Photos By Franz Mahr, Words By Jeb Gavin
Interaction between an artist and their audience can generally be divided into two categories: active and passive participation, or push versus pull. Is the artist driving the interaction, confronting the audience, or does the audience seek out the artistic endeavor? I posit the show Zeds Dead put on at Echostage this past Saturday night falls firmly in the former category- the artist is alive and kicking ass. More to the point, this show gives me hope for a sea change in modern live electronic music.
In the past I have made no secret of my distaste for modern electronic music, particularly dubstep. Albums tend to be a collection of sketches rather than fully formed ideas; a sort of bare bones look at music presented to the audience as a complete work. In a sense this was intentional- albums were more like teasers for live shows stating, “come and see what I can turn an incomplete beat into right before your eyes/ears.” Except the live shows were still plagued with a look-at-all-my-shiny-tools mentality, like the audience is supposed to be impressed by an array of paintbrushes rather than the painting. More and more popular EDM played live wasn’t about the music, which is why Saturday night felt like a shift in a positive direction.
Like their contemporaries, Zeds Dead fleshes out their own music during live shows, except their songs are better formed to begin with, and the expansion of their tracks live doesn’t feel as though it’s done for the sake of cleverness. Their cut of The Moody Blues “Knights in White Satin” becomes a raga, drawing it out into a suite instead of simply blasting the refrain, letting the beat fall off the table and picking it up in another track. Samples are there, songs they’ve used or remixed, but again, knob twiddling is done such that the set scales upward. Themes in the music repeat and are reinforced, the same shudder and pattern appearing and reappearing mixed into clips of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” or Jay-Z’s “”Dirt off Your Shoulder.” I’m so used to modern EDM being a collection of references rather than music played and altered live, it’s the difference between hearing someone telling a joke and hearing a gaggle of idiots quoting Family Guy.
Even the visuals are more effectively orchestrated. Whereas similar shows simply attempt to fry the optic nerve and induce seizures (more often than not, candy-covered kids spasming to garish lights and sounds reminds me of the EDM Pied Piper episode of Samurai Jack from a decade ago), the imagery and lighting of this set added to the themes brought forth. Anime clips cut to dissolve into kaleidoscopes were somehow relevant and impeccably timed instead of just being something to gawk at rather than dancing with your eyes closed. At times the projections were just jumped-up versions of the old Winamp visualizations, but let lag behind the beat briefly, like the visual was somehow reinforcing what you’d just heard (I’m not entirely sure why I find this technique so intriguing but it likely has to do with light being orders of magnitude faster than sound, so subverting the expectation of seeing before hearing makes it all the more prescient.). The best thing I saw was around two-thirds of the way through the set at what was likely the climax. A split second before the drop in the song the lights would cut out, and then flash a brilliant white not unlike a camera flash. Instinctively you would blink, and in doing so the negative image of the stage, the club, whatever you saw was inverted on the inside of your eyelids the moment the music came back. A very simple technique, but timed just right, and used to ideal effect. They were literally putting the art right inside your head.
As I noted in writing about James Murphy’s set the previous night, DJing is live curation as well as performance. It combines some measure of crate digging with knob twiddling, though sufficient expertise in one can mask deficiencies in the other. More so, you’re making a collection of artistic works and attempting to string them together in a cohesive manner. It’s not just, “these are all songs to which you can move your body,” the best DJ sets work as internally supporting, reflexively referencing entities. In recent years it felt as though better crate diggers still had a handle on this, but the live effects crowd let it founder because, well, I don’t entirely know. Style is easier than substance, particularly when you assume style is substance. I gather this is what classical music fans felt like the first time they started hearing three minute pop songs in the previous century, claiming, “these kids are fucking up music itself by not giving it time to develop!” Now I see that attitude is shortsighted, the same way pop music took its time coming back around to album oriented rock and electronic orchestral works. EDM is getting back to a place where big ideas and emotions can be expressed live and in person with verve and wit and heart. It had to get past itself, past the notion that flashy techniques like drops and wobbles aren’t simply tools with which to make more expressive music.
Murphy is the passive side of DJing. His almost mellow by comparison set was à la carte… you just happened to buy everything on the menu. Zeds Dead is prix fixe: the artist is alive and taking an active roll in your aesthetic experience rather than simply suggesting what you should hear. From now on I’ll know not to be surprised when guys not known for crate digging pull out the Roni Size edit of “I Shot the Sheriff” mixing it into their own version of Nina Simone’s “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” For the first time in a long while, I’m excited by the prospect of EDM being more than just spectacle. We should expect nothing less in live electronic music. Zeds Dead managed to invert it once again: substance is now style.