Six or seven years ago, Satan momentarily ruled supreme in music. At least, if ‘Yeezus’ or ‘The Money Store’ had been bestowed upon your unknowing ears for the first time, you might have been forgiven for thinking so. Looking back, it was a strange, fledgling Internet era for music. The parallels of “woke” politics and systematic trolling were still a long way from getting world leaders elected, and industrial rap’s riotous edgelord energy, with the full inertia of yet-unenlightened millennial rage behind it, was a massive shock to mainstream music.
One artist lured into the sound’s hip swipes at nothingness was Gesaffelstein (real name Mike Lévy). The fresh-faced French producer’s abrasive 4/4 loops saw a timely take-off in the electro world, and he ended up making much of ‘Yeezus’ possible. He even got his own Icarus moment with his 2013 debut LP ‘Aleph’, a beefy, à la mode, faux-techno project destined for the world of catwalks and high-end coke snorting. In fact, the album’s aloof primitiveness made it too cool for its own good: six years on, the experience of listening back to ‘Aleph’ actually kind of sucks.
Thankfully, the man with the cunning to have once garnered hype via a few predictably ostentatious loops knows the trick won’t repeat itself in 2019. Lévy’s five-year state of near hibernation has brought him to musicality, and like a pre-teen desperate to show off newly-acquired talents after returning from summer camp, he fizzes into his new album ‘Hyperion’ on an organ, endearingly hashing out as many scales and glissandos as humanly possible on the quirky opening title track. It’s not unenjoyable, and promises song texturing that now goes beyond a banging first 10 seconds.
Yet as Lévy has eagerly informed us time and time again, darkness always prevails in his music. The album’s layered, synthy melodies on Reset or Vortex may be stirring developments on the obstructionist snares of ‘Aleph’, but eviscerating sub bass lines still dictate the direction of even the album’s poppier cuts.
But instead of throwing up chaos for the sake of chaos, it’s in this now-melodious murk where the greatest triumph of ‘Hyperion’ becomes known: a genuinely poignant doomsday declaration, successfully incorporating the nihilism of pop culture into its message. Of course, it seems a tall order for a high-flying DJ to paint himself in such a messianic light (especially when his own record ain’t so clean). But Lévy deserves to be at least heard out – and not just because the album’s closer, Humanity Gone, is a 10-minute lament showing us how much he allegedly cares. Rather, if anyone is qualified to comment on the lasting damage hedonistic musical fads can have, it’s probably him.
What’s more, the picture ‘Hyperion’ paints of society is alert and painstakingly bleak. “I’m tired of being home alone,” The Weeknd pleads on Lost in the Fire, before qualifying this vulnerability with a pornographic alternative: “Well, baby, you can bring a friend/She can ride on top of your face/While I fuck you straight.” The pair’s warm sonic chemistry comes out perversely stunning despite the vocal’s desperate homophobia, and bluntly mirrors our hopeless enjoyment of soullessness. Then there’s Reset, a growling hip-hop instrumental with a video framing the conveyor belt of overdosing rappers as a terrifying existential quandary rather than as a source of memes. Reset even sounds like 6ix9ine’s Gummo, but works in vacillating bass wobbles and Aphex Twin-esque cliffhanger chords to give it all the powerful anxiety of a horror movie score.
With the Earth in abject ruination just four tracks in, panic turns into smug acceptance of the cosmic void (the message of these last five dreamlike tracks is very much “don’t say I never told you so”), and we’re shown a measured patience previously foreign to the Gesaffelstein discography. On the stripped-back So Bad, the HAIM sisters’ harrowing falsetto is pitched magnificently against an enduringly momentous bass warp.
If there are faults with ‘Hyperion’, they’re almost all on Blast Off, the project’s centrepiece. Pharrell Williams’ weirdly passionate, see-sawing crooning about nothing is painfully awkward, made only more lethargic by the soulless digital bass groove underneath it. A shoehorned big-name addition to ‘Hyperion’, the track is everything the rest of the album is not: vapid, directionless, thoughtlessly upbeat.
Probably contrary to his own estimation, Mike Lévy is not a visionary; Blast Off, like Vortex and Memora, is an obvious (but not incompetent) Daft Punk imitation hammering home that fact. From the sonic palette to the apocalyptic conclusion, there’s little in ‘Hyperion’ we haven’t heard before. However, the album’s ominous, feature-heavy poppiness makes its revelatory snapshot of modern darkness accessible and relevant.
An optimist might even say yesterday’s blind anger is turning into today’s vague social consciousness; if that’s the case, Mike Lévy is making the right moves.