Live: Swedish House Mafia Reign Supreme At Madison Square Garden
Better than: Sitting around and becoming convinced audio of a microwave breaking is actually a leaked Daft Punk track.
Swedish House Mafia sold out Madison Square Garden in nine minutes for Friday night's mammoth "One Night Stand." Impressive enough, but if the deafening crowd response was an indication, the trio of Steve Angello, Sebastian Ingrosso, and Axwell could have filled the space three times over. Playing MSG is a coronation for any group, but Angello sounded like he was celebrating on behalf of a worldwide electronic music family when he said early on, "We've come a long way. We put a nightclub in Madison Square Garden!" The merchandise for sale was just as inclusive, emphasizing the singularity and historical significance of a DJ group filling MSG. (One t-shirt slogan: "We Came. We Raved. We Loved.")
As early as 7 p.m. Penn Station was studded with flashes of neon clothing, but mostly it was too cold for everyone except the most committed to sport full-on rave regalia. There were sons with fathers, daughters and mothers in equally revealing outfits, and a large contingent of apparent sorority and fraternity members, whooping and shrieking as they met up in packs near the front entrance. French producer Jacques Lu Cont, responsible for startlingly sublime remixes for the likes of Gwen Stefani and Madonna, opened the night with a set of slow-burn, clangorous house, soaked in sirens and chugging guitars. Lu Cont (real name: Stuart Price) ping-ponged between poppy lines and well-sheathed vocal teases, the highlight being an eerie remix of Royksöpp's "What Else Is There" with the breathy, paranoid vocals of Karin Dreijer Andersson.
By the time A-Trak began playing inside a wood-paneled, light-up "A," roving water vendors were doing gangbusters business and a pack of gum might as well have been equivalent to a hundred-dollar bill. The set simultaneously evoked both hardcore hands-in-the-air rave and banging modern electro with occasional excursions into hip-hop, where A-Trak showed off the scratching skills that won him the DMCs World DJ Championship at age 15 (if you haven't seen the video, prepare yo'self). The set combined disco sprawl with the incisive functionality of electro, veering from the Rapture's "How Deep Is Your Love" and A-Trak's own Duck Sauce hit "Barbra Streisand" to Daft Punk's "Robot Rock." However, MSG seemed to be swallowing overall energy, and latecomers were still filing in by the time of Swedish House Mafia's 10:45 start.
The projections for the Swedes' opening was inspired, a jumble of frenetic fonts and psychedelic colors saturating close-ups of overloaded audio machines, clearly patterned after the opening credits of Gaspar Noe's "Enter The Void." The curtains dropped to reveal Ingrosso, Axwell, and Angello, dressed entirely in black, DJing in the middle of a enormous semi-circle video screen, flanked by equally huge screens on either side. The assault began. With six hands constantly fiddling with EQ, the mix featured an impenetrable low end and overpowering synth rushes which occasionally differentiated themselves between songs. The group's name flashed relentlessly on the screens, no matter the visuals, and the visuals themselves eschewed creativity for scale. Lyrics were wholly aspirational, whether pertaining to partying, fucking, or world-saving, and they were so prominent as to be surprisingly intrusive.
The best anonymous dance music vocals are ones that, whether via lyrical content or emotional delivery, sound like they're actually speaking to you, that you're being let in on a secret. They crystallize a feeling, not implant it. Too often, SHM's pre-recorded vocals just sounded like a plastic diva booming over your head, a manipulative vessel of husky sibilance and empty yearning. The exception was a remix of Calvin Harris's ubiquitous "Feel So Close" that contained the lyric "There's no stopping us right now," an affirmation that's become a sort of rallying cry for dance music fans and one that the crowd eagerly took up. Once again, the tremendous sense of occasion overwhelmed musical impact.
Tinie Tempah joined the trio on "Miami 2 Ibiza" for a well-needed shock of energy and flavor. A roiling remix of Coldplay's "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall" excellently repurposed Chris Martin's faceless bombast. When not bopping, waving, and tossing their hair in unison, the trio pumped the bass to achieve a poorly-hinged-trapdoor vibe, smashing and rebounding violently. R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" made a surprise appearance over sinister synthesizer lines, but "One (Your Name)," with lascivious vocals from Pharrell and an overwhelming sense of desperation, had the biggest impact. Its descending synth expulsions contrast with hard-hitting handclaps, and at the climaxa drop preceded by the skittering whomps of a thousand laundromats simultaneously sputtering to a stopfireworks exploded and so did MSG, the seething energy of the crowd finally boiling over to match the music.
Friday night's show was first and foremost and exercise in bombast, an opportunity to bask in the sheer scope of the Swedes' success as the apotheosis of electronic dance music's meteoric mainstream rise. That Angello, Ingrosso, and Axwell managed to sustain the exhausting propulsion and endless upward trajectory of the music itself over a two hour show was the unexpected achievement. Forget that you might not be a willing subjectcan we now stop debating whether or not these dance music DJs are the new pop Dons?
Critical bias: I don't think Angello, Ingrosso, and Axwell are the Holy Trinity of modern dance music; they remind me more of the Hamburglar, Grimace, and Mayor McCheese.
Overheard: "Are you going to the afterparty?" "No, me and my girlfriend are just going to have sex for the next four hours."
Random notebook dump: How would Patrick Ewing respond to all the lasers shining on his retired jersey?
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