrupt silence or percussive spasms will inevitably push us out of step. Only rarely does LOFT offer her hand to guide us toward an easier, less chaotic place, and even then we find ourselves getting lost on the way.
Experiencing the club as an outsider, whether from a place of exclusion or from a place of ignorance, changes how the music sounds. When removed from the context of euphoria and solidarity, it unfolds with a certain formlessness, lacking a sense of purpose or levity. LOFT illustrates the feeling perfectly on “sSLABicks.” The bass, eschewing the comfort of a steady thrum, stutters and gurgles as if starving for air; synths are stripped of melody and poised naked in empty space; drums appear in bursts of pristine detail, striking with an unwanted closeness, like ASMR for the deeply troubled mind. In the absence of the familiar, we find ourselves in a fractured, ominous place — a dark room in which we don’t belong, filled with disparate bodies, each having disparate experiences. Something about LOFT’s hyper-intricate sound design, paired with her disorienting style of arrangement, shrinks any feeling of euphoria down to a sharp pang. It’s still there, somewhere, but it’s all distorted, struggling to connect — like noises of the rave falling hard on a little boy’s ears, as they filter under his bedroom door at 2 AM.
Despite working primarily with sounds devoid of human touch, LOFT is able to inflict a very human kind of malaise on her music. It turns out that pain, in all its complexity, in all its ineffability, lends itself well to the limitless potential of digital sound. Specifically, and departt strikes me as an attempt to articulate various sorts of bodily disturbance: the popping of joints and the tearing of flesh, delicate blips that prick against the skin like static shocks and huge gulps of bass that grow tight around the throat. On “That Hyde Trakk,” the musical surface blisters and cracks as if a virus were consuming it from the inside. The track is rooted in crushing breakbeats, but it struggles to contain them, as, measure by measure, they splinter off into polyrhythmic chaos and tear through the mix in a rash of static. While undoubtedly the best track on the project (as well as one of the best interpretations of “the break” I’ve come across all year), it’s also the most anxious. Plug your headphones directly into the chest of someone having a panic attack and I imagine you would hear something like this track. Breath and pulse and movement, the gushing of fluids, the fizzing of nerves, bone and muscle locked in an endless tug-of-war. Perfectly complex and yet dangerously fickle, the body is simultaneously a life of ours and a life of its own. And by inviting us to dance to the gruel sounds of our own bodies, LOFT gives this paradox an alarming clarity.
I’d usually wake up without any impression of having slept. Heading downstairs on the way to school in the mornings, the big room was always empty and still, the floor slick with mop water, the air slightly tangy with smoke. Women chatted with each other on a radio in the back, but it was otherwise silent. No people, no monsters. While passing through, I would try to picture what it was like just a few hours prior — before the sun slipped in and turned everything into dust. But I never could. Whatever was keeping me up those nights, I remember thinking, must have just been in my head. It was almost as if my waking life wasn’t fading out before my dreams started to kick in, the door between both realms swinging wide open. Even now, 20 years on, when I’m trying to fall asleep, my consciousness relapses to a strong, rhythmic thud. It makes me clench my jaw and slide my palm beneath my ear.