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.”