Ruth Mascelli cruises dystopia on the new album, ‘A Night At The Baths’
Image by Arthur R Severio
Anyone who has been to a bathhouse knows it’s an experience that lingers long after the steam of the sauna has dissipated. Simultaneously liberating and degrading, it’s entering into a microcosm where the rules and standards of the world outside no longer apply. To this effect, while they are safe zones for queer sexual encounters they’re also the sorts of spaces that allow for bad behaviour. They have evolved to become laboratories for queer libidinal abjection, bizarrely liminal gateways into sexual underworlds. With its labyrinth of cabins, darkrooms, and gloryholes, the bathhouse is a seedy annex between reality and a dark utopia where abject desire and unspeakable acts are the norm. There is an entire culture and code of conduct specific to this vortex, mostly rooted in the act of cruising. This is a world where men nonchalantly scroll left in real life, roaming naked or draped like Greek gods in white towels. They look for sex by way of uninhibited body language, often under the influence of questionable chemical cocktails. It’s a playground born from the repression and rejection of queer sexual desire, where those desires manifest in their most monstrous and debaucherous intensive form. It’s a locale oozing with sticky conceptual possibilities, and New Orleans synth musician Ruth Mascelli finds themself right in the sweat of it all on their latest album, A Night At The Baths.
Mascelli, best known for their work as part of punk rock band Special Interest and for solo projects under the moniker Pyschic Hotline, has recently been branching into eponymous experimentations with the sounds of queer club music. A Night At The Baths follows on from their Gay Bar EP both musically and thematically, continuing their eternalisation of subversive queer underground spaces through the medium of electronica. In the age of Grindr & Tinder, an ode to the scuzzy allure of the bathhouse is a striking thematic concern. This makes for an aesthetically driven dive into the hot tub of queer libidinal excess, told through simmering minimal techno and cloyingly steamy pieces of ambient sound design. Foremost a concept album, A Night At The Baths is a diarisation of the experience of the bathhouse vortex. Each track keys in on a specific moment typical of an after-hours jaunt at the local sex club, beginning at the steam room and ending at sunrise. With blisteringly blunt anecdotal titles, the eight tracks on A Night At The Baths bubble with a carnal swarthiness to the point that you can practically smell the chemical dampness in the air as they play out.
Sauna opens the record with a deep, throbbing darkness that’s at once menacing and scintillating. A propulsive and distorted techno cut, the track features writhing, convoluting synths that recall fractured, glowing beams of red light amidst a dripping fog engulfed room. The manic techno continues on Libidinal Surplus, whose hardcore pounding gesticulates towards the sort of thrusting one may encounter at any corner in a darkroom maze. One For The Voyeurs is a crunchy and cavernous house track which struts with a 90’s runway influenced groove. These thumping clubbier tracks are balanced by the album’s second half, which like a night spent getting progressively wasted, switches pace towards hazier ambient electronics. Circle of Shit is a loopy, psychedelic head rush whose glitchy composition of icy beeps set against rolling, distorted atmospherics stumbles into the Gregorian synth interpolation of Sunrise. The celestial tremble of a shuddering bass distortion envelopes Sunrise’s end. It concludes Mascelli’s journey through the cesspit with half-shut eyes, a glowing horizon, and the existential dread of returning to reality.
The oscillation between guttural techno cuts and celestial ambience finds Mascelli preoccupied with the bathhouse as a liminality. It is no surprise that, according to a statement from Mascelli, “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.” As such, the music here is neither here nor there, this nor that, straddling the intermediate spaces between its core influences. This often gives A Night at The Baths a strangely spectral effect, a distanced examination of the experience rather than a first-hand account. This distanced lens is effective though, as it innately recalls the alienating absurdity of the bathhouse microcosm and its culture of baseness. This is not music about getting fucked, rather it’s music to get fucked to. For this reason, A Night at The Baths is a record that will likely resonate best with those who have experienced the aura of queer sex clubs firsthand. A commenter on Bandcamp puts this best, “My bf has f***ed me to this album at least 5 times this weekend. 10/10.”
A Night At The Baths is released via Disciples. See the album trailer featuring a snippet of One For The Voyeurs below.