This past Saturday posed a deep quandary for parties interested in electronic music’s past and future shape.
In the blue-corner, the last MoMaPS1 party of the season had a stacked, intriguing lineup. It boasted the toast of the UK’s demented pop scene, Sophie, in a rare, fully lit live performance. It had the dark and sickly sounds of Yeezus collaborator, Evian Christ. And in a late-announced mic drop, it also had international superstar DJ and weird-haired lord of EDM, Skrillex.
But then, in the red corner, was the chance to get an advance listen to Syro, the first Aphex Twin album in 13 years.
So…a mission to take in as much of this as humanly possible in one day was embarked. The notes of a semi-coherent man are as follows.
– It turns out Sophie—He who is not to be photographed by publicist decree—is neither an anime teenager nor a sentient cloud of hamburger emoji. He, instead, is a sort of handsome, pale ginger, with a cascading emo mane. He wore a black coat on top of a black turtleneck, and it was way too humid for that to be even a little bit comfy. Hot pink headphones were his most on-brand accessory.
– His set at this point is mainly teasing the handful of not-yet-actual hits he’s made, teased with extended drones of their noiser components, before actually dropping the song in full. I’m not sure what else he could do. He’s made like 8 songs or something.
– When the singles did finally drop, they were very well received. “Hey QT”, in particular, was greeted with mild chaos among the early-day arrivers. Of those filling the courtyard, the self-selected group fiercely Vogueing on the museum’s top steps were especially emphatic. With a young, Internet-fluent audience, dude’s a big deal already.
– That’s all I got for Sophie!
– Warp Records scheduled a series of listening parties at Williamsburg dance club Verboten so there was a decent lineup time where guest-listed writers, road-tripping die hard fans, and various unsavory others stood outside, so the room could be cleared out from an earlier session. This process weirdly felt like a mid-afternoon IMAX showing, where guys already wearing Avengers t-shirts came fist-pumping out of the 10AM show, promising that Iron Man would be, again, rad. Some gals in Aphex tees were there too, it should be noted. But the ratio was pretty guy-heavy.
– Like with Sophie, there was a proclaimed no-phones policy in effect. Unlike Sophie, there was total darkness, with a couple minimal light graphics.
– The most dominant impression I had was that Syro sounds blissfully unaffected by the whims of current electronic music. All James’ “greatest hits” were present, aka, insane BPMs, squiggling acid house noises, and even a beautiful and ghostly piano outro. There are no big bass drops or anything that might cause you to think Richard D. James might suddenly following trends rather than leading them. Leading them back to 1997, perhaps, but leading.
– James has referred to this as his “most accessible album ever” and that may well be accurate. But we’re talking about a pretty weird discography. There are mangled snippets of vocals here and there, but nothing you’d call a hook, exactly. It does make Disclosure sound like a couple of teenagers in shorts.
– People loosened up over an hour sitting in the dark, or shuffling on the floor. Deep head nodding was the preferred mode as opposed to crazed dancing. One old bald guy was pulling late 90s rave moves consistently throughout, and I was more or less terrified that when the lights went on he would have a “Come to Daddy” video monster face on his head.
(The fact that MTV showed that video usually around 2AM, and you could not just watch it online the next day to confirm what you’d seen, certainly helped the burn into a lot of impressionable young brains.)
– Though it’s difficult to say for sure after one listen several days ago, sans phone-assisted notes, it sounded more or less great. Intense, pretty, and odd in spots, it consistently provides unpredictable changes in structures or tempo, beats shuddering with life, and songs that cut out in unexpected moments of stillness. Very much in the ballpark of My Bloody Valentine’s mbv in terms of a satisfying, if not exactly life-altering, return from a long hiatus.
* But as a side note, can can we in good conscience endorse anything that led Thom Yorke down the rabbit hole to this???
[embed-5]I just don’t know.
– But OK, jazzed up now, leaving Verboten to catch some of Skrillex’s surprise set at MoMa PS1! Let the electronica continuum flow straight through me and into the cosmos!
– Greeted immediately upon re-entry to PS1 by large muscleheads on each others’ shoulders, waving a comically large flag demanding “More Bass” immediately let me know that my open-minded swagger had betrayed me.
– I am not against Skrillex in theory, you guys. I’m really not. I think culturally, that huge-drop, gnawed-wires sound of his will be seen as era-defining in a certain, not-entirely correct way that will nonetheless seem totally correct to future generations who stumble across Spring Breakers on their vidscreens. His best songs, even when they seem gauche or dumb, are vibrant and full of weird ideas. He makes music that has undeniable physical effect.
– That said, the vibe at his live show (or at least this one) was so…Vegas chintzy? The constant pump-you-up ID breaks, where he sounded just like a fairground booth hawker, assuring passers-by that “2 for $1! 3 for $5” is a sweet deal for shooting water in a gross clown’s mouth. Working in memes like “Peanut Butter Jelly Time”, or pap like Toto’s song “Africa” didn’t really strike me like fun, inclusive moments of populist genius so much as irrefutable lapses of good taste.
– Still, people went bananas. Even if I found it tacky, Skrillex’s carnival shtick really did pop the crowd. And maybe, as the obvious fun-havers, they might have been the correct ones. Coming from Aphex Twin, I tried to comfort myself with idea of enjoying something that’s not so eager to please. Except, wasn’t Syro eager to please me, and those from my demographic, specifically? Sometimes a generation gap really slaps you in the face.
– Even in quiet moments of doubt, my mind’s eye is haunted by arms, man, like a sea of so many arms that you could climb to the front of the stage on them, if they didn’t first pull you down to whatever horrible maw it was that lay beneath.
– Maybe those flag dudes were right. Maybe we could have used some more bass.