In Zen Buddhism there’s a concept called shoshin: beginner’s mind. The idea is that when you’re experiencing something for the first time, you perceive it in a unique way, often grasping insights and possibilities that vanish as you grow more accustomed. I’ve done a lot of listening to and writing about music (sometimes on this very blog), yet I have beginner’s ears for EDM, so I thought a review would be a fun and instructive exercise. First, some background on my sonic intake:
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been gobbling up a constantly expanding buffet of musical cuisines. Rock, rap, jazz, soul, gospel, country, bluegrass, opera, classical (what they used to call “concert music”), “world” (especially calypso, gamelan, Indian classical, and West African), and many other styles and genres of music have by now spent ample time rotating through my CD player.
Only electronic music and its various incarnations — EDM in particular — failed to attract my attention so far. In fact it’s the only style of music I’ve ever avoided. Something about it — I’m not sure what exactly, maybe I’ll explore that some other time — has always turned me off.
When I entered my 20s EDM was only just catching on in the US, and might still be for all I know, but it seems like its popularity has now surpassed most of what I normally listen to. Guitar-driven rock — my staple — is in decline, relegated to “dad music” or even “oldies” status. I’ve heard Nirvana piped in at supermarkets; it’s an EDM world now, and I’m just living in it.
So I decided to give the Mad EP by Mat Zo a careful listen. Out of some sheer coincidence Mat Zo is the only EDM producer I’m familiar with, and I understand his music to be outstanding in its sophistication. This EP was the first thing listed on his Soundcloud page.
The first song, “Troglodyte”, begins in an unexpected way: bells and some kind of organ or breathy synth, set a music-box-like stage. After maybe 30 seconds or a minute, the sounds of these acoustic(-ish) instruments transitions to the sound of synthetic electronic ones.
This transition reflected in microcosm the personal journey I was going on, from the familiar musical world of instruments that humans play to the unfamiliar world of instruments that are programmed or sequenced.
Music has always been a very tactile and visual medium to me. Electronic programmed instruments (voices? effects?) don’t just sound different from acoustic instruments, even those that are electronically processed — they feel different and their sound looks different. And even though a professional musician can keep time very evenly, the time kept by a programmed instrument is sonically instantly recognizable in its perfect regularity. The acoustic instruments at the beginning of “Troglodyte” sound unmistakably like they are the output from a machine rather than played by a human.
The intro out of the way, I was plunged into the unabashedly electronic portion of “Troglodyte”. The electronicness was enhanced by Mat Zo’s interesting use of triplets. These triplets are based on the intro rhythm’s quarter-notes, but eight rather than six triplets are grouped together to make a bar (in a 3+3+2 grouping), so that on paper it might be written in 8/6 time. This is a rhythmic trick I’ve tried out in some of my own music for a few years now, but it’s the first time I heard someone else do the same thing.
The triplet-based theme undergoes one or two interesting variations that provide some contrast. Mat Zo is extremely good at that: it doesn’t feel like any sonic frequency or texture has gone untouched, and he plays deftly and comfortably in all of them.
“Troglodyte” ends as it started, with the acoustic-sounding bells and organ pattern from the intro. This was my first time consciously noting the structure of an electronic song (A-B-A in this case). I wish I knew what song structures were common in EDM. For the past half-century at least, songs in popular music have mostly followed an A-B-A-B-C-B structure.
Is Mat Zo unique in breaking from this? It wouldn’t surprise me. But then again maybe the distinct way in which EDM is created, and possibly the contexts in which it’s listened to, tend toward nontraditional song structures.
The next song, “Take It Back”, is an energetic tune that simultaneously sounds futuristic and retrospective, like a time traveler from the year 2094 offering his impression of 1994. Given the name of the song and the only lyrics (“take it back to the early days”) I think that is probably not too far off the mark.
“Take It Back” is built on a frenzied, seizure-inducing staccato rhythm of samples, but flowing beneath this are long synth chords, and shimmering above it are higher-pitched samples and arpeggios that serve as obligatos. All of these regularly glissando upwards (always upwards!) in pitch to build up to the song’s various drops.
The third and final song, “MAD”, picks up right where “Take It Back” left off, so that if you’re not paying close attention you might not notice a new song has started. (Evidence of good mastering!)
“MAD” sounds somewhat similar to “Take It Back,” complete with the same rhythmical layering and use of samples and upward glissandos that lead up to drops, though “MAD” is decidedly darker and more intense overall.
At this point I realized I had never before listened to EDM the proper way. In the past, people showed it to me on their computers so I heard it over crappy laptop speakers, or else I was subjected to it in people’s cars or even at small venues a few times, where my mind was mostly focused on tuning it out and focusing on other things. It seems that to appreciate EDM, one has to fully submit to it.
This is especially true for Mat Zo, who stuffs each measure full of rich sonic variety. The twists and turns on this EP did not always surprise me, but it was clear that Mat Zo is unsatisfied with the predictability and repetition that must be a tempting trap for people who create music by clicking buttons on a screen. I could hear in this EP the attention to detail, the revision, and above all else the judgment and wisdom in Mat’s music.
I’m still not sure I could sit and listen to this kind of music for hours, and I don’t see myself putting it on in the car or while I work out, but I’m glad I had an opportunity to spend some quality time with it.