HAAi "Baby, We’re Ascending"
There’s rarely a dull moment in HAAi’s high-octane techno because Teneil Throssell is a master of the quick cut. Sometimes she attacks her music with surgical precision, carving out breathtaking pockets of silence before slamming the beat back. At others, she works with a field medic’s intensity, slashing diagonally across mangled breakbeats, then suturing the wound with an overdriven blast of bass. But for all its frequent change-ups, HAAi’s music never suffers from a short attention span. Channeling the hypnotic, tunnel-vision effects of classic Underworld, vintage drum’n’bass, and the early-’00s output of labels like Border Community and Kompakt, it’s a sound as heady as it is physical. Throssell works like a film editor, piecing together stray threads into a form that is cinematic in scope; her cuts always contribute to an overarching sense of continuity.
Born in Australia and based in London, HAAi has been developing her brand of peak-time drama on singles and EPs over the past five years, but her debut album is her most ambitious attempt yet to spin the energy of the rave into something bigger, something that transcends the club without turning its back on it. Pocked with interruptions, trap doors, and fractals, the maze-like shape that it assumes over the course of its hour-long running time replicates the labyrinthine dimensions of an unfamiliar nightclub—its corridors and cul-de-sacs and darkrooms, its moments of exhilaration interlaced with descents into doubt or panic.
Throssell cut her teeth making bangers, and Baby, We’re Ascending hardly lacks for moments of intensity. The very first track is a kitchen blender overflowing with liquefied bits of industrial-strength techno. “Pigeon Barron,” which follows, evokes fellow Mute affiliate Daniel Avery’s dystopian euphoria in concussive drums and vertiginous synth glissandi. And “Purple Jelly Disc” is a white-knuckled rollercoaster that leads from a cavernous techno dungeon to a sunrise beach rave.
But the prevailing mood is ambivalent, the atmospheres frequently murky. The epic “Biggest Mood Ever” uses the voice of Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor to wonderfully contrasting effect, distorted breakbeats tearing through pastel dream pop like shrapnel through a field of daisies. “I’ve Been Thinking a Lot Lately” drapes pitched-down breaks in gloomy piano reminiscent of the Cure’s Seventeen Seconds, an enveloping fusion that recalls an all too short-lived strain of depressive drum’n’bass that emerged toward the end of the 1990s. And “FM,” a highlight, covers a sullen techno rhythm in Burialesque grit and fog; with a mixdown that tilts dangerously toward the bassy end of the spectrum, it’s boomy yet weirdly distant, like a heaving dancefloor heard through warehouse walls.
More than any individual standout tracks, what’s most compelling is the album’s journey. Beginning with the sound of a tape being slotted into a cassette deck, Baby, We’re Ascending unrolls like a unified suite, and the interstitials—like “Louder Always Better,” a minute-long stretch of elastic sound design followed by 40 seconds of punishing techno—are often as gripping as the anthems. The way individual songs morph makes them often feel like passages snipped out of a DJ mix. There’s a knowing sense of humor to these twists and turns, too: “This concludes Side 1,” intones a robotic voice at the album’s midpoint.
Vocals play a prominent role in roughly half of the album’s songs, and while they sometimes work—UK trans activist Kai-Isaiah Jamal’s spoken-word poetry cuts powerfully through the moody “Human Sound”—they sometimes feel like Throssell is straining slightly for gravitas, pasting emotion on top of tracks that communicate plenty of it on their own. On “Bodies of Water,” her voice doesn’t quite gel with the woozy synths surrounding her; she’s more convincing on the title track, a Jon Hopkins collaboration that replicates the heart-in-mouth feel of raving at its most ecstatic. She’s good on the closing “Tardigrade,” too: The lyrics don’t necessarily scan very meaningfully, but the sound of her voice adds a Beach House-like airiness to the song, which balances gauzy dream pop with Yeezus-grade industrial drums. That mix of opposites is textbook HAAi, and so is the twist that follows: In the song’s final seconds, a gentle fade-out gives way to a three-second burst of drums that’s completely unconnected from anything that has come before, and ends as abruptly as it appeared. In this most cinematic of records, it seems only fitting that Throssell should leave us with a cliffhanger.