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Big-Room Sad Is Music About the Club, Not for the Club

Second Floor

As dance music settles into middle age, a growing number of artists are leaning into an elegiac, sentimental sound that revels in the aesthetic hallmarks of rave music while brushing aside the traditional needs of the dancefloor.

By Shawn Reynaldo


Image from Dawn Chorus by Jacques Greene, artwork by Hassan Rahim.

Dance music is getting old. The genre’s exact age will vary depending on who you ask. But considering that two tracks from 1981, A Number of Names’ “Sharevari” and Cybotron’s “Alleys of Your Mind,” have been widely recognized as the first techno singles, it’s fair to say that modern dance music has passed 40, and has now officially entered middle age. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean every contemporary clubber is a paunchy classicist with an Underground Resistance t-shirt and a receding hairline—on the contrary, Zoomers have swept into the scene en masse in the aftermath of the pandemic, many of them dressed like extras from The Fifth Element. But it does mean that dance music is now at a place where its audience is more multi-generational than ever before, and not everyone is dedicated to the garish, brain-rattling rhythms that seem to be getting the bulk of the attention these days.

Many people—artists and listeners alike—actually seem to be interested in dance music that isn’t necessarily made for dancing.

I’m not talking about ambient, though that genre, despite veering into increasingly experimental and unexpected territory over the past few years, is arguably more popular now than ever—and has probably helped to fuel the current surge of trip-hop-adjacent sounds as well. But there exists another option for those seeking respite from the aforementioned wave of Y2K LARPing and gabber revivalism. I sometimes like to call it “sentimental rave.” Dating approximately back to the latter half of the 2010s, it’s a form of electronic music that openly references the traditions of house, techno, electro, and rave while remaining largely untethered from the needs of the dancefloor, usually prioritizing majestic melodies and a smudgy sense of yearning instead. Given those characteristics—and the fact that there is already a Parisian hard techno DJ name who goes by the name Sentimental Rave—I’ve also taken to describing this stuff as “big-room sad.”

Whatever you want to call this music, it’s not the first time that electronic music has indulged in a dancefloor-not-dancefloor approach. During the 90s, the problematically named IDM (aka intelligent dance music) cribbed heavily from techno, acid, electro, rave, hardcore, and nascent strains of UK bass, but also sought to actively subvert these idioms. While this made heroes out of artists like Aphex Twin, µ-Ziq, Plaid, Autechre, Venetian Snares, Squarepusher, and countless others, the noisy outbursts, jittery rhythms, and occasional blissed-out soundscapes they created rarely catered to what worked best in the club. (It’s telling that Warp’s seminal 1992 compilation, Artificial Intelligence, was touted by the label as “electronic listening music.”)

IDM is still around, of course, and more than 30 years after it first emerged, its most familiar tropes—off-kilter drum patterns, blippy digital skronk—are referenced nearly as often as the sci-fi thump of techno and the soulful strut of house music. But in more recent years, a different kind of dancefloor-not-dancefloor sound has become more prevalent, one that’s rooted less in sonic experimentation and more in a sort of wistful, wide-eyed sentimentality. Burial, and particularly the existential, post-comedown melancholy that filled his landmark 2007 LP, Untrue, is certainly a major reference point for this stuff, as are the woebegone vibes that emanated from James Blake’s first releases (before he went full crooner) and much of Jamie xx’s early material. But in terms of a modern blueprint, Bicep’s 2017 single “Glue”—a song which was promoted at the time as “an homage to the rave era”—is probably the best place to start. Built atop a stripped-down UK garage beat and populated by the disembodied vocals of activist Silkie Carlo, the track hints at epic 90s anthems by the likes of Orbital and Future Sound of London, but it’s not designed to perfectly recreate that aesthetic. It’s hazy, and even a bit sad, a bittersweet slice of nostalgia for days gone by.

Joe Wilson’s “Glue” video hammers this idea home further, visiting empty fields, abandoned piers, and gray parking lots that once hosted massive underground parties and juxtaposing those images with fragments of text that waver between fond remembrances of the past (“traveling to Leicester in the boot of my mate’s Orion, off my box”) and present-day revelations: “I’m 48, married with kids.”

“Glue” is about four and a half minutes long, and it also has a serious pop undercurrent, distilling its various rave allusions into a package that’s far more digestible than the average techno epic. It may not be suitable for most DJ sets—the song’s weepy vibe isn’t exactly “peak time” material—but that doesn’t matter. “Glue” is hooky. It’s emotional. Moreover, it’s a genuine standalone listen, and in a time when dance music is increasingly being consumed not only via streaming playlists (as opposed to DJ sets), but also in live settings that feel more like a corporate concert than a sweaty warehouse party, that’s no small thing. Before “Glue,” Bicep was a relatively niche act, a couple of guys who less than a decade prior had literally gotten their start as dance music bloggers. Now they’re headlining festivals and are arguably one of the genre’s biggest acts, at least outside of the EDM circuit.

Like Bicep, Jacques Greene released his first album, Feel Infinite, in 2017. But it wasn’t until the Montreal producer’s 2019 follow-up, Dawn Chorus, that he fully embraced the feels. Greene has always had a tender streak, and a pop streak—you can detect lush bits of R&B in even his earliest offerings. But Dawn Chorus was the first time he actively pushed past the club. Billed in its press materials as something created for “the post-rave reflective moment,” the LP indulged in both ennui and euphoria as it dove into “the soup of electromagnetic signals that everyone wades through on the trek home” after a party. In Greene’s own words, it was “music about the club rather than for the club,” and more than half of its tracks clocked in at less than four minutes. The best song, the beautifully tortured “Drop Location,” was less than three.

Dawn Chorus wasn’t a total break from Greene’s past, but it did function as a kind of creative reset, solidifying the notion that its creator no longer required a steady kick drum to be devastatingly effective. Though Greene is still perfectly capable of creating a big-room banger (see “Fold,” his collaboration with Bonobo from earlier this year), his strongest tunes are often the ones where he gets the most vulnerable, such as the soaring “Leave Here” from his 2022 Fantasy EP.

It’s not a coincidence that Dawn Chorus—like the bulk of Greene’s material—was released on LuckyMe. The label has long combined an expert-level knowledge of electronic music’s past with an open-minded approach to the sounds of the present, pop and experimental alike; as such, it has become one of the leading outposts for this kind of emotive, rave-adjacent songcraft. Nathan Micay’s first outing for the imprint was 2016’s Capsule’s Pride, a sort of reimagined soundtrack to the anime classic Akira, and the Canadian artist’s output has only become more cinematic since then, whether he’s employing dazzling trance riffs while soundtracking the HBO drama Industry or piecing together kaleidoscopic sound design for his most recent full-length, this year’s To the God Named Dream. (Despite its pensive nature, LP standout “The Death of FOMO” is an especially sparkly—and totally beatless—gem.) And though Doss’ music often sounds irrepressibly effervescent, the NYC artist’s 2021 breakout EP, 4 New Hit Songs, did contain “Strawberry,” a deliciously hazy cut that does have a mellow dance beat, but is most likely to ensnare listeners with its waves of shoegazey guitar fuzz.

There are some musical constants here: dramatic melodies, blurred atmospheres, pitch-shifted (and preferably soulful) vocals, and a willingness to walk the line between sentiment and schmaltz. But the thing that perhaps most strongly unites these tunes has little to do with what their creators do in the studio. For all of these artists, their shift away from club orthodoxy happened years into their respective careers, which makes sense. Even the biggest party monsters get older, and as their interests gradually move away from the dancefloor (or at least are no longer exclusively connected to it), it makes sense that their listening habits—and the music they make—would experience a similar sort of drift. Add in the sense of loss one feels as their favorite venues close and their old stomping grounds are gentrified, and of course things are going to take a somber turn. (Even those who were too young to experience “back in the day” rave and club culture can easily feel bummed out, as today’s nightlife offerings often seem woefully inauthentic in comparison.)

There’s a potency to the past, and although just about everyone eventually gets to the point where they don’t want to be at the club every weekend anymore, that doesn’t mean the moments they spent there weren’t emotionally profound. As dance music continues to age, the genre is bound to serve up more of these dewy-eyed remembrances. And considering all the strife the world has faced during the 2020s, it’s no wonder that artists and fans alike are keen to wistfully look backwards. For those looking to experience a bit of big-room sad, here’s a sampling of tunes in that vein that have surfaced during the past few years.

Sofia Kourtesis - “La Perla”

“La Perla” wasn’t just the best track on Sofia Kourtesis’ 2021 EP, Fresia Magdalena; it was one of that year’s best pop songs, period. A shimmering, soft-focus cut that perhaps loosely qualifies as house, it also carries a lot of emotional weight, as the Berlin-based Peruvian waxes nostalgic about her late father, whom she’d recently lost to leukemia, and the magical moments they spent by the sea when she was a child. Her debut album, Madres, which dropped earlier this year and focuses on her mother’s battle with brain cancer, is similarly captivating.

Prayer - “A Love So True”

Given his frequent use of booming Amen breaks, it may be unfair to describe Prayer as someone who’s not making music for the dancefloor. But listening to a song like “A Love So True”—the plush, heart-tugging title track from the UK junglist’s 2022 EP—it’s clear that he likes his emotions as big as his drum sounds. This song might sound massive in the club, but it’s best suited to those moments when the party is coming to an end, the lights are about to come on, and you’re far more interested in hugging your friends than busting a move.

Hugo Massien - “Deep Blue”

Most of Hugo Massien’s catalog is devoted to upbeat bangers of different shapes and sizes, but when the UK artist’s Fuzzy Logic EP surfaced late last year, the label described its contents as “emoshunal”—a clever misspelling that perfectly captures the gooey center of “Deep Blue.” With its woozy, drawn-out chords and low-key 2-step rhythm, the song practically feels like a sequel to Bicep’s “Glue,” begging the question of whether “big-room sad” should officially be considered a subgenre—or at least the focus of a streaming playlist.

Bot1500 - “Crimson 9”

Slipping out at the very end of 2022, Bot1500’s Surreal EP flew beneath most people’s radar, but it’s a brilliant collection of “tears at the club” boppers. These aren’t subdued productions—the Japanese producer’s propulsive drum programming is far too lively for that—but the uncluttered composition and plinky melodies of standout “Crimson 9” do create an introspective air, inviting listeners to close their eyes and dive deep into their feelings, regardless of whether or not they’re on the dancefloor.

µ-Ziq - “4am”

Mike Paradinas is no stranger to nostalgia, and during the past few years, he’s made looking backwards a centerpiece of his work. In 2022, he reissued a 25th-anniversary edition of his 1997 LP, Lunatic Harness, and also dropped three additional releases (Goodbye, Magic Pony Ride, and Hello) that directly reference that creatively fertile era of late-90s IDM. For most artists, that would have been more than enough personal excavation, but the Planet Mu founder pressed on, digging even deeper into his past on 1977, a nominally (but not entirely) ambient full-length that came out this past April. “4am” opens the record on an especially wondrous note, its barely-there percussion gently tapping as floating melodies and twirly vocal fragments evoke memories of Pure Moods-era new age.

Duckett - “Back to Life”

  • 1The Wow Signal
  • 2Long Profound Sentences In Yellow Light
  • 3How To Care More About The Cat
  • 4Back To Life
  • 5Never Will I Change
  • 6Broken
  • 7Alien Questions
  • 8Rabbits On Fire

With its reputation for neck-snapping breakbeats and history as the de facto soundtrack for innumerable breakdance competitions, electro is rarely thought of as a particularly emotional strain of dance music. But on “Back to Life,” Duckett showcases the genre’s softer side. A highlight of his new Eight Tits Total album, the track has an undeniable bounce. But that ultimately takes a back seat to its luxe textures and plaintive vocal chops, the elongated cries of “Back to Liiiiiiiife” conjuring up memories of wasted days and youthful abandon.

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