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Deadmau5 Disrupts EDM With the Sprawling, Awesome ‘While (1<2)'

Deadmau5 / Photo by Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: June 17, 2014
Label: Mau5trap/Astralwerks

The reason you gotta love Deadmau5 is that he makes it so easy to hate him. To thumb through the yearbook of 2014 EDM stars is to be overwhelmed by the visages of shiny happy people. Who’s chiseling these guys’ features, Michelangelo? Martin Garrix, Avicii, Hardwell, Calvin Harris, Kaskade, David Guetta, Afrojack — it’s like a Florentine sculpture garden drenched in hair gel. Then there’s Skrillex, who thankfully looks like a ’70s feminist who stuck a fork in an electrical socket. And then there’s Deadmau5, who, yes, wears a mouse-head when he performs, but who is equally visually arresting offstage. Tatted up and speed-freak skinny, Joel Zimmerman looks like trouble. He talks trouble, too. He’s a walking solar eclipse, throwing shade in every direction. He disses DJs for playing other people’s music instead of composing it themselves, disses festival crowds for prizing inebriation over the experience of great art. Heck, the dude called Madonna a pussy. Madonna. Point being: Zimmerman is not an easy guy to like.

This is why you should like him. Look, EDM1 is a wasteland. To borrow one of those spine-tingling sociological terms, the genre is a digital native: It doesn’t remember a time when personal branding wasn’t priority No. 1. Many of EDM’s biggest superstars are arguably better brand managers than they are DJs or musicians, and some of them won’t even deny that. This cynicism is fused to the founding rave ideals of PLUR — Peace, Love, Unity, Respect — and together they form the helix that is EDM, a $6.2 billion industry built on the conceit that love, not bottle service (wink wink), is all you need. It’s a situation that’s begging to be rebelled against.

So enter Zimmerman. If he didn’t exist, EDM would have to invent him. The man and his genre make great foils for one another: One is pure while the other is corrupt; one is iconoclastic while the other is an endlessly Xeroxed copy of itself; one cares about the music and its values, while the other uses it as a vehicle to procure vast sums. So then, if you’re with me so far, the question you have to ask yourself is simply this: Does Zimmerman actually care, or is his pose just another instance of extremely clever EDM branding? I mean, the mouse head…

I believe he does. I think he cares deeply, obsessively, belligerently. I’m not saying this is unique to Zimmerman among EDM mega-stars. Pretty Lights cares a great deal, he just makes shitty music. Skrillex cares, and makes decent music to boot, but he’s clearly gotten distracted lately building his OWSLA empire, choosing the route of the impresario over the auteur, stuffing his music full of too-clever collaborations designed to impress. Zimmerman doesn’t give a fuck about any of that. His discography isn’t flush with A-list guest stars, he’s not producing tracks for the umpteenth Britney Spears comeback album, etc. This isn’t to say he’s not a shrewd capitalist — far from it: He’s a mainstay on the Vegas/festival circuit, and he runs his own novel subscription site, a kind of Deadmau5-fan playground complete with its own apps and exclusive content. Add that up and you get this: a subversive operator thriving in a cutthroat, morally twisted media space. I’d put him on par with Louie CK in that regard: real rebels who are somehow simultaneously misanthropic and magnanimous, who have a pathological need to have their voices heard.

And all of this — thank Christ! — extends into his music. Again, we’re not talking about someone who’s going to grace the cover of The Wire anytime soon. He’s not exactly making hamburger out of EDM’s sacred cows. But goddamn is he reverent and passionate about this music, commensurate to what it used to actually command, back before things got so out of hand.

Of course if we’re going to talk about Zimmerman’s music we need to clear something up: the dude’s music vocabulary is not Shakespearean. He’s never claimed to listen to his dad’s old 45s growing up or raved about having jammed with Herbie Hancock that one time. He’s got maybe 16 tricks up his sleeve, but that’s about 8x more than a lot of his contemporaries (go ahead, I’ll wait), and most importantly: They’re his tricks and his alone. I mean, he didn’t invent any of them, but he’s put his stamp on all of them. Take something so simple as the guy’s kick drums. Zimmerman’s bass kicks are about as concussive as they come, but they’re also uniquely exacting, in the manner of, say, a tomahawk missile or one of Bruce Lee’s punches.

He likes arpeggios and warm chords, which in EDM is like saying he likes air and fresh water, but in his hands an otherwise pedestrian arpeggio brims with densely layered harmonics, a thicket of notes so tightly compressed you simultaneously hear it as a single note and many notes at once. “Pets,” off this record, is a great example: arpeggio, warm chords, kick drum. It doesn’t make sense that such a simple and ubiquitous triad could sound like signature Deadmau5, but it does. He’s using the same ingredients as the other guys, but his are locally sourced and artisanally crafted, whereas theirs are flown in from South America. This is no accident: Zimmerman is arguably the most skilled pure audio engineer among his peers, his studio crammed with walls of hard-to-master modular synthesizers. And guess what: he gives free lessons.

Let’s be clear about something else: While (1<2) is far from perfect. Zimmerman has said that the two Trent Reznor songs here, “Ice Age” and “Survivalism,” really tied the album together, but the latter especially is jarring and demands to be micturated upon. “Terrors In My Head” is meandering, and “Creep” has some admirable but lackluster, early-Squarepusher fidget-too-much energy. On “Somewhere Up Here,” someone peels off a guitar riff that sounds like a fart.

Yet there’s a lot on this album that’s superb. Zimmerman, who makes a point of performing only original compositions via Ableton during live sets, has designed While to be heard as two mixed suites, sort of thematically united by the piano digressions heard throughout both (which fans have had various tastes of in the last year via SoundCloud and whatever cool club they’re in, I get it… Shaddup). In other words, what you’re hearing on While is very close to what you’d hear if you saw Deadmau5 live, which is both awesome and absurd, because… have you seen Deadmau5 live? His stage show rivals an Olympic opening ceremony in its pyrotechnic bedazzlement, and it’s doubtful your speakers sound as good as, say, Lollapalooza’s. That said, the comedown from the swarming pulse of “Avarita,” via the whirring atmospherics of “Coelacanth 1” and into the slinking downtempo of “Ice Age,” makes a lot more sense as one seamless track. Haters will point out that the shouted “Fuck” on “My Pet Coelacanth” bears a certain resemblance to Skrillex’s famous “Oh my god” sample, but w/e, that’s decent company to keep. On its own, the track isn’t distinctive, but again it makes a badass setup for the Imax mogul-skiing vibes of “Infra Turbo Pigcart Racer.” 

Quality-wise, the second half of the album has a higher batting average, Trent Reznor’s constipated mewl and the half-baked Pretty Lights frown-tempo of “Monday” notwithstanding. Zimmerman gets indignant when anyone suggests he’s only allowed to make concussive tech-house, and when you hear these blissful ambient tracks you’ll understand why. “Invidia” evokes Debussy/Satie and I got no problem with that, “Silent Picture” chops and quantizes acoustic guitars, merging them with background thrum and a sturdy bass line. “Superbia” is ghostly and affecting, and “Bleed” is one long whirring crescendo, a PLUR version of Tim Hecker. That’s one thing you can always count on with Zimmerman: No matter how far afield he goes with the dark theatricality, he always, always brings it back to that warm-fuzzy place. Case in point: “Pets,” which I have already described, but like… so warm and fuzzy!

It’s kind of funny and cosmically awesome that While came out the same week as Tiësto’s A Town Called Paradise (wait, really? That’s what you named your album?). Conflating these two artists is like confusing Katy Perry for Kate Bush. Whereas Tiësto symbolizes everything that’s wrong with modern EDM, Deadmau5 points the way to what could be right about it: a close connection to fans; deep enthusiasm for the genre’s sonic palette; a genuine interest in spectacle for the sake of creating shared experiences on a grand scale.

Would this record be better if it were 12 tracks and 60 minutes? Maybe, maybe not. What’s “better” at this point? EDM is slippery; it’s changing so fast. This is a double album. There are regular albums, mini-albums, EPs, mixes, singles, snippets, samples and then amazing things like this clip, wherein Deadmau5 openly mocks EDM young turk Martin Garrix by replacing the melody of the 18 year-old’s megahit “Animals” with that of “Old Macdonald Had a Farm.” Zimmerman did this on the genre’s biggest stage, Ultra Music Festival 2014, after being called in last-minute to sub for a hospitalized Avicii. It was a clever, calculated, and emphatically genius act of rebellion, by the one guy in the genre who stands a chance of providing the disruption it desperately needs.

1. A lot of you know what I mean when I say EDM, but just to clarify: There’s a solar-system’s worth of electronic music out there that I would never call “EDM” (including stuff you can dance to). I use EDM as shorthand for the phenomenon of blockbuster dance music staged at enormous scale. An analogous term, which most of you won’t remember, is AOR, which stood for Album Oriented Rock (sheesh!) and included bands like Boston and Foreigner, who like their forebears in, say, bands like Blue Öyster Cult and Fleetwood Mac, performed rock songs with guitars and drums and choruses, but the AOR bands’ rock songs were markedly cheesier and self-serious and nominally album-oriented, and these things occasioned a new classification. So for all you EDM fans who think you’re special for being saddled with a ridiculous name for the genre of music you like, I’m sorry, but you’re not. If it’s any consolation, at least now you know you have something in common with Journey fans.?