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.

Hear the 5 Most Unforgettable Sets from Ultra 2016

Pendulum on the Main Stage at Ultra 2016. Photo © Drew Ressler/Rukes.com.

Pendulum closing out the Main Stage at Ultra 2016. Photo © Drew Ressler/Rukes.com.

The 2016 festival season kicked off last weekend with Ultra Music Festival in Miami, one of the biggest EDM events of the year. Ultra, rivaled only by EDC in scale and production among American music festivals, boasted a typically stacked lineup of headliners including Avicii, Deadmau5, Knife Party (and Pendulum), Armin van Buuren, Martin Garrix, The Chainsmokers, and many more.

With so many incredible artists playing simultaneously across seven stages, one person couldn’t possibly cover them all. What I can share with you is the experiences from last weekend that I will never forget. This is a list of the five most incredible sets I had the privilege to witness at Ultra 2016. I hope they hit you just as hard.

#1. Eric Prydz

Eric Prydz at the ASOT Stage on Sunday. ©️ J.T. Fales

Eric Prydz at the ASOT Stage on Sunday. ©️ J.T. Fales

Eric Prydz‘s hypnotic, thrumming techno set at the A State of Trance stage on Sunday night was augmented by a typically exceptional light show that gave the music shape and color. It was an hour of pure energy and excitement, propelled by the beats of Eric and his alter egos, Pryda and Cirez D. The set consisted mostly of newer material, such as “Rebel XX,” and, of course, included a few IDs. It was such an absorbing performance that I couldn’t peel myself away from the experience even as friends texted me warning that I was going be late to Knife Party’s mainstage closing show. I just couldn’t imagine being any happier than I was basking in the repetitive beats and dazzling lights of Mr. Prydz as a cold, light rain fell on my skin. By the time “Opus” started nudging its way into the set toward the very end, I knew I had just witnessed the best set of Ultra 2016.

#2. Deadmau5, ASOT Stage

Deadmau5 at the ASOT Stage Sunday. ©️ J.T. Fales

Deadmau5 at the ASOT Stage Sunday. ©️ J.T. Fales

You can always count on a last minute twist or two at Ultra – and odds are that Deadmau5 will have something to do with it. This year, it took the form of an unexpected hat trick by Mr. Joel Zimmerman himself. Already scheduled to perform on Sunday at the A State of Trance stage (a shock in itself, as host Armin van Buuren alludes to in the recording of his set), Deadmau5 was called in to replace the Prodigy on Saturday at the last minute. Then on Sunday, the the Mau5 was briefly trotted out onto the mainstage by Pendulum when they played “Ghosts n Stuff.

While I felt that his Live Stage set on Saturday night was disjointed (the highlight being when he dropped NOISIA‘s searing remix of the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”), Deadmau5 rose to the challenge of Sunday’s performance in the ASOT megastructure. Like Eric Prdyz, Deadmau5 went deep for this set, crafting a delicious techno treat that shied away from his own extensive oeuvre in favor of a consistent, subterranean sound featuring artists like Maceo Plex and Jooris Voorn. (Of course, it wouldn’t be a Deadmau5 set without some conspicuous trolling. He kicked off his otherwise coherent set with a furious metal track, apparently a reference to a joke he’d made on Twitter. Feel free to skip the first two minutes of the recording. Beware also a NSFW rant about 40% through his set when his DJ equipment briefly gave out.)

#3. NERO

Nero at the Live Stage on Saturday. ©️ J.T. Fales

Nero at the Live Stage on Saturday. ©️ J.T. Fales

On Sunday, dubstep titans NERO rocked the Live stage with an electrifying live set, amplified by drum pads, synths, and of course, the live vocals of singer Alana Watson. Despite the relatively simple stage setup (when juxtaposed with the overproduction of the Main Stage, Resistance Stage, and Megastructure), NERO managed to absolutely slay the audience with their signature bassy riffs. This was the rare live set that may even sound better recorded than it was live, as it is easier to tell where the songs were augmented from their studio counterparts.

#4. BOTNEK

Botnek at Stage 7. Photo © J.T. Fales

Squirreled away on Stage 7 was one of the most potent weapons on Friday’s lineup: bass music duo Botnek. Their high-energy, vomitstep set was far the highlight of my Friday at Ultra. Filled with remixes of 90’s throwbacks and dirty, dirty drops, Botnek got the crowd thrashing around and dancing with a visceral fervor. It was one of those special sets where the music wordlessly brought me together with other dancers to rock out to one special song or another, whether it was Botnek’s definitive remix of The Chainsmokers‘ “Selfie,” or an edit of Rage Against the Machine‘s testosterone-tastic anthem “Testify.” At the end, I even heard one dancer wonder aloud that he couldn’t remember “the last time I danced that hard sober.”

#5. SNBRN

SNBRN at the Worldwide Stage on Sunday. Photo © J.T. Fales.

SNBRN at the Worldwide Stage on Sunday. Photo © J.T. Fales.

SNBRN played the Worldwide stage on Saturday in the mid-afternoon Miami light, a perfect setting for the captain of the “sunset house” movement. The only daytime set on this list, this one is a marked contrast to the techno and bass-heavy sounds of the immersive minor-key experiences of Eric Prdyz, Deadmau5, NERO, and Botnek. I was pleasantly surprised by SNBRN’s feel-good set, which was a well-mixed serving of groovy melodic house songs with considerable trap and hip-hop influence, including his hits “Gangsta Walk,” “California,” and “Raindrops.” While the others on this list left me feeling exhausted and fulfilled, SNBRN’s set recharged me and left me feeling good.

Show Review: Madeon’s Pixel Empire Tour at Emo’s

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!).

Madeon's Pixel Empire Tour features impressive graphics that make great use of his stage rig.

Madeon’s Pixel Empire Tour features impressive graphics that make great use of his stage rig. © J.T. Fales

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.)

The Venue

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.

Madeon, a.k.a. Hugo Lerclercq, is the soul at the center of the audiovisual extravagance who generates an electricity all his own. © J.T. Fales

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.

It’s hard to look away from Madeon’s performance. © J.T. Fales

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

Madeon has developed a unique live rig for his shows. © J.T. Fales

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.

Show Review: Infected Mushroom at Vulcan Gas Company January 21, 2016

Thursday night offered a lot of firsts for me: it was my first time clubbing in Austin, first time seeing Infected Mushroom, and first time at the Vulcan Gas Company, one of the few venues here that gets big name EDM acts.

IMG_1325I’ve never listened much to Infected Mushroom, although I’ve heard their tracks here and there over the years. One of the few things I did know about them before the show was how unpredictable their music is, running over genre boundaries like a tank over barbed wire. This promised an interesting show, even if it’s not what I normally listen to. I also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see them after hearing my friend Jon talk about the transcendental moment he experienced when he discovered them in middle school on the first episode of The EDMist Podcast.

The Venue

IMG_1341I was impressed with Vulcan Gas Company. Size-wise, it’s somewhere between a large bar (they all seem to be huge in Texas!) or a medium-large club. (San Franciscans can think of Public Works as the closest analog for a venue, but without the underground feel.) Vulcan is located on “dirty” Sixth Street in downtown Austin, stuck right into the heart of the seemingly endless row of college bars. This makes it highly accessible, especially because Sixth street is closed to vehicle traffic on weekend nights so you don’t have to fight with traffic to get there. I thought the online ticket price of $15 was a good deal, although the $30 price at the door seemed steep to me. Drinks were also reasonable ($5.50 for a gin and tonic), if a little dry. There are two bars in the venue, at which I had no trouble getting a drink. The industrial chic decor meshes well with the building’s exposed brick walls. Glowing columns of lights adorn the walls; I couldn’t decide if they were cheesy or cool. Finally, there is access to a rooftop deck where you can go for a smoke break (for those who partake) or a cooldown from the dance floor, which is definitely a sweet perk of this venue.

The vibe on this particular night was very relaxed, although since it was my first time I can’t be sure if it reflected the vibe of the club, the Austin scene, or the particular fanbase. (Infected Mushroom have been around for a long time and appeal to a crowd beyond the EDM-heads your “typical” dance music duo might draw.) I saw zero aggression for floor space, and there was always plenty of room to maneuver despite a fairly packed dance floor. People upstairs were even allowed to spin hula hoops and glowing poi. (This seemed like an accident waiting to happen but, hey, I don’t run the place.)

The Show

IMG_1306The opening DJ (whose name I didn’t catch) played an eclectic mix of trip hop and engaged the crowd with his own fervent dancing. He was followed up by Ram-Z, who served up the typical palate-cleansing pre-headliner house set that people nevertheless seemed to dig.

While Infected Mushroom are known for their wild stage setup, their performance on Thursday was only a DJ set. The Israeli duo came on at 12:15 to cheers, bringing their signature, genre-spanning sound with them. Early on they lit things up with the Zedd-esque riff of “Bass Nipple” before promising a psytrance set, which is of course the sound that they are best known for. While there was certainly plenty of it throughout the night, I heard influences as disparate as trance, hardstyle, dubstep, and electro mixed (or, rather, smashed) in as well. It was an energetic set whose driving beat switched tempos rapidly throughout the show. The fast pace of the changes kept things fresh and interesting, if a little unsettling. The energy really picked up about an hour after the set began, when the veteran DJs dropped the RIOT remixes of their own tracks “Kipod” and “Fields of Grey.” Both tracks brought the room down with their ferocious dubstep beats. See for yourself in the following video.

IMG_1316While I didn’t personally connect with the set, the crowd was clearly eating it up and I was able to feed off of their positive energy and have a good time. I would probably pass on seeing their DJ set again, but as a big fan of stage shows, I’d definitely give their live show a shot next time it comes around.

The 5 Best Artist Albums of 2015

Above & Beyond at Bill Graham Civic Center. Photo credit: Drew Ressler/rukes.com.

Above & Beyond at Bill Graham Civic Center, San Francisco, in 2015. Photo credit: Drew Ressler/rukes.com.

The best-albums-of-the-year list is as traditional to a music blog around the new year as the ball-drop is to New York City. But it’s a bit of a different exercise in the EDM world, since albums are not a native format for electronic music. EDM as we know it sprouted in the underground, where the album-driven format of the traditional music industry was shunned in favor of sample-heavy, one-off tracks from bedroom producers. It’s only in recent years as EDM has gone fully mainstream that electronic artists have adopted the album as a way of packaging their work. That has led to a new kind of dynamic in the music world: whereas once albums were seen as the baseline for musical legitimacy, now they have become a badge of honor among electronic artists. A producer with an album can say that they dedicated themselves to a long-term project instead of just a string of singles. They can also use the format to show off a deeper artistic vision than they would be able to exhibit through one-off songs.

Consider, for example, two of the artists on the list below. Although Skrillex almost single-handedly lit the EDM explosion in America, it wasn’t until last year that he completed an album. Similarly, Madeon has been a big name in the scene since 2011, and even produced hits for Lady Gaga before finally releasing a debut album this year. Nobody questioned the credibility of either of these artists before they released their first LPs, but now that they have, their brand and carries extra weight and legitimacy.

Interestingly, 2015 seems to mark the first year where you can find electronic artists introducing themselves to the scene through an LP instead of through one-off productions. A prime example of this is another artist on this list, Jayeson Andel, whose album Urban Monks is a stunner of a work, although he has yet to achieve any kind of serious name recognition. This speaks to the increasing dominance of the independent dance music labels, some of whom have now become powerful enough to finance artists in the more traditional way of bankrolling a first LP before profiting off of their later success either as producers or DJs.

Because the role of the album is different in dance music, I actually think the criteria for what makes a good album have been raised. It’s no longer enough just to throw a bunch of cool songs together in one bundle. Nero did that this year with Between II Worlds, and the result is an ultimately forgettable collection of decent standalone tunes, and a significant step down from their whopper of a debut album, Welcome Reality. If producers who take the time to craft full albums want to be seen as true artists, then we need to judge them according to the rules of the art form. And this blogger is more than happy to do the judging.

So, which albums killed it in 2015? I’ve put together a list of my five favorite albums from this year, in no particular order. To make it on this list, each album had to fulfill three basic criteria: Is the album a significant artistic achievement? Does the collection form a coherent whole? And, overall, is the album worth spending some time with (i.e., would I recommend it to non-fans)?

The following albums answer those questions with yes, yes, and hell yes. I hope you’ll give them a spin, support these great artists, both newcomers and well-known heavyweights, and appreciate what they brought to the table in 2015.

The Best EDM Artist Albums of 2015

Above & Beyond, We Are All We Need


Having now built up an empire around the Group Therapy name from their last record (#ABGT for short), the pressure was on Above & Beyond to deliver something as punchy, polished, and memorable for their next studio album – and that they did. 2015’s We Are All We Need is full of arena-sized tunes designed for maximum singalong potential. With knockout favorites like the (almost) title track, “We’re All We Need,” the dark and delicious “Sticky Fingers,” and the radio-friendly “Blue Sky Action,” We Are All We Need stocks the pantry with plenty of treats for fans to savor for years to come. This album was certainly the highlight of the year in the trance and progressive corner of the scene, but also grabbed some mainstream attention with a grammy nomination. I also want to point out that this album is a whopper, clocking in at over 1 hour and 11 minutes long. If you’re going to charge fans a hefty amount for an album, I like to be sure what I’m buying has some value to it, and the prolific British trio have definitely packed in the tunes on this one.

Listen to We Are All We Need on Spotify.

Jack Ü, Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü

This album shares the title of “Most anticipated album of 2015” with We Are All We Need. But unlike A&B, who took their record in a safe and conservative direction, Skrillex and Diplo dropped into the scene like a grenade, introducing wild new timbres and beats that set the EDM world – and mainstream radio – on fire. From the juicy, hollow snares of “Take Ü There” and “Mind” to the sampled and re-sampled horns of “Febreeze” and “To Ü” and especially to the modulated flute-like lead sound of “Where are Ü Now,” the sounds, beats, and textures here are fresh, firey, and a little frightening all at once.

This is of course what Skrillex is best at, and it’s in no small part thanks to his passion for weird, challenging, forward-thinking sounds that the music in our scene continues to diversify and push forward to new and exciting frontiers. When I heard that the OWSLA head and his good friend Diplo, a.k.a. captain of the Mad Decent juggernaut, were teaming up for a music project, I set my expectations high, and I was thrilled to see the breakthrough success these two achieved with this album.

Of course, this epic pairing also smashed taboos by inviting the much-reviled teen hearthrob Justin Bieber to collab with them on the unexpected song of the summer, “Where are Ü Now.” And that song? That song went platinum and also earned this trio a grammy nom. While the song had plenty of detractors, their criticisms seemed to boil down to “It’s Justin Bieber!” I applaud all of the artists involved for ignoring the haters and taking on real musical and social challenges. While it may not have been my favorite music of the year, it’s undeniable that Skrillex & Diplo Present Jack Ü was the defining album of 2015.

Listen to Skrillex & Diplo Present Jack Ü on Soundcloud.

Madeon, Adventure

Adventure is the long overdue debut album from French electro house wunderkind Madeon, a.k.a. Hugo Leclercq. When he burst onto the scene with his legendary live “Pop Culture” mashup video in 2011, it was clear that Madeon was special. Since then, he’s a distinct style that fuses elements of house, electro, disco, and funk to create something bouncy and irresistibly danceable. Adventure is the synthesis of that sound and a manifesto of his signature style. Which means, basically, that it’s great as you’d expect.

Before releasing Adventure, Madeon was able to attain stratospheric levels of fame despite having a very short discography. Singles from him have been as welcome as they have been infrequent. So it was with all the fervor of a Thanksgiving dinner guest that I dug into the cornucopia of music Hugo released this year. Happily, Adventure is not only an excellent compilation of some of the best music we already knew (“You’re On,” “The City,” “Finale”), but introduced plenty of other versatile songs to flesh out his repertoire and discography.

I can’t mention this album without talking about the next-level live show that Madeon gave us along with it. If you haven’t seen the Adventure Tour (now the Pixel Empire Tour), do yourself a favor and buy a ticket immediately. The Adventure Tour is hands down the best show I saw in 2015 and you won’t regret going to see it.

Listen to Adventure on Spotify.

Jaytech, Awakening

This one is so fresh out of the oven you can still hear it crackling. Jaytech’s second album, Awakening, is a solid step up from 2012’s Multiverse, with an altogether more progressive, energizing, and visionary sound. Awakening is a concept album built around the question of what music will sound like in the future. This is a difficult concept to tackle directly (in fact, I’d say Jack Ü’s album is the most wholly futuristic – that is, the weirdest – album released this year). So Jaytech attacks it in a practical way by using a futuristic musical vocabulary to articulate his vision of the world to come. This means that he actually digs back in time to find sounds that promised an exciting future – specifically, back to around 2012, when complextro and dubstep were new and cool and decidedly futuristic. It’s a strategy that works: the outcome is a project that sounds familiar and modern but hints at a world more technological and overwhelming than our own.

The sparky vibe of this album is energized by dubstep-inspired growling basses that add some oomph behind Jaytech’s hopeful melodies, peppered through with complextro accents that recall the glory days of Porter Robinson and Wolfgang Gartner. Many of the track titles imply movement or a journey, which hints at the unique strength that Jaytech brings to full effect on this album, which is that his songs build and climax: each one is a mini arc within a larger story (like, say, books of the Odyssey).

The dubstep undercurrent culminates in the slow and heartfelt “My Heart Goes Out.” As for the complextro flavors, “Future Story” makes heavy use of sidechaining for some solidly pumping synth lines like the best progressive house songs of the early 2010s. The vocalized guitar riffs of “Odyssey” recall Jaytech’s older track “Pyramid.” “Yugen” and “Darkscape” would not be out of place on a Final Fantasy soundtrack. “Awakening” is probably the closest thing to “classic” Jaytech, with some vocals in the background recalling sonic themes used throughout Multiverse.

Two things make this album an improvement on Multiverse. The first is the switch from bouncy reese basses to growly dubstep basses. They add a real grit and energy to the music that propels it forward into the future. Second, while Multiverse certainly had a coherent sound, it was an incestuous aesthetic that trapped itself within the walls of that record, like a too-exclusive niche genre room off to the side of the big room. Some tracks there could serve double duty as singles, but most of them are sort of blah and not really worth listening to outside of the album. Awakening successfully walks that fine line of building a collection that can be enjoyed piece by piece, song by song, but whose beauty is enhanced by enjoying the album as a whole.

If you are looking for a record to give you an optimistic start to the new year, this is the album you want to check out. (And by the way – if you love Jaytech as much as I do, consider signing up to become a patron of his monthly radio show on Patreon for early access to his mixes and other exclusives.)

Listen to Awakening on Spotify.

Jayeson AndelUrban Monks

Jayeson Andel is certainly one of the breakout artists of 2015. When he started getting airplay in support of this album, I couldn’t believe someone with such a lush, soulful, and polished sound wasn’t already standing out among the legions of copycat progressive house songs saturating the progressive podcast circuit today. His debut work Urban Monks is a richly textured record full of deep grooves and delicious trip hop beats. This is straight up groove porn, with bass lines as luscious as a Kardashian booty.

Despite being an instrumental album, the crunching, squelching melodies riding on top of every song nevertheless seem to communicate with all the emotion of a seasoned vocalist. The twitchy, otherworldly electric soundscape of “Follow the Firefly Lanterns” got a well deserved round of heavy airplay on a bunch of podcasts this year, and is a great song to start with if you’ve never heard of this guy before.

With notes of Pretty Lights and Jaytech, Andel’s sound is familiar enough and yet altogether unique and supremely confident. From the childlike optimism suffusing the the opening track, “We’ll Build it Here,” to the reflective arpeggios of the closer, “Awe (Part II),” Urban Monks is brimming with emotion and verdant with sonic scenery, and is worth a deep exploration.

Listen to Urban Monks on Soundcloud.

Notable mentions

Matt Lange, Ephemera

This is a dark, beautiful, and expertly crafted album. I love the consistent feel of the whole thing, and to be sure it’s great to just press play, sit back, and listen to it. That being said, there are a few standout tracks here – most notably “My Love Aside” and the haunting “Inside My Head.”

Listen to Ephemera on Soundcloud.

ArtyGlorious

Consistent hitmaker Arty released his first album this year, and considering the relative diversity of sounds in his extensive back catalog, I was surprised at how well it came together. Full of his melodic, piano-driven tunes, and reinforced by the work of many talented vocalists, this Avicii-flavored album is definitely a delight for the melodic-minded.

Listen to Glorious on Spotify.

DJ Porter Robinson Returns with Killer Set for Monstercat Showcase [Free Download]

Porter Robinson. Photo credit Drew Ressler/rukes.com.

Porter Robinson. Photo credit Drew Ressler/rukes.com.

He’s back. At least, for one set.

Before Porter Robinson was known as the audio-visual creative powerhouse behind the immersive Worlds tour, he was recognized as a DJ of exceptional skill and talent, whose high-energy sets were unmatched in intensity, mixing skill, and straight up danceability.

After his planned show at Digital Dreams was cancelled last weekend, Porter made it up to disappointed fans by returning to his roots for a one-off DJ performance at the Monstercat Showcase Afterparty in Toronto. The set he came up with – filled old and new classics, bangers and downtempo glitchy grooves, and, of course, some throwbacks to your favorite video games of the ’90s – is everything you’ve missed since Porter officially renounced DJing last year.

It’s an eclectic set that was clearly engineered for fans of the Monstercat sound (best exemplified by Haywyre, Pegboard Nerds, and other polished bass-heavy producers who meander somewhere around trap, electro, and drumstep, depending on their mood). Plus, it’s got the deliciously rough touch of a DJ who may have gone rusty, but still knows how to do his job better than most of acts on the mainstage.

Listen to the magic yourself, below, which is also a free download through Soundcloud.

And welcome back, DJ Porter.