Palms Trax is a modern incarnation of nu-groove, a lo-fi synth sound with ethereal melodic lines and corporeal rhythms. His work is uncomplicated, demanding only an impulse from the listener as it gets to the point effectively and effortlessly. His releases have been tagged by Lobster Theremin and Dekmantel, where he has made a sizeable impact on both labels with four releases to date. His is a story of an epic rise to prominence in a very short time, but before Palms Trax, there had to be Jay Donaldson. A young music enthusiasts from Saltford, UK, Donaldson’s musical appreciation was passed down to his blues guitarist father and a mother with her penchant for the talking heads. An eclectic musical personality, inherited from his parents, Donaldson’s is a varied taste and through things like his Harangue the DJ appearance for the Guardian and his Berlin Community podcasts, we do get some sense of just exactly how immensely vast his selections can get.
After some early attempts making music under a Drop/Dead moniker, an IDM like sound that did draw some attention in 2011/12, Donaldson eventually moved to London to embark on a music technology course. “I wasted three years of my life” he says in A DJ Broadcast interview. Miking up drums for spoiled rock stars didn’t really appeal to him, but a synthesiser course did stick and was probably quite a significant influence on a young Donaldson, alongside a new internship at Phonica records. “I owe so much to Phonica, and as such have to mention them in every interview I give”, says Donaldson again for DJ broadcast. It’s also there where he would meet and play alongside Jimmy Asquith, the future head of Lobster Theremin.
After a spell hosting events in London called Etiquette, and a trip back home to Saltford, to pay back his student debt, most of which was squandered on Etiquette, he made the move to sunny Berlin like so many of his peers. “There was a lot of grass and people just seemed to be lying on the grass in the sun”, says Donaldson in his” breaking through” interview on Resident Advisor. ”I was like, ‘This seems alright.’ I thought I’d just give it a go.” Not quite as whimsical as all that, Donaldson had a PR job waiting for him on the other side, and a few months on his arrival in the German capital, Equation, too found it’s way out into the world. His first record established something unique in a world consumed by the retro-fitted sound of Chicago functionality and through the course of 4 EP’s Palms Trax has established something that we’ll now try to unravel through the tracks.
The first track to introduce Palms Trax to the world, is also quite different from anything that would follow. A drum-machine jam in the style of Funkineven’s earlier stuff with a simple descending bass-line, it’s only about half-way through that we hear the first melodic synth line creep in, only to retreat back into the mælstrom of jackin beats. Acid grumblings fill the empty spaces between the beats and an abstract synth whimpers somewhere in between, but none of that sweet melodic impulses that define Palms Trax is there.
On the Surface it appears to be little more than a drum machine jam, and we imagine Donaldson hunched over a 808 and 303 for the most part, but it’s more likely that the UK producer is sitting at a desk, with light beaming from a computer screen. “Even if I could ever afford an 808, I’d probably still find a way to make it sound bad”; he explains to Electronic Beats magazine ”so why would I not use these samples that are recorded by a professional that you can rip off the internet?”
That sets the tone for Equation; a polished, masterfully executed dance floor track, where 808 kicks swell in the current of reverb-laden sinewy strings and rubber bass-lines vie for your attention as they ebb and flow through between the beats. It’s the song that not only propelled Palms Trax’ career but also the label Lobster Theremin.
This track is all Palms Trax. Lo-fi, but not amateur, House music in its simplest form, as established by people like Burrell Brothers. The title “Equation” is actually a direct reference Ronald Burrell’s alias of the same name. This is again Phonica’s influence as he explains in an interview from 2014 with Boiler Room.
The success of Equation almost immediately led to this follow up EP on Lobster Theremin. What was evoked in Equation was then ingrained as that unmistakable Palms Trax sound. What makes it stand out from the Nu groove classics of the late 80’s and 90’s? Besides the obvious contemporary production quality, there’s a beat-focus, that goes way beyond Nu-Groove’s simple 4/4 accompaniment. Perhaps it’s because it takes more of a front and centre role. Ye is is a contemporary production technique, but there is something unique to Palms Trax’ use of the snare, sticking its head out from the minimalists atmospheres created by the barely-present synths.
Osiris Resurrected (Palms Trax Remix)
It was inevitable after Equation that Palms Trax would start remixing other artists too. A platform for him “to try different things” according to the breaking through article on RA. It’s here where his diversity really shines through. What was established as Palms Trax, gets completely broken down and finds its way through and beyond other genres, styles and practises. From his darker and denser synth orchestrations for Johannes Regnier’s Hilbert Space to his transient marimba moments for Hivern Discs and Herzel, remixes allowed Palms Trax to explore that whimsical, eclectic side of his musical personality. A youth spent going to see absolutely performance coming through Saltford with his father, resulted in a broad musical appreciation and his remix of Osiris’ Resurrected, with its breakbeats and jungle themes is about the perfect example of his versatility in the production chair.
Sumo Acid Crew
2015, a year after “Forever” and enter Dekmantel, who take Palms Trax into their extensive family, which make-up some of the most significant figures in modern House music. “It feels like a dream come true”, says Donaldson in an interview with DJ Broadcast. “In Gold” is the first EP to make it’s way out and its closing track Sumo Acid Crew, shows Palms Trax retains his unique sound, but with a production aesthetic that’s evolved in terms of experience. A denser textural atmosphere exists, with each part squared away in its designated space. The snares are not as upfront, and the contrapuntal melodies very rarely conflict with each other as much as they did on Equation where everything jockeys for your attention constantly. There’s certainly a growth there, without losing or in any way subverting the Palms Trax touch.
It all culminated to this point, and Palms Trax’ most recent EP for Dekmantel, which came out last year. Fuller, denser, but at the same time more refined than Palms Trax has ever been, “Cloud City” features Moroder-esque running bass-lines, evocative pads and that steady 808 kick that hasn’t left Palms Trax over the course of his career. It leaves with an open-ended possibility of what the future might bring for what is still a producer at the beginning of a career, but as the strings and stabs at 80’s keys can atest for, it could only be a Palms Trax sound.
In the space of four years, Palms Trax has made a significantly impact on modern House music, and has even set a tone alongside similar artists like Fatima Yamaha and Tornado Wallace for what might soon become the sound of House for this generation.