It was 2010, and ghosts were everywhere. The previous decade’s electronic innovations were staring down dead ends: Dubstep had run its course, and minimal techno was flatlining. In the absence of a bold new narrative, absence itself haunted the conversation. Into this void stepped Tri Angle. The Brooklyn label, founded by Robin Carolan, came whispering of another world. The first record on the label, Balam Acab’s See Birds, was all sighs and reverb, its sonics as corroded as a thing exhumed. The label’s next release was an eponymous EP from someone or something called oOoOO—not so much a band name as a wraithlike howl.
Over the next few years, this kind of doomy affect would become a kind of self-parody, but Carolan never settled for kitsch. Taking echo-soaked emptiness as a starting point, he kept pushing outward and, in the process, redefined the sound of 21st-century pop. Acts like Forest Swords and The Haxan Cloak helped make goth cool for a new generation; Lotic and Rabit drove deconstructed club music toward dystopian extremes, queering the electronic vanguard; Clams Casino shaped an entire generation of hip-hop by steeping his beats in an impenetrable haze. It’s impossible to think of Billie Eilish—to name just one multiplatinum megastar—without Tri Angle’s atmospheric precedent.
In April, Carolan announced that he was closing down the label, bowing out after just 10 years. To mark the occasion, he put together a 29-song playlist. (It’s telling that he added the first tracks to the playlist in September 2019; clearly, he’d been getting ready to shut things down for a while.) It makes for both a strong introduction for the uninitiated and a comprehensive recap for the label’s followers: While it’s neck deep in murky gloom (The Haxan Cloak’s sensuously dreadful “Miste,” FIS’ frankly terrifying “DMT Usher”), it also touches upon more ecstatic club music (Katie Gately’s “Lift”) and, crucially, the sort of genre-crossing soul (AlunaGeorge’s “You Know You Like It,” How To Dress Well’s “Ready For The World”) that constitutes one of the most fertile fields in pop music over the past decade. Taken together, it makes for a wide-ranging look at a label whose influence outstripped its own fame. Tri Angle is dead; long may it haunt us.