“What, is he checking his e-mail up there?” has long been a standard jape when confronted by live electronic music, a useful insult to lob at the slobbily dressed dude onstage, peering wanly at the crowd, feeble mustache half-illuminated by his laptop’s screen. A hoary old cliché, alas—but I still like it. It’s archetypally funny, like “Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?’ ” or “Does the Pope crap in the woods?” Customize if you like: “What, is he playing Minesweeper up there?” Salt to taste and serve sarcastically chilled to 200 to 250 fellow patrons at Studio B.
Though he’s got the laptop and the ‘stache, no one at the broiling Greenpoint spot Wednesday night mocks Swedish minimal-techno maven Axel Willner, a/k/a the Field. He ain’t laughing either. Or smiling. But that laptop burps forth monstrous bass whumps, visceral and violent, with mastodon-heartbeat regularity, each powerful enough to cause its own midtown volcano. Such brute force contrasts wildly
with the placid, almost playful trance inducements and ethereal chopped-and-screwed vocals that have helped make the Field’s full-length debut, From Here We Go Sublime, metacritic.com’s most glowingly reviewed record of 2007. (Eat it, Patty Griffin!)
Describing music of this ilk is notoriously dangerous, a trapdoor into the kind of florid nature writing that anyone who has somehow found themselves describing glaciers in a Sigur Rós review knows all too well. Put simply, Axel specializes in extracting tiny portions of (semi-)beloved pop songs—a split-second, a single beat, a yearning vowel—and looping them ad nauseam into gorgeous ambient Frankensteins that hiccup incessantly until time and pressure hammers those blips into a purring pastoral blur. (For the analog version, turn on VH1 Classic, crank the volume, then stick your finger in your ear and shake vigorously.) Consider Sublime‘s most sublime moment, “Everyday,” which mounts a handful of microscopic moments from Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere”—mostly snatches of Christine McVie’s sonorous soprano, as preserved on the Mac’s Tango in the Night, 1987, do yourself a favor —into a rhapsodic, hyperventilating slide show, skipping so joyfully and forcefully it glides.
At times, a song’s source material is tougher to pinpoint, unveiled in the last few seconds in its original, unmolested form as a magician’s reveal. Or a punchline. “A Paw in My Face” dices up a handful of plucked guitar notes, runs them on a melodramatic synth-pop treadmill for five minutes—a sweeping sense of urgency and unease—and, as the track fades, casually flips over its cards: You’ve been listening to a repurposed snippet of the guitar solo in “Hello,” by Lionel Richie. The one with the video where the blind lady sculpts a bust of Lionel’s head, yes.
Not sure whether Willner intends this as passionate homage (lookit how beautiful the original is) or a tongue-in-cheek rescue mission (lookit how beautiful this track I made from a butter-slathered ear of ’80s corn is). He doesn’t strike the Studio B crowd as a hotfooting prankster type, in any event, meekly tipping his bottle of Stella to the few soused revelers who approach the DJ booth. Kicking off at 1:30 a.m. (doofus), his set begins the way Sublime ends: with a sample of the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You,” the 1959 doo-wop slow-dance classic with the iconic and vaguely disturbing doo-bop-sh-bop backing vocals, here caked in even more cavernous reverb, stretched out, sped up, slowed down, blown out, finally dissolved. Like butter melting in the pan.
And then, the mastodon whumps. His casual, Stella-tipping air aside, Axel pushes harder in person, most of his basic tracks broken down to two chords toggling methodically back and forth, no buildup or aberration, just a jagged, unbroken, bass-heavy duel, one chord chasing the other and never catching it. He twists a knob and a whistle, a siren, a synth flare slides in and out, attacking and retreating. A vocal line builds up, but it’s amorphous, all disembodied vowels. And then, abruptly, a braying five-second bzzzzzzz, the green smoke that precedes the napalm. Boom. The chorus to Annie’s “Heartbeat,” 2005’s most glorious Abba moment, drops like a bomb—an anthemic, blood- and fist-pumping hook that rains candy corn down on us for 30 seconds or so and then implodes. Back to the amorphous two-chord duel. It’s a rare moment of sharp focus amid a torrent of romantic blurs.
As the set evolves, the clown-car sirens get more shrill and ornery, the vocals coalescing slightly to the point where they can form a full, robotically chanted word: Hello hello hello hello hello hello, bouncing and frothing about like a washing machine. That bleeds into “Everywhere,” which is eventually overcome by a ferocious onslaught of drums. The bluntness has its appeal, but the delicacy of much of Sublime is lost—maybe by necessity, but more blatantly rockstar-affected electronic acts like Justice or Simian Mobile Disco can pulverize a place like Studio B with their Van Halen/Crystal Method shtick a lot more effectively than one mild-mannered dude with a laptop and a few knobs. The room’s too big; Axel’s symphonies cry out for something more intimate and private. As does the couple making out on one of the couches in the back.
You gotta think the lovebirds still get a chill, though, when all the lights go out and “A Paw in My Face” emerges—Lionel Richie time, those bent guitar notes far more frail and intricate than anything else Axel’s served up. He gets his nuance and intimacy when he really needs it. The crowd—not rapt but politely attentive, bobbing in place and soaking in what it can—whoops with recognition, and when the track runs aground and the naked guitar solo itself is unmasked, Axel lets it run a little while longer than on record, granting Lionel himself one word: “Hello.” For Axel, it means good-bye—another DJ jump-starts his own whumping beat even as the final note hangs there, and the Field himself jumps off the stage and out of sight in one fluid motion, as though the place is on fire. He did his part, his Stella now drunk, his homages made, his napalm deployed, his jokes cracked, his mines swept.