What We Missed About Mat Zo’s ‘Self-Assemble’

MatZoSelfAssemble

When Mat Zo unleashed his sophomore album on March 25th, 2016, I thought I had the thing figured out after the first few listens. Self-Assemble is pretty clearly a career manifesto. After struggling with opportunistic labels who valued output over creative vision, and genre-obsessed fans who demanded he conform to a single sound, Mat Zo grew increasingly frustrated by the pressure of what people expected his art to conform to. In 2014, he launched his own label, Mad Zoo, which he used to release this album and show the world that he was versatile and ever-evolving producer. Self-Assemble tells the story of that journey, beginning with the title which hints at his hard-won independence.

What I have come to understand in the year since is that Self-Assemble is also a musical self-portrait. At turns cynical, uplifting, paranoid, self-effacing, and abstract, its facets reveal a picture of an artist who has never come to terms with his own image. For Mat, whose real name is Matan Zohar, this album is a coming out – his first confident introduction to the world. Since we’re coming up on the anniversary of the record’s release, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit this career-defining LP and understand the story we may have missed the first time.

Damaged, and in Control

As with life itself, the album kicks off with a Big Bang. “Order Out of Chaos” atomizes any sonic world the listener just came from, and rebuilds a new one in its place – Mat’s world, a melancholy place full of uncertainty and confusion. A lonely, delicate, theme emerges – perhaps the first radio waves of a new, intelligent civilization? Or else the gentle pulsations of a human heart as it stumbles through the bewildering process of formation and into self-awareness. Besides setting up the musical story, “Order Out of Chaos” serves another purpose by establishing Mat at the outset as more than a musician and producer – he can now claim to be a bona fide sound designer.

As “Chaos” recedes, the album resolves into the first proper song of the journey, “The Enemy,” featuring Sinead Egan. I think is the most telling track of the album in terms of understanding Mat’s paradoxical outlook on life. The narrator starts brightly:  “Look at the sky and I think, we’re nowhere too.” But before she can take another breath, the thought curdles: “All I see is beauty, so why, why can’t you?”  In other words, it’s not that we can’t recognize the inexpressible beauty of life; it’s just that our humanity tends to get in the way of our being able to appreciate it. We see this right away when she sings, “So live your life of judgment, stereotypical mankind!” I especially love the irony of the singer decrying a “judgmental” human race while at the same time dismissing the entire species as “stereotypical.” I’m not sure what Mat’s involvement with the lyrics was, or if he’s even aware of the irony in these opening lines, but I read the narrator’s instantaneous disillusionment as a metaphor for his own tendency to let his cynicism get in the way of his own happiness.

In “Smacked Up On Jack,” Mat most directly comments on his own mental health. Over a sluggish, dreamy background, a voice sings, “They said I got bipolar, I’m schizophrenia, and I suffer from… what do you call it? Paranoia! I am crazy. But I’m a nice crazy guy!” Although this sample comes from a homeless man, rather than the 26-year-old British producer, it speaks for the artist, who has been honest about his struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. What I like about this sample is that comes out not as an apology, but a statement of identity. Not everyone has all their screws in place, and that’s okay: It’s often the “crazy” ones who speak the greatest truths… and create the most beautiful art.

Patterns Emerging” returns us to the story from the introduction. Somewhere in the void, a melody begins to emerge. It’s new to our ears, yet somehow familiar. This could be because the chord structure evokes some of Mat’s earliest and most beloved songs (particularly “Rush“). As an artist, Mat first found his voice on Anjunabeats, when he released a succession of trance songs whose bittersweet chords endeared him to thousands of fans. But that Mat was young, uncertain, and unrefined. Just as it took him several more years to find his voice (in this very album), the melody we first hear in “Patterns Emerging” takes some time to come into its own.

Eventually, that melody reemerges, fully formed and self-possessed at last, in the most important track on the album: “Stereo No Aware“. Beginning with the ghostly echoes of the Bing Bang from “Order Out of Chaos,” the soundscape soon resolves into the frail but hopeful tweeting of what I imagine is Wall-E on his deathbed. After the vignette is interrupted by a series of bass-powered explosions – a signature Mat Zo element I like to call “bass bombs” – the tempo and tension ratchet up, promising a monstrous release. In the final quiet moment, the warbling of the dying machine meets the grisly roars and glitchy squealing that have been threatening its peace. The whole thing culminates into in a classic-style trance anthem, before falling apart once again at the hands of one final, decimating bass bomb.

Stereo No Aware” could stand alone as a self-contained story. Wordlessly, it tells a complex tale, zooming between sonic worlds like an intergalactic spaceship, from music concrete to electro to trance and beyond. But its crucial positioning at the heart of the album amplifies its message by delivering on the promise of “Order Out of Chaos” and “Patterns Emerging.” We understand it as the culmination of the story, as well as Mat’s personal and professional journey. In this piece, Mat demonstrates his mastery over the genres to which he was once bound. No longer a slave to trance music, he can now deconstruct its conventions and supersede them.  When it suits him, he will make use of the elements that serve his purpose, like anthemic chord structures and a simple four-to-the-floor beat. But when it gets in the way of his vision, he can do away with the other genre fixtures that constrain his creativity, like dancefloor-ready song structures, or traditional trance-style kick drums. The music is his to mold.

For now, anyway. The title of the song is a pun on the Japanese term mono no aware, which very roughly translates as “a sensitivity to ephemera” – or an acute awareness that all things must pass. While the rich sound design speaks of a confident producer who knows exactly what he’s doing, the melody tells a different story. In it, we hear an uncertain voice teetering on the brink between hope and despair. Though it goes on for nearly six minutes through several distinct movements, the song never actually resolves; instead, it blows itself up in a suicidal spasm.

When the smoke clears, we hear a familiar voice on “Too Late,” as Sinead Egan picks up the story from where she left off on the second track. In a clear answer to the optimistic opening lines of “The Enemy,” she now sings: “Look out the window, all I see is rain. And I whisper, calling out her name.” Regretful and forlorn, the woman who accused “stereotypical mankind” of “living a life of judgment,” perhaps now realizes how her own prejudice prevented her from appreciating the beauty she once could see. Underscored by a rote, trap-influenced progression, she seems both resigned and defiant in her new identity. The climax is everything you could ask for at a mainstage festival performance, with operatic backing vocals that evoke apocalyptic images. Mat has seen his career blow up at least once, after waged a days-long twitter war against such figures as Diplo, Armin van Buuren, and Markus Schulz. I imagine this to be the soundtrack behind those moments when he has been forced to confront the consequences of his choices. “Is it too late? Am I too late? Why can’t forever last? Why can’t we change the past?” But Mat is not the type to pine for a world that could have been. It’s a rhetorical exercise, and one that only leads to greater resolve. “I know we can’t change the past,” Sinead concludes, as the song dissolves into the final track of the album, the somber and reflective “Last Transmission.”

At the end of the album, we’re left with a map of Mat’s career, tracing his formation from a budding producer to a skillful sound designer and genre-blending artist. But we’re also shown a portrait. Abstract, abrupt, and drawn from disparate elements like a Picasso piece, it is nevertheless more beautiful for its inconsistencies and imperfections. Mat Zo isn’t here to create for you the soothing images of a Bob Ross painting any more than the tired conventions of a trance song. He’s here to show you all the pieces of himself, whether you like it or not – now that he’s finally assembled.

Show Review: Delta Heavy at Kingdom February 2, 2017

On Thursday, I had the pleasure of catching one of my favorite acts play at Kingdom in Austin. Delta Heavy is a UK based duo who trade in drum and bass and dubstep. After years of touring, they put out their debut LP, Paradise Lost, on RAM Records last year.

I had high expectations for this show based on my previous experiences with these guys. I first caught them at Electric Zoo festival in New York in 2012, where despite combatting technical difficulties, they threw down a wicked set in one of the riverside stages. When I saw them the second time, in 2014, they opened for Sub Focus at the Regency Ballroom – and blew his set out of the water. That was one of the best shows I have ever been to: they kept me thrashing to the music for the entire set, barely letting up for a minute to let me catch my breath.

Kingdom turned out to be a great venue for Delta Heavy. The Thursday night show drew about 100 people, all of whom were psyched and ready to get down to some filthy bass music. I prefer smaller shows like this at Kingdom because it gives you room to rage with your friends without having to worry about getting in other people’s personal space. The crowd who showed up was exactly what you could hope for – diverse, excited, and ready to work that dance floor. As the opener DJ laid out a high-energy drum and bass set sprinkled with throwback favorites like “Bulls on Parade” by Rage Against the Machine and Madeon‘s remix of Martin Solveig’s “The Night Out”, the crowd kept the energy up and the good vibes flowing, setting the mood for a fantastic night.

When Ben Hall from Delta Heavy took the stage around 12:30, you could feel the energy in the room amp up another notch. He kicked things off with a strong serving of drum and bass, and quickly dispatched with their classic remix of Nero’s “Must Be the Feeling” – possibly their best known song, even five years after its release. Keeping it in drum and bass territory for a while, Ben rolled out songs from The Prototypes (“Pop it Off”), Metrik (“Worldwide”), Zomboy (“Like a Bitch”), and of course, Skrillex (“Ragga Bomb”). From their own catalog, Ben played “Bar Fight”, “Kill Room”, and a bootleg of Zhu’s “Faded”, among other tunes.

About an hour into the set, he brought the tempo way down, making space for Flume’s “Say It” as well as DJ Snake’s “Propaganda.” At this point, I felt that the set started to lose focus. Between the shifting tempos and beat, some of the energy in the room seemed to burn off, and thanks to a few too many breaks, my thoughts started to drift away from the dance floor.

Nevertheless, I  came home glowing from the set (and, no doubt, the endorphins from a hard workout on the dance floor). Delta Heavy remains high on my list of favorite DJs, and I’ll definitely be catching them again as soon as I get the chance.

Must Listen: No Mana, Game Over EP

In the last few months, a mysterious artist by the name of No Mana has started to make appearances on all of my favorite podcasts, including The Hot List with Aruna and Group Therapy with Above & Beyond. The polished, dark sound of his tracks caught my ear and led me to his recent Game Over EP, out on Mau5trap. Each song on  the record is equally strong and strikingly different, from the deep, techno beats of “Ten” to the fragile atmosphere of “Frozen Fireworks.”

No Mana’s dark, throbbing, textured sound incorporates elements of techno, progressive house, and video game music. His style sits somewhere between Deadmau5, Matt Lange, and Jerome Isma-Ae, so it’s only natural that he’s been snapped up by Mau5trap records.

It turns out that No Mana has a solid size discography behind him, despite only recently bursting onto the scene. I’m looking forward to digging further into his catalog as this up-and-coming producer continues to make a name for himself in the dance music scene.

 

The EDMist Podcast Episode 05: EDM Podcasts Collide! feat. Tony N

When I began The EDMist Podcast, there was only one other “talky” podcast out there about dance music. It was reasonably titled The EDM Talk Show, and hosted by a Dallas resident named Tony N (later cohosted by Dee Cardier). Since 2015, our shows have existed in parallel, catering more or less to the same audience of dance music fans looking for a place to geek out and talk shop with other fans (although I have tried to carve out a different narrative space and style so we aren’t stepping on each other’s toes).

In Episode 5 of the EDMist Podcast, these two shows finally cross paths! Tony and I got in contact on social media a few months ago and developed an online friendship. Since we both live in Texas, we’ve been trying to get together for awhile. So when Tony got tickets to see Bondax play at Kingdom here in Austin, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for a collab. He swung by my apartment to record before the show.

J.T. and Tony at the microphone recording episode 5

Tony swung by my apartment in Austin to record episode 5 of The EDMist Podcast back in August.

I think this will be a particularly interesting episode for regular listeners of The EDMist Podcast and The EDM Talk Show. It was fun for me as a listener of Tony’s show to turn the microphone on him and learn about his musical background and tastes. As a new Texas resident, I’m still learning what makes each city here special, so I asked Tony to talk about the particular dance music scene in his hometown of Dallas. And since Tony leans much more towards the deep house and techno end of the spectrum, at the end of our conversation I asked him to share his experience of Movement festival in Detroit, a mecca for techno fans.

I hope you all enjoy the episode as well! Let me know what you think on Twitter.

FEATURED MUSIC:
1. “Flashback (Eric Prydz Remix)” – Calvin Harris
2. “Giving It All” – Bondax

 

After Orlando: Overcoming Hate Through the Radical Act of Dancing

The Austin Vigil for Orlando outside Austin's gay clubs, June 6th, 2016. © J.T. Fales

The Austin Vigil for Orlando outside Austin’s gay clubs, June 6th, 2016. © J.T. Fales

In Orlando, Florida, this weekend, hundreds of people went out to a local gay nightclub called Pulse. They did it for the same reasons we all do: to enjoy great music, to spend time with friends, to express themselves, to meet new people, to feel welcome, to find lovers, to laugh, to sing, to dance. And for those same reasons, dozens of these beautiful individuals were brutally maimed and murdered.

The queer community is beside itself in pain today. The electronic music community should be too.  

The terrorist’s message is clear: We should be afraid and ashamed to express ourselves so freely with others. But our message is stronger: that there is no place in the world we should feel more safe and proud to be.

Employees from Pulse Nightclub celebrate Pride in 2013.

The Queens of Pulse Nightclub at Come Out With Pride 2013. Photo by Jeff Kern from Orlando. CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To my straight, cisgendered, sympathetic friends, who may not feel personally victimized by this violence, I want you to realize that the attack on Pulse was not just an attack on the gay community. It was an attack on the dance music community.

To be clear, many communities were targeted and devastated by this attack: Gays,

Boyfriends Juan Guerrero and Christopher Leinonen. Juan was killed at Pulse, and Christopher is unaccounted for. Christopher (Drew) is a member of the EDC Gays group on Facebook.

Boyfriends Juan Guerrero and Christopher Leinonen. Juan was killed at Pulse, and Christopher is unaccounted for. Christopher (Drew) is a member of the EDC Gays group on Facebook.

Hispanics , Floridians, young people, tourists, Americans, and more. The loss and pain of the many groups, many individuals, who have been psychologically wounded by this violence is real and worthy of empathy and compassion. As a gay raver, two communities that form the basis of my identity were targeted by this attack. As so many of my friends grieve and rage on social media, I want to use this space to address how we can process and overcome what was done to our brothers and sisters Orlando, and to our sense of safety and security in our public gatherings.

Raves are queer events.

First, let me say that our dance music community, our EDM community, is real. It is an identity. The motto of this blog is “One beat, much love.” Though we dance to many genres of music from trance to house to hardstyle to drum and bass, we are united by our respect for each other, our love of music, and our love of dancing with others. We believe in the power of music to make us happy and express our emotions. We believe in the right of everyone to express themselves, through speech, appearance, and action. We believe in Peace. In Love. In Unity. In Respect.

These values don’t come from nowhere. They come from the scene the music was born in. The queer scene. The sweaty warehouses of Chicago, Detroit, New York, where gay people, brown people, outcasts, and outsiders, gathered together in solidarity to celebrate life with each other. The same scene that lives on today in LGBTQ nightclubs, bars, and establishments across the country and world. The same scene that was pierced with bullets at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

This is why raves are inherently queer events.  Just like pride festivals, they preach radical affirmation and acceptance of all. They say: Come as you are. Come as who you are. Come as who you need to be. We accept you. They are a political act of resistance to a culture that raises us to feel shame when we do not conform to arbitrary standards of what is proper and normal.

And dancing itself is a radical act. By coming together in public to move our bodies and embrace each other, we manifest our own values and create the world we wish to live in.

After Orlando, we are in pieces. We mourn. We grieve. We look for meaning. We ask, what do we do now? What can we do now?

As a community, there is one thing we can and must continue to do to resist and overcome the terrorism perpetrated against us in Orlando.

We dance.

Pride flags outside Austin's gay clubs, June 6th, 2016. © J.T. Fales

Pride flags outside Austin’s gay clubs, June 6th, 2016. © J.T. Fales

To dance is to celebrate life, sexuality, freedom, identity. I personally believe it is the literal purpose of life: To be present with friends, in a safe space, engaged, stimulated, loved, is all any of us can ever hope for.

The attack in Orlando was a truly horrific act of evil, on a scale we have hardly ever experienced. I do not mean to diminish what occurred.

But as we search for meaning from this event, I want us all to remember a few things. Our community is made of millions of loving, well-intentioned people, who enable us to be the most authentic versions of ourselves.

We pity the attacker, and those who would do us harm. While they may loom large in our minds, for a time, especially on a week like this one, we must remember that they are the ones who are afraid of the lives that we live. They are motivated by fear, by disgust. They are literally animated by the values that we reject when we come together in self-acceptance to display and enjoy our bodies together.

As we millions dance every night, we make the world a better place. As we bring others into our community, we spread and strengthen our values. As we continue to do this in the face of threats and attacks, we drown out the empty words of hate and overcome them with compassion.

We cannot prevent every attack on our community. But one terrible attack cannot and will not destroy our values of radical acceptance. It reminds us of the beautiful world we are building with each embrace, each kiss, each sway of our hips.

We will continue to live our truth out loud, together. Tonight, for Orlando, we dance.

Ten Years Ago at Coachella, Daft Punk Changed the World

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Daft Punk performing with their pyramid stage in 2007. Photo credit: Minyoung Choi.

This weekend marks ten years since Daft Punk debuted their pyramid stage at Coachella music festival, according to Magnetic Mag. Many people believe this is one of the most important electronic music performances of all time, so I wanted to take a moment to recognize the impact of that show on the scene we know today.

(Watch this article as a Snapchat story:)

Back in 2006, electronic dance music was a primarily European phenomenon, Coachella was a rock festival, and Daft Punk were nowhere near the household names they are now. That year, they kicked off their Alive Tour with a single US date at Coachella’s Sahara stage – a tour that is regarded as one of the most influential dance music shows of all time. So what made it so outstanding?

Even by today’s standards, in which dance musical geniuses like Porter Robinson, Madeon, and Zedd have put together sensually stunning audio-visual tours, the incredible effort Daft Punk put in to their live show and their live rig to create such a unified theatrical experience stands out. (There’s a reason those artists invoke the robots in their own shows.) By 2006, Daft Punk had already released 3 studio albums and were well known among dance music fans. But what they did with their live show was to present something that transcended the music of their records. Using samplers, keyboards, and other tools, Daft Punk transformed their back catalog into remix fodder to create an entirely new catalog of music.

The new music was brought to life through the complex rig they had assembled, known as the pyramid. The pyramid included an intricate light setup that gradually evolved over the course of the set, starting out in black and white before expanding to include dazzling color. Unfortunately, because it was 2007, much of the video that survives of the tour today is relatively low quality, and no official recording of the performance was ever offered by the band. That being said, much of the power of the performances of that tour is evident even in the relatively low quality videos available. I recommend watching the embedded video at its original size, NOT fullscreen, for the best experience.

Daft punk’s performance is recorded on their Alive 2007 album. If you haven’t ever heard that album, I suggest taking an hour to listen to it start to finish, keeping in mind that much of what you hear was sampled in real time. In today’s world of “just push play” sets,” that stands out as an achievement in itself. It’s a marvel of a remix album, and one that retains its stunning freshness even a decade later.

Alive 2007 was and remains one of the most life-changing albums I’ve ever listened to, and Daft Punk’s efforts as recorded in these videos continues to set the bar for outstanding performances, even a decade after its debut. Make sure to watch the video below for a sense of the magic that went down way back in 2006.

Find Me At Euphoria Festival in Austin This Weekend!

EuphoriaE_ntranceThis weekend I’m at Euphoria festival in my hometown of Austin, TX, to see Above & Beyond, Eric PrydzDillon Francis, SNBRN, and many more excellent artists. Day one is done and was a great start to the weekend. Make sure to follow me on snapchat (username: theEDMist) for the live story.

Mainstage at Euphoria festival in Austin

Mainstage at Euphoria festival in Austin

And, of course, say hi to me if you see me inside the festival for some freebies! You can spot me by my new dinosaur friend, Max, who rides on my back. Like me, Max is a vegetarian with a very long neck. His favorite music is dubstep. (Thanks for all the name suggestions, snapchatters!)

Find me inside Euphoria for free wristbands!

Find me inside Euphoria for free wristbands!

See you soon at Euphoria!