By Josh Hughes
Porter Robinson is the (slightly) more serious auditory equivalent to that one Scott Pilgrim movie. Between the deeply rooted homages to Japanese video games and the surreality that comes with such overstimulating yet tranquil culture, there’s a couple of odd parallels. But where the movie find Jason Schwartzman and Michael Cera battling it out over a pretty obnoxious girl while pixelated coins fly everywhere, Porter Robinson’s new found admiration for a culture that he isn’t inherently part of is more of a distanced joy one feels when introduced to a culture so basically different that everything gets lost in translation (we’re looking at you Bill Murray). But beyond the foreign vocal samples and images of 8-bit waterfalls I think of while listening to Robinson, I just see some 15 years of electro-pop suited towards an EDM mindset. That said, I’ve been curiously intrigued by his music for some years now, and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see him live (not to mention that recent Fool’s Gold signee Giraffage was opening).
To my surprise, I walked into the show with Burial and Actress playing as the house music while rave-bros made their way to the front of the stage. Both those artists utilize a different strategy to creating dream like states while listening: the former evoking a rainy day in London followed by a night in downtown filled with lit up office spaces, and the latter making us feel like we’re outside a club. Anyhow, it was a pleasant and telling start to an EDM show that this wasn’t just about drops and absolute bangers. Opening band Lemaitre actually had a drumset and guitarist, and were pretty much the live band side of electro-pop. Despite some catchy guitar hooks and a 15 minute synth and choral centered epic (!!), nothing stuck in my head longer than the song itself. But it was another preview and warning for the crowd that they shouldn’t be expecting a you-can-only-enjoy-this-on-MDMA-show.
Giraffage made his way on stage pretty efficiently, and went off on a masterful set that got heavier and more intense as it went on. He started mostly with his own songs, only with a laptop and two samplers, set up on a little card table. The backing visuals kept flashing his name in different fonts, getting more sporadic and intense as his set went on (eventually there were pixelated kittens everywhere). The best part of his set was how seamlessly it built up in its 45 minute run. After his trademark chill-step, he gave way to some Rustie, Darq E Freaker, and even a terrifying “Party In The U.S.A.” remix. The climax was very appropriately a remix of the remix to “Ignition”, which is always a perfect way to end a set of any genre.
At this point, cue the rave-bros fist bumping and eagerly chanting “Pooooorrrrrter” in their Hurley tank tops. Once again, Robinson came on pretty quickly and got into a dramatic opening of synths and robotic vocals opening his concept album’s video game styled charade. Just as Giraffage, but even more so, the backdrop for his set was a dazzling display of Japanese indebted and meticulously crafted pixelated stories- reminiscent of, well, a mysterious video game. When the synths finally amounted to something, he opened with “Sad Machine”, a highlight off his debut, complete with a robot duet and super melodic hook. This was a good decision on his behalf- it pleased the entire crowd, and found middle ground between the house bangers of his pre-Worlds material and his M83/Passion Pit/Phoenix/Postal Service conglomeration of synth-pop.
The next four songs, coincidentally, were the only songs I knew super well of his before the show. The Matt Zo collaboration “Easy” is a staple of my Friday night driving mixtapes, and “Flicker” is one of the most cleverly constructed EDM songs of the year. The visuals kept hinting at some overlying plotline, but for me it was more moving as how diluted and mysterious it was. Whether it was the point or not (I mean this guy’s lyrics sound like some inspirational lines once you’ve won the latest Pokemon game), it more wholeheartedly fit with his overstimulating/mesmerizing aesthetic. Back to the video game analogy, as desperately as they try to create storylines, the majority of people skip over it to actually play something, which not only reflects a lack of patience found in our very immediate culture, but also creates a mysterious and disorienting experience. That’s kind of what it’s like listening to Porter Robinson. I could care less about his tiredly universal lyrics that are designed to be applicable to anyone, but it’s the outsider perspective on the experience that makes it all the more curious.
“Sea Of Voices” was easily my favorite moment of the night, a synth drenched ode to driving in a large city at night that takes as much from Mogwai as it does M83. However, that was also the moment I could pinpoint the Ibiza aspiring portion of the crowd grow weary. Someone next to me insisted on headbanging to the entire songs as though waiting for a drop that never really happened. At its climax, sure, there’s a wide burst of drums and bass that pleased everyone, but it seemed to make the whole crowd believe they were experiencing something of more internal value than a rave. The show went on, and after that, I didn’t care for the individual songs as much as the string of transitions and watching Robinson jam out on a drum pad for a while. It was actually pretty majestic.
After going home, I saw a slew of tweets talking about how “poignant and beautiful” the show was, and a significant lack of people talking about the ‘turn up’ value of the night. Coming back to people finding more value in it than there actually was, Porter Robinson actually seems pretty aware of his power as an electronic superstar. While the crowd could’ve gotten the same emotional response at a Postal Service concert, Robinson opened up a world that most of his fans didn’t even know existed. Just as Radiohead and MGMT have done, Robinson is slowly getting people to listen to something that they wouldn’t have on their own. Because of his background, people that listen to Swedish House Mafia and Dillon Francis are getting to hear some nicely produced “Sleepyhead” homages. There’s nothing genre defying or original about really any of his work, but it’s opening up possibilities for the tired state of EDM, and I commend him for that. Not to mention I now have a foggy recollection of pixelated people floating up towards heaven and waterfalls and beams of light when I hear the opening of “Divinity”.