All words: Mitchell London
All photos: Sally Simms
Sunday’s show at the 9:30 club highlighted two leading talents in modern IDM – intelligent dance music – a term which is hilarious for two reasons. First, it is a label that has been derided by about every major artist to whom it has been applied. Second, much of the IDM that is being produced today is strictly derivative of the genre’s forefathers – the finely diced drum sound, for example, has been continued kicking the horse well past its death in 1997.
It seems that for an electronic artist to break through to an audience in this climate, they must do one of two things:
1. Create a huge – preferably enigmatic – personality. See Daft Punk, Justice.
2. Create a subgenre. See Manitoba or the headliner of this show
Jon Hopkins has done neither – his public persona is spectacularly bland. He is a twentysomething white dude from England who wears t-shirts and makes electronic music. As a result, I never gave his music the attention that it deserved. As Gob Bluth would say, I made a huge mistake.
Though clearly ensconced in the Aphex Twin school of electronica and a fan of Four Tet’s ethreal sonic squiggles, Hopkins’ use of dynamics sets his music apart from his forebears. His set, which was seamlessly arranged and thoroughly enjoyable often hypnotized the audience into a false sense of security with expansive and quiet segments, only to ambush listeners with hard-edged bass attacks. [Music Gear Nerd Alert:] My favorite aspect of Hopkins’ performance was how he manipulated his live rig, which was just three Kaoss Pads. He used the three processors to take the hard kicks and buzzsaw synths of electronica and twist them, bend them, occasionally shred them with his hands. After consulting with my friends, who joined me at the show, I determined that 90% of the crowd had no idea what he was doing, but frankly, it didn’t matter. He was dancing around, obviously enjoying himself, and doing something.
I will readily admit my fanboydom with regard to Four Tet. When I first heard Rounds, I damn near lost my mind. Everything about the album sounded so new – it was all electronic and sample-based, sure, but it was so personal. It was the opposite of all of that generic hard bass Chemical Brothers knockoff nonsense; the type of music that plays when you just know Wesley Snipes is going to genocide 50 vampires in a secret vampire club in 1999. It was a personal gateway drug for my continued and escalated interest in electronic music.
This is just to say that the music that Kieran Hebdan played Sunday night was more akin to the vampire killing electronica to the soft and personal kind. There were airy vocal and acoustic samples, sure, and lots of lo-fi delay pedal tricks (far too many, in my opinion), but the set mostly focused on spine-disconnecting, heartbeat reorienting drums and clubby bass. And live performance is not Hebdan’s strong suit. In contrast to Hopkins, who went through pains to make sure that he came across as animated and alive, Hebdan’s connection to his jams rarely manifested in any outward way. The dance moves didn’t extend far past a head bob or a knob twist. The experience was similar to stealing all of your friends’ speakers, setting the bass on your PA to 11, playing a Four Tet greatest-hits mixtape that your aspiring DJ friend put together, and twiddling the EQ knobs every once in a while. As I write that, I have a pretty strong urge to do it – so it was not not fun, per se – but I’m not sure that he earned his $16. “Not everybody can be James Brown/ Janelle Monae,” you may say. And you’re right, but I still think that Hebdan needs at least one baby step in that direction.
It’s important to realize that – despite all of my gripes – Four Tet is still one of the best producers of electronic music in the world today. Some of the moments in the show sent chills down my spine, particularly his transition from recent hit “Angel Echoes” to old-favorite “Hands.” Most of the audience displayed their approval throughout the set with emphatic head nods and loud applause, and a few folks who just got off the boat from Ibiza kept the party alive with dancing that would have them banned from the Ed Sullivan show. Perhaps these guys should have set up a post-show seminar to help Hebdan step his live game up to the next level.