If Decibel's opening night was a compelling proof that electronic music can be as "real" and live as any other, last night illustrated one of electronic music's fundamental tensions: state-of-the-art technical innovation versus good old-fashioned songcraft. Technological innovations have driven popular electronic music since the beginning--from Kraftwerk's Klingklang Studio to acid house's discovery of the latent possibilities of the Roland TB-303 bass synth to the rise of sampling and software sequencing throughout the '90s and '00s. So too, electronic music has always been animated by the divide between recognizable songs--with choruses or discrete movements--and more functional tracks, built with the DJ in mind, patterned around builds and releases and auditory effects rather than traditional song structures. Last night, two of Decibel's headliners provided a handy illustration of that divide: Amon Tobin, with his dazzling audio/visual demonstration ISAM, and Ladytron, with their more traditional, but highly effective electro pop.
Amon Tobin ISAM (he's inside the biggest cube there)
Amon Tobin's setup was a Q*bert- or Tetris-like castle of white cubes, with Tobin stationed inside one larger cube, with visuals "projection mapped" to the 3-D surfaces. What this basically means is that video was fitted to the contours of the stage set, so that the video could appear to be flat or highlight the real dimensions of the cubes, or warp between the two. It's an increasingly common effect in electronic performances, but Amon Tobin's ISAM show promised to deliver a state-of-the-art implementation. And it was the best sound you might hear all Decibel Fest--THX loud and crisp, the treble clear and sharp, the bass vibrating the floor.
But it's possible to get too caught up in just having the best sound and the newest effects, and loose sight of more prosaically musical concerns. Indeed, the first 20 minutes of Tobin's set were like a long demo reel just showing off what his set-up could do: a battery of sound and video FX--knife sharpening and electrical buzz bouncing around the room in 3D, while lightning bolts and horizontal TV static played across the cubes--without anything resembling a song or a groove. (When a recognizable "song" did drop after that long tease, it was a creaking, throbbing, drilling dubstep-inspired number that, admittedly, sounded huge on the sound system.) And while some of the video effects truly made great use of the 3D projection surface--a sort of folding constellation grid rearranging itself against a backdrop of stars, a tumble of ice cubes sucked back up and released over and over again--at other times it felt like the latest and greatest toy just for the sake of it. This is coming from a non-Amon Tobin fan, but while the technology was impressive, I would have rather seen someone else making use of it--Aphex Twin, say, since we're picking totally reasonable possibilities. The place was packed with people losing their shit screaming for more, though, so.
Down at the Showbox Market, UK electro-pop band Ladytron put on a much more traditional show: a little pyramid and standing rods of yellow lights, some strobes maybe, but mostly just the band onstage playing their cool, catchy songs. I'd heard that Ladytron were kind of cold and disaffected live, but I found them to be quite spirited and engaging, the main singer rocking a little, and the crowd contributing plenty of bouncing, dancing energy themselves. Highlights included 604's "Discotrax," Light and Magic's "Seventeen, and Witching Hour's "Destroy Everything You Touch." Their new stuff sounded fine, very much in character, but I could have done with some more older songs--no "Playgirl" is a criminal omission, imo, and I wonder how many people, like me, went home and immediately listened to that track on their home stereos. Ultimately, though, even with such antiquated gear as colored gel lights, analogue synths, drum kits, and live human singers, for my money, Ladytron put on the best show of the night (although I have to assume Holy Fuck was giving them a run for it down the street at the Crocodile).