by Gary Suarez
Digital/Divide is a monthly column devoted to any and all genres and subgenres in the great big beautiful world of dance music.
EDM is one of the few scenes where looking a bit like a clown can give you a leg up. From deadmau5’s grinning rodent dome to Skrillex’s post-post-post-hardcore hairdo, sometimes a cheap gimmick helps you get ahead, just like Sondheim’s strippers advised in the musical Gypsy.
At first glance, the Stay Puft facade of Marshmello might seem off-putting. Yet despite having rather seriously garish taste in headgear, the anonymous DJ/producer actually has more in common with forward-thinking maximalists Hudson Mohawke and Rustie than stadium EDM-ers Borgore and David Guetta. Look no further than his full-length debut Joytime [Joytime Collective], a delightfully candy-coated escapade that challenges commercial dance music standards while embracing its sometimes unapologetically cheesy history.
Marshmello has an uncanny knack for Eurodance transmutation, keenly updating the stabby synth melodies of La Bouche and Real McCoy with ultramodern bass drops and intangibly euphoric flourishes (‘Kknow Me,’ ‘Show You’). You’ve heard these melodies before, tucked away in your childhood memories of the 1990s and early 2000s, or by way of your formerly hip young parents. “Find Me” is driven by a brisk 2 Unlimited-esque melody, while “Take It Back” beeps and trills like a rabid old Nokia ringtone. But somehow the man pulls off these homages without taking listeners on some boring nostalgia trip.
It takes a steady hand and a careful ear to make enormous squiggles and chirpy motifs into club music that doesn't leave you running for the exit door. Case in point, the stuttering chipmunk hook of “Want U 2” tests the limits of patience at times, but Marshmello’s trance-referencing textures and trap beats round out the three-minute ditty. And that sort of track-by-track brevity is actually what Joytime such a pleasure, guilty or otherwise. Nothing sticks around long enough to tire of, and the transitions too are swift. This is music for a jilted generation, presented in 140 characters or less.
Steve Angello, Wild Youth
The Swedish House Mafia were no strangers to the global pop charts during their memorable existence. Yet what former member Steve Angello strives for on his full-length solo debut is nothing short of a veritable synthpop redux, one not entirely unlike Ferry Corsten’s L.E.F. record from a decade before. While the Dutchman went back to the source with features from Howard Jones and Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon, the Swede recruits more contemporary vocalists like Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds. Fueled by trancey vibes, The Temper Trap’s Dougy Mandagi transforms “Wasted Love” into a minor anthem, while Gary Go matches the achy upper register tenor of radio’s prevailing male leads on “Prisoner.” Despite the solo tagline, the album’s inherently collaborative nature somehow stays true a singular albeit commercially appealing vision. To be sure, there are times where things might veer too closely to Linkin Park-esque arena balladry for some (“Children Of The Wild”), but Wild Youth’s unabashed lack of pretense makes it an endearingly fun and easy listen all the way through.
Jumping Back Slash, Mshini Music 001
From the homeground underground stylings of gqom to the Afro-futurism of shangaan electro, South Africa's electronic music scene remains the world's most underrated. A Cape Town based producer, Jumping Back Slash assuredly knows this all too well. Yet judging by his rate of impressive output he doesn’t much seem to care. Meant to open a Mshini Music series, this self-released EP soaks up local and global club sounds for a timeless mix of tunes. No small feat, JBS’ work frequently recalls that of Richard H. Kirk, that rad experimentalist who boldly eschewed genres under various guises like Sandoz. You can hear more than a few traces of that world-beating on “Stink Midi,” a premium technoid burner buoyed by a twitchy gelatinous bassline and echoey vocal snippets. “Disappear From Your Life” employs jerky rhythms and industrial skronk, while the gently layered loops of ‘Make A Fire For The Old Gods’ show a tempered, more ambient side to his sonic palette. Stream this release here.
Keys N Krates, Midnite Mass
First impressions often lead to confirmed biases, and admittedly that was the case for me with this Toronto-based EDM project. 2014's bog standard Every Nite didn't inspire much confidence on the dancefloor, nor translate well for home listening. But the collected 2015 singles and new cuts on this latest EP brings out the best from the trio, unveiling a keen appreciation for dance music both past and present. Keys N Krates can do the expected trappy drops with ease, but the way they mix it up with skittish amen junglism sets them apart from their templated peers (“U Already Know”). With glossy rave pop vocals by Katy B, "Save Me" adopts old skool flavor better than Jamie xx has yet or probably ever could. They can flip a vocal sample like nobody’s business, making “Love Again” into a soaring bit of turnt soul designed to decimate dancefloors. A tidy pop ballad hiding at the end, “Nothing But Space” shows that we’ve yet to see the limits of Keys N Krates’ potential.
Massive Attack, Ritual Spirit
Having deservedly shed the outdated trip-hop tag several years ago, Robert “3D” Del Naja has more or less steered Massive Attack’s studio output since 2003’s 100th Window, for better or worse. So there’s something truly wonderful about hearing Tricky’s breathy snarl once again in tandem with his ex-cohort’s leftfield production and lyricism. (Another EP is promised this year with writing and production contributions from the former trio’s remaining core member Daddy G.) No Mezzanine rehash, “Take It There” finds the duo of pre-grime poets trading off over where their prior work should have taken them in the first place, shuffling with post-industrial menace and ultra modern dread down twisty roads and alleys further and further away from the high street. Beyond this grand yet somehow understated reunion, the semi-surprise release of this new EP brings Del Naja together with a handful of fine vocalists, from the outré indie clamor of Young Fathers to the pitchy tremble of Azekel.
Rabit & Dedekind Cut, R&D
Last year, producer Lee Bannon debuted his comparatively harsher, mathematically-inspired Dedekind Cut moniker shortly following the release of a diverting glassine ambient album under his own name. Partnering with nu-grime provocateur Rabit, he continues to plot Cartesian points of the x,y graph of ugliness and beauty on this unexpected EP. Snatches of amen, fits of percussive spray, and ominous bass rumble vie for control of the first of four numbered untitled tracks from R&D. Oblique strategies seem at play as the second song shifts abruptly from tentative melodic echoes into post-industrial screw. The third bout enters in the form of gabber, but leaves as residue and digital detritus before the ghostly breaks of the vocal finale. The brevity of each track don't leave much to hold on to, but that's more or less the point. These are DJ tools for master builders, and they don't come with instructions. One hopes there's more R&D to come. You can stream this release here.
Gary Suarez is a music writer born, raised, and based in New York City.He’s on Twitter.