When, toward the beginning of 2020, Xyla began crafting the tracks that would become her debut album, she was in what she has described as a “vulnerable” place. After six years in San Francisco, where she had moved from Houston to study French horn at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she had spent a few months in Berlin, soaking up the city’s electronic-music scene. It was a heady time: She clubbed by night and made music by day, gathering inspiration from the unfamiliar city around her. But upon her return to the Bay Area, her spirits came crashing down. She was jobless and mourning the loss of close friends. The fog was thick, the air cold, her outlook bleak. “I was kind of alone and depressed and I’d wake up and all I would do was produce,” she told KQED. “It was the only thing I had the energy to do.”
The remarkable thing about Xyla’s debut album, Ways, is that it doesn’t sound like the product of depression. An unconventional blend of footwork, IDM, ambient, and UK bass, it is lively, dynamic, and above all, original. These are familiar influences, but she has put them together in unusual ways. Ways often feels like a tug of war between competing impulses, chief among them rhythm and atmosphere. The album opens with a characteristic touch of subtle drama: Synths flicker like fluorescent tubes, teasing the promise of imminent action. Instead, they disappear into rising aquamarine chords over the course of the first minute, and the rhythm seems to dissolve. But this moment of stillness is her second fake-out in quick succession: she quickly slams home a crackling, electro-inspired machine beat. It’s exhilarating and soothing in equal measure.
A similar sense of balance distinguishes virtually everything here. “Feel” begins with another UK-influenced groove, crisp and swinging, then relaxes into billowing synth pads while hints of processed voices flit about the edges. “Now” plays a snippet of sampled vocals off pinwheeling arpeggios and an undulating acid line; it feels like a club track where all the hard surfaces and sharp edges have been swapped out for soft, cottony shapes.
The album reaches its emotional peak with the jazz-sampling “Narcissus.” Hi-hats tap like nervous fingers drumming on the kitchen table, and the way the beat stops and starts reinforces a curious mood that’s both ruminative and distracted. Her arrangement captures a curious heart-in-mouth feeling—not quite a fight-or-flight instinct, but a sense that something needs to change, if only the exit strategy would reveal itself. Then, after a few seconds of silence, it does just that: Her drum programming straightens out and plunges ahead, haloed by gentle chimes.
It’s tricks like this that make Ways feel like more than just a smartly produced stylistic hybrid. She makes particularly good use of the double-time cadences of footwork, drum’n’bass, and UK bass: Oscillating between slow passages and fast, her tracks seem to gather strength and then sprint forward, only to fall back into reflective repose. The music’s bright harmonies and airy dimensions suggest cautious optimism, cool fortitude. However low Xyla may have felt while making the album, each of these tracks feels like a signpost to a better place.
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