When is dance music not dance music? Is the dance genre defined by its key sonic characteristics or by its actual use in the club context? Journalism and discourse has tended to favour the former definition, denoting music as ‘dance’ based on its sonic DNA, propulsive machine rhythms and repetitive melodic hooks, rather than its use on the dancefloor. This makes sense: if any music that was danced to in clubs was considered a part of the ‘dance’ genre then the sonic range would be so vast as to render the term useless. Yet since the dawn of machine-made club music in the late 80s, there have been fringe artists taking dance music and making it undanceable, fracturing it into broken drum-trips or inverting its tropes to glacial slices of ambience which harbour only the ghosts of house, techno or electro.

So how do we account for dance music which isn’t meant to be danced to, but instead attracts bedroom listeners and commuters? Perhaps some of these listeners are educating themselves in the vast archives of dance music history, or are in fact DJs vetting the latest tunes for potential play. Yet there are far more who will find that dance music livens up their daily activities: listening to propulsive music while working, travelling or walking lends an energy to quotidian life, constituting an escape for many of its listeners.

This musical escape is not unlike the club experience. Dancers go to release the tension built up over a week of drudgery, entering a world where pleasure is priority. They will shuck off their responsibilities, worries and (often aided by stimulants) the construct of their selves. The identity imposed upon them in everyday life is dissolved in the club-crowd consciousness, as each dancer abandons themselves to the single task of losing and finding themselves within the groove.

This, at least, is what the club prophets might say. But this article isn’t about the experience of clubbing, or even the sense of escape that dance music can offer the daily listener. Something else must account for the ubiquity of dance music on the headphones of those resolutely not dancing, as well as the success of myriad sub-genres of dance-not-dance music (to resurrect an apposite yet awkward term). This article hopes to show that less club-orientated strains of dance music, taking deep house as a case in point, offer the listener not an escape but the opposite: a more nuanced understanding of the world around him. When the musical layers are stripped away and the BPM slows, the attentive listener becomes more sensitive to subtle musical changes and slowly evolving melodies. When listened to on the urban commute this increased concentration pervades our perceptive faculties beyond the auditory: the deep house listener becomes more attuned to minute shifts in the fabric of his environment. When heard outside of the club, dance music doesn’t necessarily shut out the listener’s surroundings. It can let the world in.

While the soul-infused deep house of US descent continues to offer brilliant music from artists young and old, it’s the genre’s European sibling which best elucidates this article’s focus. Germanic deep house, championed by labels such as Dial, Kompakt and Smallville (but now adopted by musicians the world over) is one of the most steadfastly melancholy strains of dance music out there. A hollow 4/4 anchors slow rhythms that are more head-nodding than fist-pumping, while sonic detail is concentrated in the high-end, whether through intricate synth melodies or dusty instrumental samples (often strings and piano). The sounds are unhurried, allowing the listener to appreciate the nuances of texture; tapping patient emotional resonances rather than beckoning the instant rush of euphoria. The aforementioned sonic formula is by no means a hold-all description, however. Often the deep house sound is more stripped, honing in on the subtle interplay of drumkit, bassline and swooning ambient wash. The feature this music has in common, in opposition to big-room dance music, is that it doesn’t tell the listener how to feel. Rather than using the dynamics of tension to create a communion of shared feeling on the dancefloor, deep house trades in subtlety, allowing the listener to explore and indulge his own particular mood, whatever that might be. 

There’s something to be said for the road less travelled, not instructing the listener’s emotional response but instead allowing it to be considered and intensified. It also raises an interesting question: does melody move the listener emotionally while percussion moves him physically? Like some other genres, notably ambient, the deep house album creates a contemplative space within the listener’s mind encouraging him to introspect, to tune in and switch on.

In order to showcase the effect, this article will chart the last five years of deep house music, picking one album from each year. There is no singular feature which unites these releases, but each album shows in a different way how the house album can bear attentive, repeated listens, offering dance music which can have a transformative effect outside of the simple, joyous fact of dancing.

2009: DJ Sprinkles – Midtown 120 Blues [Mule]

For an article primarily focused on the German house sound, it may seem odd to start with a release by an American. Yet rather than a typical American house record which might wear its funk and soul heritage on its sleeve, Sprinkles’ muted palette has much in common with European house practitioners; a journey to the centre of the mind, not just the soul.

To anyone interested in house music beyond its dancefloor thrall, Therre Thaemlitz should need little introduction. Gender theorist, dance historian and music academic, Thaemlitz also happens to make some of the finest house music pressed to wax. 2013 was a banner year for Sprinkles, with a remix compilation accompanied by a mix CD, yet we must travel back to 2009 for Sprinkles’ most striking release to date, Midtown 120 Blues on Mule.

This is so much more than a club album: Thaemlitz uses a suite of lush, melancholic tunes as a springboard for an interrogation of a music which has lost sight of its context. A veteran house DJ who survived the genre’s inception in largely marginalised communities (black, latino and gay in Chicago, Detroit and New York), Thaemlitz offers a spoken-word introduction to remind us of the conflict and hypocrisy which birthed our beloved genre and continues to plague it:

“the house nation likes to pretend clubs are an oasis from suffering, but suffering is in here, with us (if you can get in, that is)…house is not universal, house is hyper-specific…what was the New York house sound? House wasn’t so much a sound as a situation…The context from which the deep house sound emerged is forgotten: sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex workers, queer bashing, loneliness, racism, HIV, censorship. All at 120 beats per minute.”

Thaemlitz’ commentary on this and other tracks is ruthlessly incisive, refusing to allow the listener to divorce the music from its troubled and troubling context. Yet Midtown 120 Blues is no dry academic exercise. Instead, the album is a deep house masterclass, a suite of sonic tapestries which combine chunky drum patterns with rich melodic accompaniments, ranging from churning basslines to twinkling synths and melancholic keys.

Ball’r (Madonna-Free Zone) hypnotises the listener with its steady pulse and subtle keys, before delivering a sharp criticism of the popstar’s crimes of cultural appropriation. Thaemlitz clips the words ‘brothers and’ from the vocal of Sisters, I Don’t Know What The World Is Coming To to offer a feminist skew on the conventional house gospel sample bathed in lush, jazzy orchestration. Later the dazzling Grand Central Pt. II summons a gaseous ambience, consuming the listener in languid tones and an alarmingly emotionless vocal describing an instance of queer-bashing.

This kind of critique had not been levelled at the genre before, and while it may not have gone platinum, the continued critical coverage of Sprinkles and her ideas in dance media shows that her message did not fall on deaf ears. Thaemlitz’ true stroke of genius in Midtown 120 Blues was to couch her criticism of the house scene not in an essay or article but within an exceptional example of the genre itself. The best way to communicate to house listeners is in the form of house music, and realising this Thaemlitz crafted something challenging, rewarding and beautiful. Each track is a rich miniature, expertly composed with emotional heft: it’s the near-impossible achievement of a house album which makes you think hard and feel hard.

Want more? Check out Thaemlitz’ album ‘Routes Not Roots’ under her K-S.H.E alias.

2010: John Roberts – Glass Eights [Dial]

One year later, Hamburg’s Dial imprint welcomed its first non-German to the stable in the form of US import John Roberts. While Sprinkles’ album stood out by offering a timely reminder of house music’s context, its music appealed because of its richness and subtlety rather than through genuine sonic innovation. This suited the album’s goal perfectly: Sprinkles sought to interrogate the genre by subverting it. Roberts’ album works differently: appealing to the listener because of its unique sonic blueprint rather than a pointed intellectual message. On Glass Eights Roberts approached the deep house template with a dusty, orchestral sensibility which sounded remarkably refreshing, fully exploring the symphonic possibilities of the sound.

Glass Eights is unquestionably house: an unflinching four-to-the-floor dominates the album, yet Roberts’ use of instrumental samples sets these pieces apart. A classical background aids Roberts to craft subtle violin, piano and cello lines, never using the instruments in the emotionally domineering ways we’ve come to expect from ‘generic house track with uplifting piano / melancholic string sample’. These orchestral melodies also lend the music an earthiness, the tactile quality of worn materials (which feature on Roberts’ album art), standing in sharp contrast to the genre’s scores of over-polished digital productions.

Roberts’ grooves are immaculate, and his inventiveness is a constant delight. Lesser kicks off the album with a weathered lope rather than a full-on rush, while Navy Blue is underpinned by what sounds like a backmasked violin. Although the core loops are undeniably mesmeric, Roberts’ attention to detail is what keeps Glass Eights a joy from the first listen to the hundredth, whether the listener’s attention is drawn to Ever Or Not’s crisp handclap/ fingerclick rhythm or Pruned’s funereal bass procession. It’s on the album’s closing suite where Roberts truly lifts off. August’s sharp hi-hats and urgent synth sweeps send a swift wind across its soft autumnal tones, while Went replaces the typical beatless synth-noodle with a keening orchestral piece that aims for the emotional jugular.

After nine tracks that toy with the house formula to mesmeric effect, Roberts finally brings the dance on the closing track, and it couldn’t be more welcome. Glass Eights looses the long-dormant stomp alongside a stylish piano line which shows how brilliantly keys can work outside of the conventional major-chord breakdown. US artists may have introduced the guitars and brass of jazz and soul into house, but rarely had acoustic instruments been used in the genre outside this context. The album sounds as fresh and singular as it did four years ago: opening house music’s largely synthetic orchestras up to a world of new, acoustic possibilities with a flair which hasn’t yet been paralleled.

Want more? Roberts’ sophomore album, ‘Fences’, is a busier, trickier, but ultimately worthwhile foray into found-sound collage and Eastern sonics.

2011: Moomin – The Story About You [Smallville]

Moomin is a regular of Smallville, another Hamburg imprint, yet his minimal compositions are a far cry from Roberts’ lush orchestral style. The Story About You is an exercise in subtlety and poise, eking warmth from relatively spare compositions, offering a compelling example of deep house at its most hypnotic. The album is a pensive listen; stripped drumwork underpinning simple melodies that shift and evolve subtly over time. No breakdowns, drops or drama: Moomin’s music is about the unhurried evocation of feeling, which tastes all the richer for its slow gestation.

There’s a softness to the tracks on Moomin’s debut which is wonderfully inviting, as suitable on a snowy walk as on a sun-drenched beach. These tracks cocoon and comfort the listener – indeed, opener Doobiest beckons the listener to relaxation with the sounds of waves and gulls. Yet the mesmerising, repetitive quality of this music isn’t the result of a shortage of ideas or a desire to craft a ‘chill-out’ album. The short melodies which Moomin loops are expertly chosen, backed by a surprisingly detailed percussive field which rewards careful listening. The emotions here are carefully evoked and hard-won, in the mournful humming that rises above the title track’s languid keys, or with the perfect horn that calls out melancholically into Valentine’s heartache slow jam. There’s a central contrast to all of his music: ultra-tight song structure, almost scientific in its arrangement of loops, and the sounds themselves – worn, organic, achingly sweet.

Moomin’s sound isn’t all eyes-down gloom either; some of the LP’s strongest moments are its more vigorous tracks. I Wanna’s wandering bassline adds punch to the composition’s subtle chimes, while the bone-dry percussion of highlight Watermelon threatens to punch through the speakers. What stays with the listener after The Story About You is Moomin’s unerring ability to eke so much emotional effect from largely unchanging melodics; his razor-sharp knack for picking the perfect loop. As you sink back into these tunes, your brain becomes attuned to the most minute shifts and tears in the sonic fabric, rendering each fractional alteration a near-eureka moment.

Want more? Moomin’s steady steam of ace singles on the Smallville and his own Closer imprint offer more of his distinct style of inviting, melancholic house.

2011: Recondite – On Acid [Absurd]

Outside of the genre’s rhythmic skeleton, few sounds have pervaded house music’s history as persistently as the acid bassline, created with the Roland 303 bass synthesiser. Since the very first acid traxx, the acid line has sounded an alien siren call, disorientating and dazzling clubbers with its frantic oscillations and inhuman textures. Simon Reynolds puts his finger on acid’s synthetic allure in Energy Flash: “the 303 bassline is a paradox…an amnesiac hook, totally compelling as you listen, but hard to memorize or reproduce after the event, either as pattern or timbre. Its effect is mental dislocation.” The sound’s continued use is a testament to its power, yet until recently the 303 had only been used in one way: to induce mania and urgency on the dancefloor. It was tooled as a stimulant for the over-stimulated, an enzyme for clubbers who needed to rush even faster, even further from their physical shells.

Over the years, many have tried their hand at rethinking the acid sound, some with a great degree of success – see Tin Man and the rest of the Acid Test label – yet few have done so as convincingly and elegantly as Recondite. His 2011 debut LP jettisoned the frenzied aggression of acid traxx and cast the 303 in vast, stark soundscapes, slackening the frantic pace to a lazy amble. The result is an acid which speaks a foreign language to Phuture, DJ Pierre and co’s paranoiac 303 blitz, eloquently evoking yearning, patience and searching contemplation.

While the otherworldly, sinuous sound of the 303 is undoubtedly this show’s star, Recondite commands two keen sensibilities which render On Acid such a consuming work: pace and space. By slowing acid’s wild modulations to a crawl, he allows the listener to unlock rich textural subtleties previously unheard in the sound, stretching the 303 into supple melodies which emote effortlessly. Tie In takes its time, allowing its minimal layers to interact glacially and balletically, while even the record’s more propulsive moments such as Jaded and Felicity allow the 303 to bloom, fade and mutate gradually.

Recondite’s achievement with space on the record is evident in his steadfastly minimal approach to composition, the acid lines prominent in a cavernous space where even the percussive stretches are subdued and metronomic. This allows all the listener’s attention to become focused on the intricate modulations of the melodic and bass lines, a process particularly rewarding on a track like Harbinger. Here Recondite allows himself a rare build to a peak, coaxing the 303 to swell dramatically, overwhelming all other sound before dropping back to its steady bounce as if nothing had happened.

These moments of modulation – fresh melodies, echo, gauzy distortion – are so powerful because their environment is so spare, so focused. Recondite’s masterstroke with On Acid is twofold: he subverts our expectations of the acid sound, rendering a balm from conventionally aggressive, disorientating raw materials, and places these new sounds in a beautifully restrained series of arrangements. It’s a bold idea, executed brilliantly, and ultimately there’s not much more a listener can ask for.

Want more? The Acid Test imprint has offered a series of excellent 303 meditations from Pepe Bradock, Achterbahn d’Amour and Tin Man, whose great Neo Neo Acid album is a more club-focused approach to the deeper acid sound.

2013: Kim Brown – Somewhere Else It’s Going To Be Good [Just Another Beat]

The albums mentioned so far have each borne a striking characteristic that helped them stand out from the pack, whether that be a fresh intellectual slant or a unique compositional characteristic. The draw of Kim Brown’s debut album isn’t so immediately identifiable: their sounds are familiar, and they work closely within the tradition of house music past. Yet Somewhere Else It’s Going To Be Good excels as an act of purity, a house album which exudes a rare trait in dance music: tenderness.

The material itself hovers on the border between considered deep house and lush electronica, eschewing the genre’s often minimal tendencies for an unashamedly emotional journey, full of soaring strings and weightless atmospheres. It may not sound spectacular on the page, but when one listens to a lot of dance albums, one realises how rare it is that an LP never puts a foot wrong. Often leftfield experimentations fall short or ambient interludes feel half-baked, ruining the coherence of a quality album. It’s to the duo’s immense credit that not a dud can be found on this record.

Their sound is soft, suffused by an analogue warmth, and profoundly evocative of the album’s titular longing. The influences are clear, Chicago and Detroit house burnished to a gauzy glow, yet the sound remains curiously placeless, communicating subtle, universal emotions rather than localised trends. In compositional terms, the duo’s patience makes for particularly rewarding listening: it takes three minutes for Camera Moves to get to its blissful serpentine bassline, yet the gently sweeping strings and varied percussion will have the listener intoxicated from the off. Likewise Nabi mesmerises with its funk-fuelled guitar loop and twilit synths, upping the intensity with the entry of one of the album’s only vocal lines towards the close.

Each track is immaculately detailed, while a rich array of sounds vary the listening experience without erring from the album’s subdued, contemplative mood. Christabel, the inspiration for this article, is a simple construction of twinkling synthwork and taut claps, yet its gorgeous melody could go on indefinitely. It’s beauty is enigmatic, sure to evoke varied emotions depending on the mood of the listener. Does it focus the listener or inspire him to disappear in daydreams? It could soundtrack the experience of regarding the pain of a loved one, unable to help, or the heartache of letting someone go, knowing that you’re doing the right thing. In this we see something malleable about this album’s emotional and narrative effects: it won’t tell you how to think or feel, but it provides a framework to intensify and interrogate the listener’s thoughts and feelings. In a sense, this is a far more impressive feat than imposing an emotion on the listener in the style of most club tracks.

Every track has something to find, something to feel, something to love. Ternejev fades out of existence with a lovely chiming melody, Pacific Pink struts with a sultry funk bassline, while Aldebaran adds a pinch of grit, its aqueous synths anchored by a stuttering kick and a broad, swaggering bassline. Closer We Have Been Here Too Long looks wistfully to the past with a yearning piano line and a tongue-in-cheek London underground sample which evokes movement, the bittersweet moving on from a period of intense emotion.

The brilliantly titled I House You But I’ve Chosen Love is a microcosm of everything this album gets so right: swooning strings and a sturdy beat build to a climax of emotion rather than physical energy. A striking bassline takes the lead, wrapping seductively around the reinforced drum pattern, before being joined by a frustrated, single-chord piano line, both propulsive and curiously paralysed, leading to a highly-charged, unresolved coda. It’s a radiant moment in an album which is literally bursting with them. Somewhere Else It’s Going To Be Good is a collection of very beautiful songs, nothing more, nothing less. If you’re feeling raw, open or vulnerable, it’s revelatory.

Playlist

Of course, there’s an enormous amount of great music that couldn’t have been featured in this article. As a medium dominated by singles, a huge number of rewarding, thoughtful house tracks have never seen release on LP format, while many more saw the light of day outside of this article’s five year remit. As a result, I’ve put together a playlist of slow, largely melancholic house tracks more suitable for meditation than the dancefloor. Granted, some of these are club-ready, but the crucial feeling of longing remains. To put it simply, in the world of DJing, these would all be closers. It should also be noted that this list, as with the above, is in no way exhaustive, but rather a selection of the songs that helped formulate the thoughts explored in the article.
A few labels here make an appearance who certainly deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the featured artists. Berlin’s Workshop imprint is a constant source of quality, here represented on two untitled tracks, Even Tuell & Midnightopera’s mournful, unhurried collaboration and Lowtec’s snappy burner which takes a turn for the melancholic with some soft pads halfway through its runtime. As with the albums, one of the watchwords here is patience, as Pepe Bradock turns a rousing string sample into a veritable anthem on Deep Burnt, while DJ Sprinkles manages to conjure an astonishing range of emotions, from threat to fear to bliss, in her epic reworking of June’s Lost Area.

Negative space is also a key feature, used like a weapon on Trevor Deep Jr’s soulful, dubby Keep On! Meanwhile Huerco S. and Terreke conjure deep feeling from near-beatless expanses of space, while MGUN and Kevin McPhee show how the yearning can take hold even in a gritty, lofi soundfield. The odd ones out are here represented by Soul Capsule’s classic Lady Science (NYC Sunrise Mix), which emotes powerfully despite its angular rhythmic skeleton, and Chicago, where bass-experimentalists Old Apparatus subject a mournful piano line to rattles, rain sounds and an ominous whirring.

Tracklist:
Huerco S – Battery Tunnel
Traumprinz – Messed Up Jam
Terekke – Amaze
Even Tuell & Midnightopera – Untitled
Even Tuell – Precious Cloud
Arnaldo – A Song Name Of One Word
##### – #####.1
Funkycan – CGN – GZT
Kevin McPhee – Who Loves You
MGUN – Mask
Lowtec – Untitled
Pépé Bradock – Deep Burnt
Kadebostan & Laolu – Salome (Kadebostan Version)
Trevor Deep Jr – Keep On!
Soul Capsule – Lady Science (NYC Sunrise Mix)
Efdemin – Parallaxis (Traumprinz’s Over 2 The End Version)
System 360 – Untitled
June – Lost Area (Sprinkles’ Lost Dancefloor)
Tuff Sherm – Followfarming
Orson Wells – Searching
Austin Cesear – Slink
Old Apparatus – Chicago
*
It’s clear that the dance sound this article has been chasing – haunted by words like reserve, patience, melancholy, yearning – may be largely found in the domain of German deep house, but is in no way unique to it. Any song that doesn’t invigorate your daily routine, but makes you stop, think, question and feel is welcome to the fold. These songs show a side of dance music where the listener contributes his own narrative rather than being funnelled into a particular feeling by overt emotional cues. They focus us and fine-tune our sensitivity to the world around us. Taking a walk on a grey day listening to deep house can help you connect with, rather than escape, your drab surroundings, and perhaps even see beauty which would otherwise go unnoticed. Club music is justly adored for its ability to turn the dancer into a conduit, taking in a musical stimulus and releasing it as physical, synchronised energy. Yet deep house allows us to commune with ourselves in a softer, more thoughtful way. It’s why so many of us have, in deep house, found a home.