Some of you may think that covering the electronic music scene would be a walk in the park. What could be more fun than going to shows, observing, and condensing the experience for a reader? Well, while the job is enjoyable, it’s simultaneously maddening. As critics, we’re forced to hold strong opinions, or run the risk of committing a cardinal sin in offering a dispassionate, dishonest, or disinterested description of the music we know. It is my firm belief the responsibility of the critic is to offer a bold account, as bold as artists who pour themselves into the music. In other words, as “safe” journalism defeats the very purpose of journalism, the job demands bias, and we’re biased to no end, arriving at the show with concrete expectations, already trying to weave what we see into the panoramic fabric of eclectic, and ever-expanding scene.
The obvious danger here lies in offending an artist by pigeon-holing their craft, and when you respect an artist as much as I expect Emancipator, the stakes are high. Luckily, I was able to speak with Doug Appling, aka Emancipator, before the show, as the pre-show interview provided perspective for this review, a frame of reference, directly formed from what I gathered of his artistic sensibilities in our interchange. Emancipator himself is as soft spoken as his tracks would suggest, a humble man, a meticulous man, who has yet composed some of the most intricate, subtle, and generally, aweing tracks across the spectrum of electronic music, and I can’t now imagine making any intelligent attempt to condense the performance without the input I’ve received.
If you’re looking for that same insight, you can read the full transcript of our interview:
Otherwise, on onto the event itself.
Doors opened at eight, and we saw a short interim period before the music kicked off at nine with our openers, Real Magic and Odesza. Real Magic was a one man band, an artist with quite an original sound, that I’m yet unfamiliar with, which incorporates elements of indie rock into bass-heavy electronica. He played guitar and crooned over his rolling tracks, backing his voice with mellow harmonies which set the tone for the evening.
Real Life’s more laid back set was followed by the high energy DJ duo Odesza. The crowd was now thick before the stage: Odesza have seen a rampant surge of popularity since their remix of “One Day They’ll Know” topped the track list on Pretty Lights’ Color Map of the Sun . Beginning in March, Harrison Mills (Catacomb Kid) and Clayton Knight (BeachesBeaches) will be off to headline their first tour, jumping into night-by-night shows immediately after this little East Coast stint with Emancipator. I strongly suggest you catch them if you’re posted out west this spring; they bring quite the show, operating in the classic two-man DJ scenario, one bringing up the tracks, and the other running effects or playing with the sequencing, ensuring listeners get far more than the typical “play-pause” experience when they’re live. After an hour of Odesza’s quick, glitchy, up-tempo mix, our crowd was adequately exhausted, as tired as you can expect a crowd at an EDM show will realistically get, beyond ready for the downtempo grooves of the Emancipator Ensemble. I can’t help but feel this had somehow all been orchestrated.
At this point, I dipped from backstage, (it was getting a little stuffy) and got down to the floor, where I found myself staring at a multifaceted series of projector screens, which would bear Emancipator’s typical split-brained naturalistic imagery, and the instruments which would grace the Emancipator Ensemble: bass, violin, drums, guitar, and of course, several DJ controllers. The musicians took up a minute later, after a few soft words from Emancipator greeting the crowd and introducing his team, they lighted into several tracks from Soon It Will Be Cold Enough, as promised during the interview.
After a few bars of the first track, after the intro sample cut out, I acknowledged that I wasn’t about to hear the tracks as they were structured on the album. I couldn’t help but feel something lost in these new arrangements, or lack thereof. Now, before you consider nay saying on this naysayer, consider: the strength of Doug’s production, especially on Soon It Will Be Cold Enough, which he composed note-by-note, lies in the attention to detail, not only with the near-perfect mixes of melody, harmony, and underlying rhythm, but also in the intricate progressions that are balanced in time and punctuated with his well-chosen samples. He looped sections for the band and destroyed the old, subtle progressive arrangements, effectively degrading the structural quality of the album. True, people who come to a show to be lost in another world are confused enough to dance in a circle for a drop, or rather, in this case, a new sequence to be triggered, but I’m not, I’m looking for the music to assure me that its headed somewhere, and furthermore, fulfill that promise and take me there.
In addition, outsourcing instrumental parts from controllers to live instruments invariably bore an aesthetic cost, especially at the beginning of the set, before the musicians discovered a balance befitting the listener, and they were hammering out something dense between them, a full sound which masked the symphonic layers of the original tracks. You wouldn’t have been able to recognize any individual track, were it not for the characteristic vocal samples that seemed to bookend them. As such, in his time Frank Zappa extolled the advent of electronic music production. As a composer, he was thrilled to no longer rely on unreliable musicians or otherwise, instruments, to realize his vision. With Pretty Lights, Bonobo, and now, Emancipator all adding live bands to their show, I wonder if we aren’t about to lose the best we’ve seen from these artists, or at very least, the characteristic basement sound of electronically produced music, you know, drums taken from a folder on a computer and effected to perfection. Isn’t it all just a gimmick for the festival stage, or am I missing something?
I don’t know, perhaps producers like Emancipator simply spoil the ear too much with such clean, well-organized studio recordings, or rather, basement recordings. My feeling? In the age of the producer/DJ, who needs to have a band anymore? If I’m sold on a band’s music, I’ll see a band.
However, although I found Soon it Will Be Cold Enough largely marred under these live conditions, (and took it a little personally) the selections from his later albums, Safe in the Steep Cliffs, and From Dusk Till Dawn fit well into the band scenario. In a general sense, these productions have a much more instrumental feel, and exhibit slightly looser structures, which are more conducive to live interpretation with multiple parts. The same can be said for the new material Doug exhibited: a few tracks from an upcoming album. In one case, he even assumed the microphone to bring forth a title, “The Keep”. The show itself was formulated as more of a recital than an EDM event, with pauses between each track (song?) for applause, and to let the band collect. I found this amusing, it felt like a strange perversion a high-school concert.
While all the musicians in the Ensemble were incredibly talented, at any given moment, Emancipator (the man), was the most happening thing on stage. I was captivated as I watched him move around his set-up. He covered several bases, beginning on the guitar, and moving to the keys, and eventually, his controllers. In the earliest minutes of the show, as Doug strummed out a few guitar licks, adding a little emphasis or embellishment here and there, I felt his incredible connection to the score. Doug Appling knows his music, I thought, is his music, inside and out. From then on, I observed that whatever he was doing at the time was the most “on time” aspect of the mix, and thus the best time of the show consisted of him hitting pads and getting rhythms together. People were going nuts, and I found myself laughing at the contradiction between his nonchalant pad-tapping and the all-out breakdown on the floor. Sure, Doug Appling pressing buttons may not look like much, but it sounds great.
The best thing about Emancipator lies in his across the board fluency with musical styles. He’s a man who understands that although this is an age of “sexy drum music’, everyone still loves a violin, and while I’ve never seen anyone get nasty at the philharmonic, I’m sure that’s what he probably had in mind when he originally sat down at the computer to make a track. Anyway, Doug is a self-proclaimed and otherwise proficient mash artist, who prides himself on far more remarkable genre collisions than the dubstep/drumstep battles the blogosphere argues to no end. I look to the stage and I get it. Here he is, testament to the essence of his craft, testament to himself, orchestrating an ensemble at an EDM show.
Again, I laugh, it’s almost like watching Vivaldi hit pads, and I can’t help myself. I get down.
Electronic music is the only art form that has given me unrelenting hope for the survival of our species. I study criticism in the north country and track the scene in an effort to put to words the familiar feelings that escape most of us and are reduced to terms of “awesomeness.”