In July 2005, I went to Boston to visit a friend from college. That summer, like the one of 2011, is one that I don’t remember fondly. If ’11 was the peak of my post-grad school malaise and quarter-life crisis, then ’05 coming after my first year of college, was an awakening to a world beyond high school. I had mostly breezed through my freshman year, but by the end I felt like I was breaking down after taking medications for depression and being disappointed with some of the spring semester classes.
My ’05 Boston trip came while I was in New England, I think with my family as they were moving my sister into a summer program at RISD, where she would eventually attend college from 2007 to 2011. Boston was an important city to me throughout college, even though I went to school about an hour away in Rhode Island. I went to several Yu-Gi-Oh tournaments there, saw the Celtics victory parade in 2008, and discovered trance music there, during that first trip in July 2005.
Boston that summer felt like an optimistic place. The Red Sox had won their first World Series in forever the previous season, and the Patriots had won the Super Bowl the following winter. The day I went up there was sunny, in the 80s. My friend and I ate at a Chinese restaurant and walked through Boston Common. We stopped by his apartment to get something to drink and watch some TV. From his room I heard music playing – it was “Air for Life” by Above & Beyond, one of the band’s first and most memorable singles.
From that point on, my music tastes started to shift from rock music to trance and EDM (electronic dance music). By 2007 I was delving into Ultra compilations and listening to Tiesto’s albums. I think my peak was in 2008 when I used to listen to a triple-disc Godskitchen compilation in my John St. apartment in Providence while playing Castlevania III on an NES emulator.
The initial discovery of Above & Beyond was the catalyst, though. My interest in “Air for Life” and, a year later, “Good For Me,” opened the doors to many new sounds for me. The band felt like something bigger than trance or EDM. I remember listening to the King Roc Vocal Dub of “Good for Me” one morning while studying Latin at like 7am and it was a nearly religious experience.
Their first album, “Tri-State,” was the first trance/EDM album I ever listened to, which is perhaps strange since it is not exactly representative of the genre. It has 4/4 beats, sure, but it also has piano-laden instrumentals, beatless songs, and alt-rock trappings like guitars and angsty vocals here and there. Their sophomore effort, “Group Therapy,” came out during my low period in 2011 and I never really grew to love it (or maybe I have just resisted it since I associate it with bad moments) despite memorable songs like “Sun & Moon.” Then their “Acoustic” album from last year showed the depth of their songwriting and their capabilities with traditional instruments.
We Are All We Need
Their newest effort, “We Are All We Need,” has been seeping out track by track in their weekly podcast for months now, so there wasn’t that sense of an entirely unknown world opening up that felt when I listened to “Tri-State” for the first time. Still, it feels nearly ironic that an EDM band has made such a coherent and listenable album in 2015, in a genre not traditionally known for its artist albums and at a time when streaming services threaten to commoditize long-form listening.
The title track and “Sticky Fingers” have been concert and podcast favorites for some time now, and their hooks aren’t easily forgotten. While there are plenty of tuneful, melodic trance and EDM songs out there, I often think of vocal hooks as the province of rock or pop music. With these two tunes, as well as “Blue Sky Action,” though, I think of how the experience of EDM can sometimes yield the most memorable vocal hooks, stuff like the verses from “Breathing (Airwave)” by Rank 1 or “Satellite” by OceanLab.
There’s a balance between a unity of feel – that distinctive Above & Beyond airiness – and variety, with many guest vocalists (as is typical on many modern EDM albums, granted). For me, the album plays almost like a best-of from their podcast, which they have done each week for 2 hours for the last 10+ years.
When I was in Boston in 2005, the podcast, then called “Trance Around the World,” was just getting started, and by the time “We Are All We Need” was released, the group had surpassed 550 total episodes – including #ABGT 100 in New York, which I summed up here – between TATW and its rebranded successor, “Group Therapy.” There’s a long continuity to everything Above & Beyond does – they’ve been so consistent and also so different from their peers – and their best work, which certainly includes much of this album, always brings me back to that one day in 2005 when I felt good during an overall bad summer.
The word “Egypt” is European. It is the Anglicization of the Greek word “Aiguptos,” which is turn means “the place where the projection of Ptah manifested,” Ptah being the demiurge of Memphis (a city named by the Greeks, as shown by the distinctive -is case ending) and one of the Neters, or creator gods. The word for “Egypt” literally is just a word for what was mythologized to have happened at Memphis; an entire country was named for one of its cities, sort of like if the word “United States” meant “That Which Occurred at New York City.”
The Greeks’ influence over the English language and over Western ideas is so engrained as to be unnoticeable. Take not only “Egypt,” but also “Asia,” which was the Greek term for everything beyond the known world, east of the Aegean Sea. There aren’t any clear geographic boundaries between Europe and Asia, plus the latter is so vast that its narrow implied meaning in many conversations – it is often just a stand-in for “China and nearby countries,” in the way that the the U.S. is a stand-in for “North America” – is at odds with the area that is nominally encloses.
With names that are themselves generalizations, Egypt, Asia, et al because empty vessels for broad-brushed statements about the economies, politics and cultures of these areas. “The Asian Century,” for instance, is such a general concept as to mean nothing but “even more of the power – albeit the same type of capitalistic economic power – will be concentrated outside the borders of Europe, in this Other that we’ve been building up or millennia.” Similarly, “Egyptian EDM/trance music” often means “music that is made by people from within these geographic boundaries,” rather than music that takes on particular characteristics of the local environment. Generic words are useful for spreading and reinforcing notions of globalization and homogenization.
I thought about the latter case while listening to Aly & Fila’s “Future Sound of Egypt” podcast, which is filled with hours of EDM tracks from Egyptian artists. If not for the voice-over about Cairo being the largest city in the Middle East (another big and vague term), though, one might not have any notion that this music was made in Egypt instead of the U.S. or the U.K. There aren’t any neys or unusual instruments. “Egypt” was originally conceived as a vast yet discrete area, tied to a Greek memory involving just one of its cities worldview, and in EDM at least it is now a country where most of the music is tied to European norms, just as its name and description were and still are.
Aly & Fila are an Egyptian duo that make some of the most melodic, memorable EDM today, in song- and album-sized chunks that more digestible than having to listen to, say, a full DJ set. Their last two albums, “Quiet Storm” and “The Other Shore” are useful introductions for anyone even mildly interested in vocal dance music. Throughout their songs, one can still see the long lineage of that original verbal colonization of Egypt by the Greeks (or even earlier by the Hebrews, whose word for Egypt situated it as the opposite of Israel; but Hebrew roots haven’t come over to English as visibly as Greek ones have).
Their songs are in English, plus many of their vocals are from the British singer Sue McLaren. In addition to being made into a vessel for the world-views of the ancient Greeks and Semites, Egypt has also been the subject of centuries of colonization by countries like France and the U.K., which only ended less than 60 years ago with the Suez Crisis. The cultural reach continues, however, in traditions like the love of football and the integration of English lyrics and album-like suites in the music of Aly & Fila. Listening to the latter, I think of this great quote from the book “Soccernomics,” about the ongoing cultural victories of the British Empire over the American Empire:
“This is a struggle between two very different types of empire: the British (which contrary to popular opinion still exists) and the American (which contrary to popular opinion may have never existed.”
Both countries have contributed to EDM and trance, although other former colonial empires (the Netherlands, for instance, which is the home of Aly & Fila’s record label, Armada, of many famous DJs) have had much more significant stakes in these genres than in Anglocentric ones like rock and hip-hop. EDM is about experience, but it is also about a globalized music industry with roots going all the back to the Greeks’ broad categorizations of countries, continents, and the people who live in them.
deadmau5’s career has been a recurring topic on this blog. I was inspired to write one of my most successful posts ever, about authenticity in EDM, by deadmau5’s occasional orneriness on Twitter and the perception by some amateur DJs that the giant Canadian mouse head guy had lost his artistic integrity by confessing to the “just press play” ethos, whereby a DJ doesn’t mix live but instead uses prerecorded/sequenced material during a live set. I also used the album cover of “While (1 <2)” in a recent post about “greatness,” and deadmau5 is always close to mind when I write about criticism of EDM.
Albums and sets
When “While (1 < 2)” came out in mid-2014, deadmau5 called it his first real album. For sure, it had all the clichéd trappings of an album: crossfaded songs, recurring themes (he had six songs with names corresponding to the Latin words for the seven deadly sins; weird how he didn’t just do songs for all seven), and protracted moods. Plus, it was a double-disc/triple-LP affair – who has the patience for such a collection in the era of Spotify? It was like deadmau5 was doing a rock n’ roll opus.
A big part of what made “While (1 < 2)” memorable for me was how it seemed to filter the spontaneity of EDM – the experience of it – through the lens of art rock, creating something that seemed like EDM on the surface, but had a whole other layer of controlled pacing and experimentation beneath. There were splashes of piano, alt-rock guitars, and even a remixed Nine Inch Nails song. It was an album that basically begged to be reviewed, more so than something like his 2006 debut, “Get Scraped.”
The latter is unique in the deadmau5 catalog, since it seems to be neither a coherent album-like statement nor something that could pass as a mainstream DJ set (like 2008’s For Lack of a Better Name, for instance). Within the first three songs, it goes from an Oakenfold-esque track with radio call-in intro (“The Oshawa Connection”) to a 90s trance revival (“Intelstat”) to a vocoder’d-up acoustic number (“Careless”) which is reprised later with the redundant title of “Careless (Acoustic).” Then there’s “Unspecial Effects,” which has the strings and ominous keys of, say, the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack.
The album, such as it is, has no flow and plays more like a mixtape or an un-danceable DJ set. I mean, imagine going to a club that played “Waking Up From the American Dream,” with all of its sprightly keyboards. Looking back at “Get Scraped” and all of this randomness, it becomes clearer why deadmau5’s later work seems more significant. That is, he’s been trying more and more with each release to create something that pushes back against the free-flow, every listener for him/herself culture of EDM – seen well enough on “Get Scraped” – in which one person’s favorite song is another person’s song that that just gets a press of the “>>” or “next” button because it doesn’t suit the mood.
Albums and criticism
In a way, by going for increasingly coherent albums (“While (1 < 2)” is the peak of this direction) he’s reversing the overall trend toward the removal of the album as the central unit of music consumption. One could easily cut up and scrape up different bits of “Get Scraped” into a more listenable album than the original; not so much with “4×4=12” or “<album title goes here>.” I’m reminded of what music journalist Ned Raggett wrote in 1999, when compiling his list of 136 favorite albums of the decade:
“The album model is not set in stone, but a creation of the technologies and limitations available in the mid-century: how much you could fit on any one side of a vinyl slab, the attendant size of the product and need to create art or design works of that size, and so forth. As much as vinyl fetishists kicked against the compact disc dominance of the last two decades, CDs at least fit a familiar listening model still. The rise of this new model, which like every other musical medium will get increasingly cheaper and with wider access for both purchasing and actual creation of music, is a much different kettle of fish. Uniform ‘releases’ may become increasingly irrelevant when two different consumers judge the same batch of songs from an artist and select only those which please them, and therefore only keep those.”
He also has this great line, which I think sums up well why EDM has so far been a blind spot for critics still obsessed with the album form:
“If, say, live DJing was the backbone of the record industry, it would be the putative norm criticism would react to.”
Would it? I still maintain that DJing and live EDM are much more about experience than evaluation, meaning that criticism would be limited in its application. Still, deadmau5’s career arc seems to be toward cultivating a bigger reputation for himself by making bold album-like statements that cohere and flow. “Get Scraped” was the disorganized, MP3-playlist-like start that allowed for a gradual reversal, culminating in “While (1 < 2).” It’s like deadmau5’s career is an alternate history of what has happened to music over the past 15+ years. Rather than the chaos of going from a mainstream dominated by albums and criticism to one dominated by decentralized distribution channels and playlists, we got order.
Yesterday, Netflix included in my “Top Picks” queue the Cameron Crowe film about rock n’ roll stardom (and journalism), “Almost Famous.” I had already seen it, but, given the recent arc of my blog posts about criticism, I thought I’d give it a second pass. It seemed so dated, despite being less than 15 years old.
Of course, calling it dated isn’t fair, since it is fictionalizing the excesses of a band on the road in the 1970s. The period-piece aesthetics were fine, but what really stood out was the entire mythology around rock music: the preeminence of the album as an artistic statement, the deference to print magazines like Rolling Stone that pioneered rock criticism, the presence of Lester Bangs, etc. Does anyone anymore await the release of a new Kanye West or deadmau5 album, reading the write-ups from Rolling Stone, Spin or even Web-first outlet like Pitchfork before making a buying decision? Did they ever (with earlier artists)?
There is almost nothing as strange about rock music as the criticism industry that grew up around it. The star system (like Rolling Stone uses), the longform essays (a la Pitchfork, esp. in its early years), the constant need to situate specific albums as the “greatest” (Rolling Stone has plenty of these the “500 Greatest ___” lists), and, above all, the amazing blowback that one can get on message board if she questions the “fact” that Pink Floyd is listenable, for instance.
Searching for “[rock album title] review” leads one to a black hole of online magazine write ups that may talk about one or two songs and then editorialize about whatever, plus the usual Amazon reviews. Reading any of these reviews brings out perhaps the most antiquated idea in “Almost Famous”: that one can be a “music journalist.”
Back to buying, though: I remain skeptical that the vast critical arm of the rock n’ roll industry ever made a dent in sales. Just go through any collection of vinyl LPs in a Baby Boomer’s home or at a thrift store – they’re filled with Led Zeppelin and Queen albums that were panned at the time, as well as minor works of Genesis, Jackson Browne and others that didn’t move the critical needle even back then.
However, visit a new age vinyl shop, like Reckless Records in the Chicago Loop, and the setup is a bit different. There’s the Arcade Fire, Death From Above 1979, and other works that have borne up almost completely on the back of favorable indie Web criticism, written by part-time enthusiasts who have about as much acumen and experience as William Miller from “Almost Famous.”
In this way, I think, the flood of criticism over the years (and I admit that I have contributed to it and changed my stance on its value many times) hasn’t been a commercial force so much as a cultural one, in that it has formed divides about what artists it is and isn’t “ok” to like. But subscribing to the idea that Pitchfork or Resident Advisor approved albums constitute an objective outlook on quality naturally requires a strong filter, one that blocks out all the negative reactions and indifference toward said music. Virginia Woolf once hinted at this effect of a surplus of criticism, albeit through the lens of sales; there isn’t a general “opinion” of any work anymore; you’re just as likely to run into someone obsessed with the “classic” Aphex Twin album Classics as you are to find someone who has never even heard of it:
“Now that [the author] has sixty reviews where in the nineteenth century he had perhaps six,” she wrote. “[H]e finds that there is no such thing as ‘an opinion’ of his work. Praise cancels blame; and blame praise. Soon he comes to discount both praise and blame; they are equally worthless. He values the review only for its effect upon his reputation and for its effect upon his sales.”
She was talking about books, which are a bit different than albums, admittedly. The book industry, more so than the music industry, has much more infrastructure in place as far as critical institutions go. It is so hard to even know that a book exists, so publishers and critics have to create an enormous volume of reviews to foist upon the public. Critics can impact sales in ways that they can’t with music, albeit the effect is usually of tanking a book’s sales by simply not even reviewing it rather than trashing it publicly.
Travistan to EDM
There is one exception I can think of where music criticism rivaled book criticism for sales impact, although it occurred on such a small scale. Travis Morrison’s 2004 album Travistan was given a 0.0 (worst possible score) by Pitchfork, causing it and Morrison himself to become persona no grata in indie circles for some time thereafter. Of course, I listened to the album and liked it, which made me think: Why should anyone take a review seriously?
Elizabeth Gumport argued against reviews in a stirring essay a while back, saying that they basically assign absolute authority where it isn’t merited and actively devalue personal experience. It was such a relief, too, that she torpedoed the notion that works must age before they can be evaluated:
“The solution [to evaluation of art] is not to grant distant generations absolute authority when it comes to aesthetic judgments. That would be making the same mistake on a loftier scale – counting on time to tell us what matters. Instead of prostrating ourselves before the future, we should give our own experience its due.”
Whereas the book industry and the rock/indie ecosystem have a glut of reviews, though, electronic dance music has no equivalent. I went to Above & Beyond’s AGBT 100 celebration in New York last October, and the spectacle, like the band’s music, occupied a world in which no one seemed to care how anything would be reviewed, upvoted/downvoted, or given a public lashing in “The New York Times EDM Review” (wouldn’t that be cool).
I have written about the weird place of the album in EDM before, and paralleled EDM to early rock n’ roll. Perhaps the lack of a concrete, digestible artistic unit (like the book or album, as opposed to the sprawling live DJ set) hamstrings any prospect of mainstream EDM criticism, or maybe the genre is just too young (although this issue didn’t seem to hurt rap that much in the 1980s and 1990s).
But I think it’s about experience, in the way that Gunport alludes to. EDM, replete with free-flowing songs and epic running times, begs to be experienced – like meditation, or taking a long walk through one of New York’s parks – rather than consumed in the often strictly evaluative, analytical manner of rock music (much of which is listened to only so that it can be criticized! – an absurdity/non sequitur for the EDM listener).
EDM listeners have made their choices; the Protestant notion of reviewing (read Gumnport’s article for more on this) as an extension of absolute authority just doesn’t exist, since there’s both a more individual, independent aspect of the listening experience (i.e., I’m in the moment) and a collective one (i.e., look at all these other people enjoying this too on the floor). Sure, there are rock concerts and festivals that offer similar experiences – but the artists are often only there because of the criticism industry.
2004 seems longer ago than any other year to me, which I understand makes no sense. How can it seem longer ago than 1999, or 1991, or even 1989 – all years I remember, at least in bits and chunks? Maybe because 2004 felt like a bridge, some convergence of the analog past and the digital future. It was the year I graduated high school and started college. It was the year Facebook was invented, the peak of Windows dominance, the calm before the Apple-Google-let-me-check-my-phone storm. It was a time when there was still hope that George W. Bush wouldn’t be reelected. It was a moment at which I could feel the changes on horizon while being able to look into the past and realize how far away it would soon feel.
It was also the year that Above & Beyond launched their massively successful radio show/podcast Trance Around the World. The show ran for 450 episodes until 2012, when it was rebranded as Group Therapy, after their sophomore album. In 2004, A&B was on fire with songs like “No One On Earth” and “Satellite” (by OceanLab, the combination of A&B + Justine Suissa) that mixed drama and unshakable melodies with EDM churn. 10 years later, they’re more popular than ever – the 100th episode of Group Therapy (and the 550th episode of the radio show overall) was a live set in a sold out Madison Square Garden.
I’ve been fascinated with issues of EDM criticism and have even compiled my own list of A&B’s best singles. ABGT 100 didn’t seem like a time for critical reflection, but in the relatively quiet spot I found at the back of the floor, there was time to think. I appreciated how strands of Cygnus X were woven into Mat Zo, how Andrew Bayer unfurled one vocal masterpiece after another, and A&B’s integration of “These Shoulders,” perhaps Julie Thompson’s finest moment on Anjunabeats. I also got this great photo which looks kinda like Deadmau5 lost in a crowd of ABGT partygoers:
It was all so harsh, yet so gentle. All new, yet so old.