Several years ago, the producer Octo Octa compiled a mix beginning with one of the earliest house singles, Marshall Jefferson as Hercules’ sinister “7 Ways.” “Visually touch the body in front of you,” Jefferson commands, “caress it with your eyes, drink it in slowly.” He savors the words like a cobra does movement. There are enough layers of dominance and submission to delight Throbbing Gristle. Octo Octa’s own work swims the gulf separating dance music’s utopian, transcendental side from the bodies grinding up against capitalist demands and social alienation—and perhaps each other, too, if a night’s shape allows. She describes and comforts anxiety.
You could call that an acquired skill. Before Maya Bouldry-Morrison was Octo Octa, her solo material drew more from the drums-frenzied school of techno. Her early records often borrowed R&B a capellas, like “I’m Trying,” which reduced Amerie’s “1 Thing” to abashed moans. Her use of compression could be subtly disorienting, giving different sounds tangible presence for only a moment, like ghosts.
With her new album Where Are We Going?, Bouldry-Morrison’s aesthetic has grown more resolved. Her candy-bright synths remain, but the songs have grown increasingly circuitous, elaborating on their own structures. “Adrift” sends a pulse descending through the depths of murky reverb; “Fleeting Moments of Freedom (Wooo)” keeps circling back and starting over again, as if spiraling towards infinity. (It would explain the deadpan title.) Unlike earlier Octo Octa records, vocals are rare, often abstracted—“No More Pain (Promises to a Younger Self)” distorts Mariah Carey over hip-house drums like a kite in a wind tunnel. This distracted introspection is the kind you only experience while dancing, as when the brooding “On Your Lips” makes a synth’s timbre blush incandescently.
Where Are We Going?—the question could be asked in rhetorical despair, or outside a club flirtatiously at 3 a.m. This is the first Octo Octa album since Bouldry-Morrison came out as trans, and on the second part of its title track she interrupts the glistening piano melodies with a refrain: “Do you feel better? Are you going to feel better?” As she turns this interrogation back towards the listener, it reminds me of the vocal samples on DJ Sprinkles’ Midtown 120 Blues, which placed beautiful deep house and historical grievances in dialectical intimacy. Bouldry-Morrison never feels bound to offer an answer, but through the vivid ambivalence of her music, you can sense a warming to new possibility. It’s like someone catching sight of themselves at a mirrored corner of the dance floor, smiling faintly, and returning to the party.