French electro-house DJ and former teenage prodigy Madeon visited Austin last Friday on his Pixel Empire tour, the most recent incarnation of his immersive live show originally known as the Adventure Tour. I was fortunate enough to witness the debut performance of the Adventure Tour at the Warfield in San Francisco last year, so I was looking forward to seeing how much had changed in the intervening year (and 1,500 miles!).
The answer is: not much! Apart from some new material and some token trap beats thrown in here and there, the show sticks with pretty much the same live setup and feel as the Adventure Tour. This would be disappointing if I didn’t already think the Adventure Tour is one of the best EDM experiences you can spend your money on outside of a festival right now.
Because there’s no denying it: Madeon (a.k.a. Hugo Lerclercq) has not only created a dazzling, slick, powerful stage rig that leaves you feeling guilty every time you pick up your phone to take a picture; he has also developed a level of showmanship and verve worthy of a veteran rock star. (Oh, here’s your obligatory reminder that the kid is only 21 years old.)
Emo’s is a large boxy space, something like a warehouse, located in the Riverside neighborhood of Austin. It was my first time there so I can’t compare the atmosphere to that of other EDM shows at this venue, although the people around me in the 20-minute line kept mumbling that this was the biggest turnout they’d ever seen for a show at Emo’s. That as may be, the space was big enough that, there was still plenty of space for shuffling in the back.
The diverse crowd was relaxed, with people wearing everything from collared shirts to sweatpants. I spent the first half of the night on one side of the room, where I gradually realized that the sound quality was impaired. After I moved to the back-center, the show sounded much clearer, and hit much harder.
A Pixellated Adventure
Despite the new name, the Pixel Empire Tour is substantially similar to the Adventure Tour I saw last year. The stage is exactly the same, and since Madeon hasn’t actually released all that many songs, you’re guaranteed to hear all of his hits (“You’re On,” “The City,” “Finale“… you know the rest). That being said, Hugo dropped at least two new tracks for us, which while not particularly mind-blowing, at least held up to the standard of the rest of his oeuvre. (A Youtube tipster calls one of them “Albatross”.)
What makes the Pixel Empire/Adventure Tour stand out among the many EDM tours going on right now is the many live elements Madeon brings to it. At the heart of the show are the Novation samplers that made Madeon famous in the first place, which he uses to delay, stutter, rearrange, filter, and generally explode his songs into echoes of themselves. Hugo showcases his remixing skills in the live mashup of his first hit “Pop Culture,” which throws in 42 samples from well-known pop songs. The impressive act demonstrates his ability to turn even dry old material into juicy, exciting new flavors. I also noticed his presence on the keyboard much more prominently this time around (although whether there was actually more of it or whether I was just more aware of it I can’t say for sure). These kind of live elements make every night unique, and in a culture where DJ’s just “press play” even (and especially!) on the biggest stages in the world, seeing a musician perform live music and mashups over his own tracks is refreshing.
But the true soul of Madeon’s show is the man himself. Hugo is a small, skinny guy, but like Freddie Mercury, he turns his lithe, little body into an asset on stage. You can see the passion radiating from every inch of Madeon’s body as he jumps, spins, and reaches toward the ceiling. He is as in tune with his own music as computer with its CPU; as the music rises, drops, and bends, so does he, an avatar of his own sound. One tiny example of this was when the screen behind him quickly went to black, as if a curtain had been dropped over it, just as the music went quiet for a moment. As the light moved down the screen, so did Madeon’s hand in front of it, like he was going down with it, or even pushing it himself. It was an effect that lasted maybe half a second, but it’s the tiny, perfectly synchronized details like this that make his show so captivating.
I noticed an overarching story as the graphics evolved over the course of the show from large two-dimensional pixellated displays to ever-finer boxy images and eventually three-dimensional shapes, landscapes, and more traditional animations. The fantasy worlds depicted onstage very clearly resemble those of Porter Robinson‘s Worlds Tour, but this isn’t surprising given the duo’s close ties and perhaps decade-long association. His other biggest influence, Daft Punk, is equally as clear in the Pixel Empire tour, as samples of and homages to the robot duo’s electro-house backcatalog are scattered like easter eggs throughout the show.
Worth Seeing A Second Time
If you’ve already seen the Adventure Tour, this show won’t be a surprise for you. But I personally think it’s good enough to see multiple times. We’ve all been to shows where DJ’s play the same sets you saw them play a few weeks or months ago, where you find yourself asking what you just paid for. With the audiovisual extravagance of the Pixel Empire and Adventure Tours, Madeon has given us a special, unforgettable experience that is worth revisiting for the energy and the details.