I went to my first electronica concert a few weeks ago – but to describe it properly, I have to start from the beginning.  The beginning of my love for electronic music, that is.

The first time I put a track on repeat was when I was 10 years-old.  My dad had bought an album after hearing a song in a commercial; the album was from the electric quarter Bond, the album was their first – Born – and the track was Alexander the Great.  It was arguably the closest thing to electronic music that I’d yet encountered, and it promptly crawled through my ears and into my soul.  I was utterly smitten.  I loved the whole album, actually, but I played that one track well beyond 10,000 times over the course of the following years.  It had certain features that, as it turns out, are hallmarks of the music I love most today:

  • builduPs aND BREAKdowns

The song grows in intensity over time; this overall buildup is comprised of smaller peaks, valleys, and plateaus, but each segment ends with more energy and volume than when it began.  Ultimately the song coalesces into a maelstrom of sounds and patterns layered over each other, repeated and intensified until the climax of the song is reached.  That repetition is crucial.

All music involves repetition.  Electronic music tends to use a bit more of it.  Why?  Because it’s made for dancing.  Admittedly, Alexander the Great was not made for dancing, and the same is true for much electronica.  The truth, however, is that electronic music was born in clubs and delivered by DJs on a mission to make people dance.  People can’t dance to something they can’t predict on a moment-to-moment basis – this is why repetition is so important.  Repetition is also a way to generate anticipation.  The drop – the moment of transition from buildup to breakdown – is an instantaneous release of that anticipation, and if you’re dancing, it’s positively euphoric.  The drops in Alexander the Great (which aren’t particularly huge) are marked by a sample of a guy shouting “GO!”.  Combined with the rise and fall of energy throughout the track, simple phrases can carve out narratives amidst the cacophony of noises.

Yes, there are narratives in electronic music, but they’re narratives driven by the experience the song creates, rather than stories told through lyrics.  If words or phrases appear, they tend to allude to rather simple, self-contained ideas, often repeated throughout the buildup.  Some voices are put into tracks only because the voice sounds so good.  The words can be utterly meaningless or unintelligable, but they’re still able to communicate emotion and immerse you into a specific theme.  It’s the kind of immersion where you don’t have to be told what to care about or why to care about it – it’s instinctual and immediately gripping, playing with your motor neurons like an artisan puppetmaster.  It doesn’t just infect your spine, though.  It fuels the imagination in a way that ties your mind’s eye with the movement of your limbs.  It’s like that feeling you might get while watching a great action movie that you’re really into; you’re right with the protagonist, dodging bullets, rolling with the punches, and kicking down doors.  In this way, electronica achieves the ideal state for total sensory engagement: flow.

Everyone finds themselves in flow from time to time – but there are varying degrees.  The flow you sometimes experience while driving is not the same as the flow that comes from reading a good book, which is different still from the flow of great sex.  The flow achieved while dancing is, in my mind, among the purest forms.  It’s the most direct connection that can be made between your mind and your body; there are no tools required or abstractions that must be made to connect the action of moving your hand with its consequence.  A state of flow that is nothing less than pure rhapsody and euphoria.

This is what Bond did to me at ten, and it’s the experience I’ve been endlessly hunting ever since.  In this respect, I have become an expert hunter, now having dozens of hours worth of playlists, filled with nothing but tracks that I adore.  Yet, there has been a measure of unfulfillment lingering with me all of this time.  In all these years, I’d never been to a concert or a (real) club, places where the music is actually intended to be heard.  This genre is made for dancing, and not for dancing alone in your bedroom.  Track after track are filled with references to being in the club, the palpable anticipation of the crowd as the drop is about to come, the surge of movement and energy as thousands of people instantly begin dancing their hardest at the command of a single DJ.  All of these things are a part of the overall narrative in much of electronica, but up until a few weeks ago, were something that I was left to imagine, hoping that it was as lovely as I had always dreamed.  So, when I had the opportunity to see Infected Mushroom at Terminal 5 in NYC, I was nothing short of thrilled.

There were two opening acts.  The first was an indie electronic group that I didn’t find myself particularly engaged by.  Towards the end of their performance I was actually becoming quite sad, as my experience was rather like that of other concerts I’ve been to, where I enjoy the music, but have no particular love for any aspect of the experience.  I’d started to despair that this concert would be like all the others – but they left the stage, and the next opener was a trance DJ.  Trance, if you are unfamiliar, is the most repetitive of genres in electronica.  Trance producers don’t play individual tracks, but stream together ~80 minutes of songs in a seamless mix to facilitate a completely uninterrupted experience.  Trance was the first truly electronic music I started listening to, as DJs have been releasing their sets for free on the internet long before other artists because their money is made on performance, not distribution.  As a result, a large portion of my teenage years were spent listening solely to trance (until I discovered Infected Mushroom, actually), so to be present for a trance DJ was a highly unexpected surprise.

Everything’s about the mood, though, and it took me a while to recover from the gloom I’d acquired during the previous act.  I’d heard most of the tracks he was sampling before, and I knew the formula that all trance DJs employ.  Yet, within just a few moments, I was already finding myself melding with the rhythm; my feet were tapping, my knees were bouncing, and my neck was craning to and fro.  It was barely five minutes later that I simply had to go down on the dance floor.  Lest any fantasies be entertained, this crowd was mostly dudes – much as they are at many clubs.  Anyone looking to get laid at a concert is in a sorry state of affairs, to be sure, but I was certainly not there for human eye candy.  I was there to dance, and that’s what I did.  It was a blissful 70 minutes, and I went all out for the entire duration, thinking that there would be some time in between acts to get some rest and drink some water.  I was wrong.  Barely two minutes after the trance DJ ended his set, Infected Mushroom came on stage.

First, let me explain a bit about modern electronic concerts, where video projection mapping has become a popular technique.  A team of graphic designers make a video that’s built with a given space in mind, and knowing the dimensions and proportions of the area being projected onto, they can create the illusion of three dimensions as well as movement within that space.  Infected Mushroom does this with two spheres on the stage, combined with a screen behind the spheres.  The video is designed specifically for the entire performance – the visual elements are tied in both rhythm and theme to the current song.  The DJ – if he’s really good – will perform alongside the video, creating a complete audio-visual experience that is also a live performance.  Some artists choose not mix live, and a lot of people have made a great big huff about how many EDM artists are “faking it” – but I consider this whole debate irrelevant.  I’m there for the experience, not to pretend that I understand what’s going on behind the scenes.  Music is music, as far as I’m concerned.

As Infected Mushroom started to play, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it.  I was already pretty sweaty and breathing hard from the trance act, and I had my messenger bag on me (with my tablet and a bunch of other shit), which was both a pain in the ass and a hindrance to my dancing.  The dance floor had become absolutely packed, as everyone sitting on the sidelines for the trance act had now joined in, and there was barely room to move.

Yet, as soon as the first track began, there was no question: I would find the energy to dance to this.  The volume was as loud as can be imagined; it drowns your ears, fills your lungs, and rattles your bones.  The visuals were ineffable in their variety and creativity, showing off all manner of designs and patterns, moving and shifting perfectly in time to the beats.  Balloons were released from the ceiling periodically, and as they fell, they would cross the path of the massive projector driving the show, temporarily acquiring a shifting mosaic of color while scattering the hues on the screen.  Several fog machines were working full-time, blasting massive columns of smoke which would then mix with the flashing lights of every chromaticity, eventually dissipating in the path of the projector.  Then, after all this – there was the music itself.  I’ve never been to a concert where I could sing along to the lyrics – but here, I could, and I knew every word.  Each time I thought I was done for, that I’d spent all of my energy and I was sure to collapse on the floor right there, another beloved track would come and restore me to full capacity.

By the end, I was drenched in sweat from head to toe, my whole body was quivering, and a grin was planted on my face that stayed with me for days.  It was an experience that did more than meet my expectations.  It was a glorious baptism of sweat, a confirmation of a decade-long suspicion that this was exactly the kind of experience I’d always wanted, a fulfillment of a dream that my passion for this music is not undeserved, that it is able to give back as much as I put into it.  Probably the best fifty dollars I’ve spent in my life.  I can’t wait to do it again.

Tracks listed:

  • Bond – Alexander the Great
  • Tim Mason – The Moment
  • DJ Mehdi – Signature (Thomas Bangaltar edit)
  • The M Machine – Black
  • BetatraXx – Listen to the Rhythm Flow Pt. 1
  • Flux Pavilion – Haunt You
  • Don Diablo feat. Dragonette – Animale (French Gov’t remix)
  • Passion Pit – Sleepyhead
  • Boys Noize – & Down
  • Infected Mushroom – Becoming Insane
  • Infected Mushroom – Cities of the Future