Scientists call it the Goldilocks zone: the narrow band around a star where it’s neither so cold that liquid water freezes nor so hot that it vaporizes. Within this zone are the conditions needed for life to flourish. The porridge, in other words, is just right. New York producer Beta Librae (aka Bailey Hoffman) makes music that floats in a kind of Goldilocks zone. It’s bounded on one extreme by the alien chill of ambient music; on the other lies the searing heat of a roiling dancefloor. Her work channels both realms without belonging to either. It’s alive with rippling grooves, yet often feels as ethereal as it does physical. An adventurous DJ could absolutely use it to make people move, but it’s just as suitable for zoning out and getting lost in a headphone fog.
Over the years, Beta Librae has tended to follow an elliptical orbit. On certain tracks, or even full albums, she tugs toward one pole before canting back in the opposite direction. On her 2015 album Swope Park, fine-tipped frequencies often darted like the needles of an industrial knitting machine, offering a spine-tingling invitation to dance, while on 2018’s Sanguine Bond, tempos slowed and solid forms softened, dissolving into the murk. On Daystar—released, like its predecessor, on Anthony Naples and Jenny Slatterly’s Incienso label—her music moves markedly closer to the sun. It’s her heaviest release yet.
“Penny Universities” opens the album with knives sharpening in time to the rhythm of a UK garage-adjacent beat; the kick drum taps incessantly at your sternum, while a gravelly bass tone pulses ominously, lifting the dancefloor with every throb. It certainly wasn’t made for sitting down. With “Late at Night,” she feints sideways into dubby rumination, but with the bleepy techno of “Megafauna” and “The Dance Class,” she catapults us back into a landscape of explosive kicks and jagged shards. It’s not just that the album’s beats hit harder than usual, or that the drum sounds are more cutting, though both things are true. In the near-total absence of salient melodies, even the tonal elements—like basslines sculpted out of tuned kick drums—pack a muscular wallop.
The album possesses an almost architectural sensibility. Drum patterns and dissonant synth riffs criss-cross like load-bearing beams; reverb tails suggest the illusion of vectors cutting angled lines. Close your eyes and follow the way certain sounds pan across the mix, or consider how tracks come to resemble three-dimensional structures, scale models mapped out in sound. Some parts, like a clanging dub chord reminiscent of Horsepower Productions’ Y2K-era dark garage, turn up in multiple tracks, lending a sense of flow that is no doubt related to Beta Librae’s experience as a live performer, retooling and resequencing her productions on the fly. Despite Daystar’s propulsive intensity, it’s never obviously utilitarian, and it never falls prey to predictability. Grooves tend to roll on in waves, like broad swells; rhythms evolve almost imperceptibly, rewarding immersive listening. After a long, unexpected breakdown halfway through “Penny Universities,” rather than returning in a climactic, concussive drop, the beat instead simply reassembles itself out of thin air. It’s a gratifyingly sneaky twist on club convention.
If Beta Librae mostly leans into her rhythmic instincts on Daystar, she ventures further afield on “Late at Night,” where fellow Incienso signee James K’s voice swirls airily over dub chords and a choppy, syncopated beat. I’m not sure it works, at least within the context of the album; James K’s R&B-influenced singing feels grafted on, as though Beta Librae were trying to create a new pop hybrid out of her customary strain of experimental club music. A vocal as strange and singular as her productions might land better here. Still, it’s good to see Beta Librae trying new things and testing the limits of her zone. She may have her particular sweet spot all mapped out, but by the next time we hear from her, she’ll likely be coming to us from a different quadrant of the galaxy altogether.