A minute or so into the opening song on UK electronic musician Pangaea’s Changing Channels, something strange happens. Over a rubbery, insistent bassline and crisply swinging drums, an unidentified vocalist is spitting out a string of unintelligible syllables when a hissing refrain seems to materialize in the air, like a message left by an agitated ghost in a fogged-up mirror: “Hessle! Hessle!”
That might not be so odd—after all, Pangaea’s latest album appears on Hessle Audio, the label he co-founded in 2007 with Ben UFO and Pearson Sound. But the phrase’s sudden appearance is also unlikely enough to make you doubt your own ears. For one thing, Hessle Audio has never been one to toot its own horn. Though it’s one of the UK’s most respected club labels—beloved for its unflagging dedication to both crowd-moving rhythms and innovative, brain-bending sounds—Hessle has always let the music speak for itself, with little self-promotion or social-media bluster. More to the point, the vocal in question is pure gobbledygook, a glossolalic rush cobbled together from stray phonemes and gasps of breath. Pangaea, aka London-based musician Kevin McAuley, has used the same Frankenstein-like technique to whip up monster anthems out of sampled lyrical detritus before. The Changing Channels opener might not really be saying “Hessle! Hessle!” but once you’ve heard it that way, you can’t unhear it. Maybe Pangaea hit upon those fortuitously soundalike syllables and decided to leave them in, an Easter egg for the label faithful.
Pangaea does have a deep mischievous streak, after all. Though he got his start making shadowy dubstep derivatives indebted to the dark, silky garage of acts like Horsepower Productions, it didn’t take him long to begin adding sneakily unsettling elements, like a mad professor ominously pontificating about the soullessness of gray matter or a choir chirpily invoking the end of the world. In recent years, he’s increasingly gone all in on big, lapel-grabbing heaters, and Changing Channels contains some of his biggest and brashest yet; it’s a high-BPM, full-throated defense of fun as the most important ingredient in dance music.
The club scene has undergone massive changes since bouncing back after the pandemic doldrums of 2020-2021. Tempos have soared, and so have moods. Even in corners of the underground where more serious modes once reigned, an insouciant spirit has wormed its way in, yielding brighter colors and wigglier basslines. Two Shell might be considered the poster boys for that shift; they got their start making relatively restrained DJ tools on Livity Sound (a UK label whose leftfield mission and positioning loosely align with Hessle’s) before graduating to their more notorious, helium-fueled hijinks. Pangaea mines an adjacent vein of ’90s garage and 2-step, and he pursues a similarly playful approach with his serotonin-boosting vocal chops.
Whether on or off the dancefloor, Changing Channels is wildly and viscerally pleasurable, full of ribcage-vibrating basslines, richly hued synths, and adamantine percussive details. In “Installation,” rosy sunrise pads smooth out the choppy groove while a mosquito-beaked synth riff nods simultaneously to ’90s Eurodance and Y2K-era dancehall. In “If,” lush organs and jagged synth stabs dial up the contrast around the cut-up vocal, while dub-techno chords carve diagonally through the mix, as though opening up a shortcut to a different musical dimension. Pangaea delights in mixing up tropes from genres that are rarely seen together in public. “Hole Away” slathers the buzz-bomb synths of drum’n’bass over a Strictly Rhythm-style NYC house vocal, while the coolly driving title track might be the answer to a thought experiment: What if Basic Channel, but speed garage? That might sound like an arcane proposition, but there’s nothing nerdy about Changing Channels. Its ultra-vivid palette of tinkling bells and ASMR-grade shakers and hi-hats is practically Pavlovian, bursting with textures as crisp as the moment you put on new eyeglasses. Club music this banging is rarely so nuanced.
Subtlety comes to the fore on the penultimate track, “Squid,” where a spidery synth melody carefully picks its way across a gliding, four-on-the-floor house beat, while carefully manipulated delay and swing settings throw further kinks in the groove. The vibe is unexpectedly dreamy, almost bittersweet. The only song here that’s not angled at peak time, “Squid” is so good that it makes me want to hear a whole album’s worth of Pangaea in contemplative, dewy-eyed mode. But the way it differs from the rest of the material is part of what makes the song special. To underscore that point, Changing Channels goes out with a bang. The closing “Bad Lines” is so upbeat it’s practically cartoonish: a 160-BPM juggernaut of sped-up house pianos and candy-colored trance stabs. It feels almost tongue in cheek, although knowing McAuley’s roots—long before he got into more rarified styles, he taught himself to DJ with hard house and trance records from his hometown’s HMV—leaves little doubt that his homage is sincere. Notice how lovingly he has rendered the genre’s over-the-top supersaws and strafing filters: What at first scans as ridiculously extra turns out to be, upon closer inspection, just right.
It might seem surprising to hear Pangaea lock into a mode that’s swept clubs and festivals for a while now; Hessle Audio have prided themselves on being ahead of the curve. In a recent interview alongside his co-founders, Ben UFO explained how the label had managed to remain outside the blast radius of many dance-music fads: “Because we’ve always been focused on music that sounds new to us, we’ve ended up surviving those trend spikes. That’s a great position to be in—to have people expect that a shift in flow might be round the corner.” In his testament to the importance of letting loose, Pangaea doesn’t just offer a gentle rebuke to the glowering, stone-faced, arms-crossed gatekeepers of the underground. His record is also refreshingly free of a feeling that has plagued the recent craze for chart-pop samples and Eurodance classics: a vaguely guilty-pleasure insinuation of getting away with something naughty. Cheeky but never corny, Pangaea’s album proves that you can get silly without sounding stupid. Right down to its title, Changing Channels captures a welcome shift in flow.