A DJ set from aya can be both thrilling and disorienting, a giddy maelstrom of jungle breaks, Dutch techno, UK funky, South African gqom, and who knows what else—plus edits of Charli XCX and “Call Me Maybe,” for good measure. Synthesized voices offer bite-sized philosophical observations (“Google Street View has allowed us to shrink geography,” proclaims a text-to-speech snippet midway through her 2018 Boiler Room set). Mic in hand, aya might shout crowd-stoking interjections, urge her supporters to vote Corbyn, or offer reflective commentary about her own tracks: At Krakow’s Unsound Festival this October, she said that “backsliding,” a queasy, K-holed vision of ambient grime peppered with cryptic references to hedonism and regret, is about leaving Manchester—“probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she added, sounding suddenly serious. On at least one occasion, she has crowd-surfed, oversized chains and tartan plaid flapping as she tumbled over the hands of the crowd. The vibe slips from heady to humorous and back again with whiplashing intensity; the bass is so physical you can feel it in your follicles.

Building on the club sounds of LOFT, aya’s former alter ego, and extending into the realms of musique concrète, drone, and knotty wordplay, the Huddersfield-raised, London-based artist’s debut album, im hole, takes her boundless energy and unbridled creative instincts into a wild new space. On record, her voice is either pitched up and wreathed in the clammy reverb of a small, dank tunnel, or digitally pulverized and scattered to the winds. On paper—the album’s physical edition is a clothbound book—her lyrics take the form of carefully typeset poems whose butterfingered misspellings (“once went west ypp off ur chesdt my ribssn embpdty vessel,abeadt slippd an ekxtra stuttr fluttr midst th wrestl alll breath losstt”) reflect their origin as notes tapped out on her phone in what she has described as states of “transient psychosis.”

aya’s previous releases hewed to more or less familiar traditions of experimental club music. “a fflash gun for a ffiver,” from last year’s Physically Sick 3 compilation, recalls the intricate, jewel-toned bass investigations of labels like Wisdom Teeth, where LOFT released an early EP in 2017. The cartoonish vocal processing of last year’s playful “delishus” sounds like an homage to SOPHIE songs like “Lemonade” and “Hard.” But on im hole, some of aya’s playfulness has burned off, making way for a steely, psychedelic intensity.

The opening track, “somewhere between the 8th and 9th floor,” charts strange new territory. Over a chilly microtonal blast—recorded with her phone in the stairwell between the eighth and ninth floors of her old apartment building, where the wind screaming through a broken window created an uncannily electronic-sounding effect—she intones a sing-song incantation in a witchy pipsqueak: “Me, more, me, more, me, more. Red or blue, me, more, red or blue, red or blue. Red shoes or blue shoes! Red shoes or blue shoes!” It sounds less like a song than a spell being cast. And by the track’s end, a magical transformation has taken place, one that introduces the autobiographical theme that gives this baffling, enveloping album the personal gravitas to balance its dazzling sonic fireworks: “Last year I came round from a hole/With a broken thumb/And a note on my phone/Four words,” she croaks, her voice digitally garbled: “Thee/Vibe/Hath/Changed.”

Change is deeply woven into the album’s fabric. Sounds shift their shapes in midair; rhythms morph; timbres transmogrify. aya favors volatile textures evocative of blown glass, oily concrete, and quaking Jell-O, but the provenance of any given sound is rarely clear. On “what if i should fall asleep and slipp under,” her voice takes on a gravelly, fluctuating buzz, as though she were hissing into the rotors of a swiveling electric fan. On the instrumental “dis yacky,” crows caw over dangerously arrhythmic breakbeats while a gummy acid bassline tries desperately to hold the song’s jagged shards together. Even at the music’s most overwhelmingly physical—like the tinnitus-and-nausea cocktail of pinging highs and oozing sub-bass of “tailwind”—this is as spare as her music has sounded; rarely are more than a handful of elements in play at any given moment. A few tracks are essentially spoken-word poetry set to industrial grinding and buzzing sounds—or post-industrial, seemingly inspired less by rusted-out Northern English factories than the ominous throb of this century’s sprawling underground server farms.

The lyrics play out as blurry snapshots of daily life and nightly follies; the writing is dense but fleet, skipping over tangled internal rhymes like a sailboat riding hard, choppy waves. Druggy allusions and sly double entendres abound, and her twisting wordplay limns the stealth and slipperiness of sex with startling accuracy. im hole can be darkly funny—“Oh the stubble/Oh begone/You unholy cunt,” she snaps on “OoB Prosthesis,” lamenting the indignity of unwanted hair—and she has a talent for zooming in on vivid details that crystallize a whole constellation of feelings. In “3.36,” a poem included in the accompanying book, she sits awake late at night, ketamine in her system, buzzing on the feeling of her fingertips brushing against her ears: “im shaking my body side to side some rhythm gone amiss/fantano’s reviewing billie eilish.”

But despite the spry wit of her writing and the spirited force of her drums, a dull ache is often palpable. The album’s title puns on wholeness and physical orifices but also emptiness. A trans person, aya wrestles in her lyrics with dysmorphia and struggles with irreconcilable binaries (“If I were one or the other/I could smother half of myself/Mother myself for a laugh to a sickening health”). Even sexual pleasure comes cloaked in existential pain: “Come find me undercover/Come over we could fuck the void out of each other,” she offers on “what if i should fall asleep and slipp under,” digitally enabled vocal fry scraping against bass that glints of polished latex. But there are moments of tenderness, too. On the brooding “still i taste the air,” she pays a melancholy visit to an ex-lover and, despite the abiding sadness of the encounter (“His dimensions once undulating, pulsating/Sit still now/Bound, drab”), she returns feeling serene, “lighter somehow,” secure in the knowledge that “one night’s enough to know where’s roots.”

Shuttling between club sounds and psychedelic mind states, assembling brain-rearranging rhythms only to topple them in a jumbled heap, im hole enacts a delirious tug of war between pleasure and unease—between the bodily embrace of dance music and the bottomless pit of the mind. In the closing “backsliding,” aya paints the picture of a narcotic, late-night session, a blur of rolled bills and tunnel vision set to some of the album’s most disorienting production, where a sub-heavy rhythm dissolves into backmasked streaks of icy dissonance. Like all meaningful drug experiences, it pairs the temporary loss of self with the search for something more—in this case, the simple discovery that “some nights the light hits just right.” Electronic music is often predicated on the idea of losing yourself on the dancefloor. But im hole explores a deeper and more regenerative sense of loss; it is an ode to the new self that forms when the old one crumbles. As aya intones in the opening track, “Straighten out your shoulders, love/Push your head up/And don’t forget to breathe.”

Buy: Rough Trade


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