Raytheon Technologies wants to wish you a Happy Pride. The defense conglomerate and military contractor is on a mission to “celebrate and uplift [its] LGBTQ+ employees.” So is Axon, a taser and body cam manufacturer. So is Uber—did you know it has transgender and asexual “driver-partners”? Each June, another hawkish corporation debuts a rainbow-hued logo in hopes of capturing that elusive pink dollar, rapidly absorbing a once-radical identity bloc into the economy of girlboss drone pilots and Pete Buttigieg. In a recent interview, Jeremy Atherton Lin, author of the cultural history Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, bemoaned the way the mainstreaming of pride has erased deviance in favor of respectability: “Some forms of sexuality are pervy. And I think that there’s been a kind of erasure of the pervert,” he said. “There’s a kind of essentialism, then, about how you are valid because your sexuality isn’t dirty, and then there isn’t a place for dirtiness and finding playmates in perversion, you know?”
A Night at the Baths, the new album by Special Interest synth player Ruth Mascelli, is, like Gay Bar, a fond evocation of queer spaces that are sordid, deviant, and defiantly anti-mainstream—the bathhouses and club basements that are integral to queer history but rarely historicized in the traditional sense. Described by Mascelli as “an audio diary of adventures had at various bathhouses, dark rooms, and gay clubs,” A Night at the Baths is a heady and hazy record of techno and ambient music that, intentionally or not, acts as a piquant tonic to the ultra-safe, proud-but-poreless pride content often found on themed Spotify playlists. Mascelli once joked that they and Special Interest frontperson Alli Logout wanted to go on a bathhouse tour; until that day comes, A Night at the Baths is presented like an emotional tour of a bathhouse, an immersive suite that attempts to capture the tension and frisson of the sauna.
Mascelli used to make electronic music under the moniker Psychic Hotline, but their eponymous work presents far more than a name change. Where Psychic Hotline’s music was lo-fi, vocal-led minimal wave not unlike Throbbing Gristle, A Night at the Baths is instrumental and cinematic. The muffled thump of opener “Sauna” is preceded by a taut, syncopated synth sting that pans from left to right—an ostentatious welcome to Mascelli’s potent, rakish world. Throughout the album, they use the tools of immersive sound design to great effect: There is wonderful dimension to a song like “One for the Voyeurs,” which utilizes echoing, breathy vocal samples, or “Libidinal Surplus,” a frantic, menacing acid techno track built around a visceral kick that sounds like it was recorded through peaking club speakers. A Night at the Baths walks a fine line between dance music and sound art designed to evoke the feeling of hearing dance music, as Mascelli has tacitly acknowledged: “The sound of a degraded pop song several rooms away getting lost amidst the chorus of heavy breathing was the starting point for this project,” they say in a statement.
But this music, so swept up in trying to convey the power of nightlife spaces, falls short of conjuring that same thrill itself. Split between a raucous A-side consisting of four heaving techno tracks and a B-side containing four pieces of spectral, pulsating ambient music, the album occasionally feels like a museum display—fragments lovingly curated to represent a greater history that never quite comes through. There are some striking moments on the album’s second half: the way a discordant buzzsaw synth cuts through the new age meditation of closer “Missing Men,” for example, is surprising and impactful, a sharp reminder of the risk inherent in so much queer nightlife. In contrast to the meta, almost discursive, approach to club music seen on recent projects like India Jordan’s For You or Doss’ 4 New Hit Songs—records about clubbing that are also perfect for clubbing—A Night at the Baths uses club music as a means to an end. It seeks to capture the specifics of an environment that, as it stands, becomes more existentially threatened by the day. That in itself is reason to be proud.
Buy: Rough Trade
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