Haai: Baby, We’re Ascending review – rich, entrancing ambience from a party-starter star | Electronic music

Over the past few years, Sydney-born DJ, producer and songwriter Haai – real name Teneil Throssell – has become something of an underground star in her adopted hometown of London.

A two-year resident at the Brixton club Phonox, Throssell’s sets are renowned for their frenetic pace and euphoric peaks, largely comprising breakbeat-heavy house and techno, with sojourns into other more idiosyncratic styles. Perpetually clad in sunglasses and seemingly always bearing a cheeky smile, she is a preternaturally talented party-starter, an intuitive, crowd-focused DJ with wide-reaching taste.

‘A preternaturally talented party-starter’ … Haai. Photograph: Imogene Barron

The many dance music institutions that have heaped praise on her (she has broadcast on Rinse FM, had her BBC Essential Mix named the Essential Mix of the year, and livestreamed a set on Boiler Room) speak to her growing reputation as a playful, fleet-footed selector. It makes sense, then, that her debut album, Baby, We’re Ascending, arrives to uncommon anticipation, both in the UK and in Australia.

Any good DJ, though, knows it’s good to keep audiences guessing – and the album represents something of a left turn. Although it still has its fair share of breathy, high-frequency techno, the best moments are aqueous, washing over you with the bracing crispness of early-morning tides. Reflecting the solitude Throssell felt after her hard-touring slate went blank in the early months of the pandemic, it’s a record that finds its highest points when it’s doing the least, the ambient interludes offering an enticing new wrinkle in Haai’s reputation in the club scene.

The final song on the album, Tardigrade, is a highlight: atop a wash of warped trance synths and cavernous, crackling drums, she sings about a relationship that seems halfway between fracture and repair: “Nobody knows / Nobody cares / We’re both breathing’s enough reason you should love me back … ” Vast and rich, it’s a ballad with all excess removed, Throssell’s words given space to hang in the air like vapour. Similarly entrancing is Bodies of Water, which finds Throssell singing over a skittering, mattified house beat: “Somewhere, on a brand new day / In a pool of love / I lay / From this I take / The loneliness has spared you.”

There are signifiers of floor-filling dance tracks here – vocal samples set to warp speed, a denouement featuring a frenetic breakbeat – but for the most part, Throssell holds back in favour of open space. These songs, as well as the record’s similarly hazy title track, are smart and alluring, creating something organic and naturalistic that reflects the impressionistic feel of Throssell’s lyrics, which use references to oceans, forests and lakes to channel the serenity and solace of the natural world. Throssell uses simple metaphors that are often vivid and effective; on the title track, for instance, she compares a lover’s pull to the tides: “I’m caught up in your wave / They’re crashing right on top of me.”

This glacial, botanical approach to electronic music places Throssell in a growing milieu of young producers – many of them women – looking to explore the natural world through techno. Recent records such as Kelly Lee Owens’ Inner Song and Kedr Livanskiy’s Liminal Soul have attempted to reach similar places, with Owens attempting to address the climate crisis on her record, and Kedr Livanskiy’s producer Yana Kedrina looking to encourage communion with the natural world on hers.

On songs like Bodies of Water and Baby, We’re Ascending, Haai’s music is as explicitly nature-focused – and undeniably of a piece. But this creates something of a tension in the album as a whole, between the focused, ambient-leaning pieces and the more boilerplate dance heaters like Pigeon Barren and FM. When it reaches its most pumping, Baby, We’re Ascending tends to sag; these songs feel slightly untethered, or even half-hearted, next to their spirited, amorphous cousins.

Occasionally, Throssell finds a balance to the two warring halves of Baby, We’re Ascending. Orca, one of the record’s final songs, contrasts racing minimal techno with a breathtaking ambient coda. Gilded with discordant strings, it feels like seeing the sunrise after a long night, Throssell’s ultra-saturated synths softening the song’s frostbitten intro. It’s a track that finds Throssell drawing together the best parts of each side of her music – ascending, just as she promised.

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