Swedish House Mafia Begins Its Farewell Run at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 2/13/13
Swedish House Mafia
Christopher Victorio Swedish House Mafia at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium last night.
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
Wednesday, Feb. 14 2013
DJ Sneak may very well have been speaking the truth when he called the Swedish House Mafia "DJ actors." Watching them in performance, as I did last night during the first night of its farewell run at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, one gets the feeling that the members' occasional headphone passing and seemingly constant knob twiddling is really only a pretense. But to complain about such a thing is to totally miss the point. The appeal of the group is not in the trio as DJs (though I'm sure that's a component), but rather in the immensity of the spectacle that surrounds them. What the group offers is two hours of total sensory domination that feels like a particularly affecting 3-D movie. In fact, that movie analogy might be a good way of thinking about Swedish House Mafia's work. After all, what other DJ finishes with a roll of credits?
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was still filling up when we arrived. Opening players Max Vangeli and AN21 warmed up with some straightforward four-to-the-floor electro dance music. Using heavy build ups and breakdowns, their music blasted through the room like a buzzsaw. This effect was enhanced by the soundsystem itself, which was all midrange and highs with a fair bit of distortion that caused the melodic elements to almost completely drown out the drums. It was unbearable at the beginning, and it only got worse as the night progressed.
The crowd was young and ravey. It seemed like a room full of rather normal, albeit half-naked and drugged-out, high school kids occasionally sprinkled with various older pro-party types. There were a lot of people wearing matching outfits: a pack in blue North Face shirts, a group in banana-shaped body suits, and, of course, the ubiquitous "SHM" T-shirts. Later, I turned a corner and saw a soccer mom walk past me with a look on her face like she'd just been introduced to "2 Girls 1 Cup" via her child's browser history.
One of the weirder points about these events is the dead time between acts. Whereas in a traditional club environment you often have two DJs mixing in and out of one another as a transition, at EDM shows there always seems to be a period of waiting. Last night 9:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. was spent mostly twiddling thumbs while a jumble of pre-mixed tunes (some of which had just been played) rang out over the PA. Swedish House Mafia took the opportunity to project its recent advertisement for Absolut vodka on the screens along the wall.
Then it was time. The lights dimmed, the music began rushing in, and a movie was projected on the screen. The music itself was forgettable, but the imagery was not: computer-generated depictions of guitars, amplifiers, cymbals, and kick drums all spun around dramatically. Screams filled the room, transporting us all towards the inevitable climax -- the revealing of the Swedes.
With a loud bang, the movie screen dropped to reveal them standing in front of a giant box shot through with its own morphing projections. The three then disappeared and a new beat began with its own new set of now more abstract computer generated imagery. The crowd went crazy. Throwing their hands in the air, people saluted the glowing box as though it were a digital Kaaba. This continued, with the screens taking on the shape of VST synthesizers marked with words like "resonance." Gradually the box separated to reveal the three of them DJing together inside of its shifting visuals. Screams shot out from the crowd and things began to take on an intense visceral quality. I began to think the real artists were the nerdy looking crew members operating the A/V equipment in the back.
"San Francisco, are you ready to turn off your brains?" Yelled one of the Swedes. The screen below him went to a dead salt and pepper static, fire shot up from the ground, and the music began to approximate an orderly Merzbow. I'm not sure about everyone else, but my brain certainly turned off. There was a certain nihilistic glory to it all, in which the senses are overloaded to such a point that nothing is felt whatsoever. The music plays into this particularly, with a sound that manages to induce trance by being so strictly predictable. The few changes that did occur came during drops, which in turn were almost always accompanied by one of the Swede's shouting, "Are you ready for this San Francisco?" and a sample that said, "Here we go."
Which brings us back to the idea of them as DJ actors. One gets the feeling that their presence is really just to add a human touch to what would otherwise be a purely digital spectacle. Their over exaggerated motions, occasional filter sweeps, and frequent jesus poses all compensate for the predictability of the music by substituting in a flair for the theatrical. This comes at the expense of excitement in the mix, which last night sounded like a non-reacting blob that just powered through material, relying on the novelty of spectacle to keep the audience's attention. It was like the difference between a conversation and a speech. They powered their way through The Temper Trap's "Sweet Disposition," the iconic hook from Daft Punk's "Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger," the soulful vocal from Ivan Gough & Feenixpawl feat. Georgi Kay's "In My Mind (Axwell Remix)," and just about every single the Swedish House Mafia have yet produced.
Another movie, a whole bunch of fireworks, and a false ending later, and they were soon on their last song, "Save the World (Tonight)." Perhaps the ultimate version, it was accompanied by a sheet of falling sparks that dropped down behind the DJs like a fiery waterfall. I was in the middle of the floor and watched as entire groups of people literally cried, screaming the lyrics in each others faces. It was an orgasmic finale, with fire mingling with huge blasts of steam to signal the end of what had otherwise been an incredibly exhausting two hours. Finally the music came to a close with a monolithic note that brought to mind the piano chord of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." The silence was matched by words on a screen that rolled like credits. Thanking the crew and crowd for making it all possible, it said, "You came. You raved. We loved it."
Christopher Victorio Christopher Victorio