SBTRKT has always been a bit of an enigma. His music is impossible to categorize. His face is hidden behind a tribal mask. Though his ‘sound’ changes from track to track, the sonic through-lines come in his heavyweight melodies and intricate percussions. This music is nothing if not meticulous.
After years of perfecting his self-taught craft, Aaron Jerome released the visionary tune “Wildfire” featuring Yukumi of Little Dragon. Drake heard the amazing single and decided to hijack it for OVO – a move that I would resent more if it had not been the timely vehicle that brought SBTRKT into the consciousness of American music. This song was a landmark release in the diversifying electronic industry; it came at a crucial moment. “Wildfire” taught many that it didn’t need to be dubstep to bang hard. It didn’t have to be the breathy, archetypal “I Remmmemmbberrrrr” for a female vocalist to take center stage. The song was weird, tense and absolutely brilliant.
His debut release went on to solidify his place in this industry. His 2011 self-titled album is excellent from start to finish. Working frequently with guest vocalists, Jerome finds a way to maintain his edgy, inimitable aesthetic while tailoring each production to the vocal talent at hand. Each song is a new journey — a different piece of a very diverse puzzle that SBTRKT has built for us.
For years I’ve speculated what his live show might be like. Despite years of music journalism, the closest I’ve ever come to seeing SBTRKT was a well-timed stumble through the Gobi Tent at a Coachella of yesteryear. The Belasco is one of DTLA’s “old gems” – a row of grandly decorated old theatres that have been refurbished to house this new era of entertainment. And when I say “grandly decorated” I mean this is some Versailles type s***. Immense golden façades and exquisitely painted dome ceiling type s***. I wasn’t even bothered by the set breaks because it gave me some solid, dedicated time to just take it all in.
This was the second night of SBTRKT’s run in Los Angeles, but the crowd was thirsty. As Jerome and his two-person backing band took the stage, the audience didn’t even have time to think. Immediate explosion of sound and we are off. The trio comes out swinging – hard-hitting, expertly layered sound builds itself up and cuts itself off in perfect time. The concert kicks into full gear when Jerome’s newest hit “New Dorp.New York.” begins about three songs in.
Center stage, the man behind the mask rotates frantically between complex musical machines. There must be seven or eight different instruments surrounding him, and they all seem to be operating at once. He’ll push a couple buttons over here and then program a little somethin’ over there but don’t worry! He won’t miss his vocoder cue up in front. There must be a method, but to a naïve spectator – it looks like total madness.
We cruise through several more hits and by the time the slow, sensual “Look Away > Osea” combo unfolds, we are ready for tempo change. Though airy and ethereal on the album, this track took on a new character when performed live. Suddenly it was a glitchy, steamy masterpiece infused with a dark sexuality. The “you want this but you’re not allowed to have this” type of sexuality. Creeping into the category of trip-hop for a minute, this was one of my favorite sequences of the evening.
He snapped us out of our post-coital daze with the fan-favorite single “Temporary View” – a track that will forever be a singalong moment at these shows. The crowd knew almost every word. To deliver “Higher”, the band was joined on stage by one of hip-hops most offbeat up-and-comer, Raury. Donned in a sensible onesie and a straw hat, this ATL-bred boy is definitely a goon. But guess what? He killed it. His smooth-as-butter flow glides perfectly over the complex beats, raising the stakes with every chorus. There was only one thing that could top this…
And finally the moment we were all waiting for. A dark stage and brief silence left us breathless and hoping…”I could bet all of the riches that I ever had”. The room erupts. Bit by bit, it falls into place. The tripped-out bass line creeping around the room, the synth melody gyrating above. This was one of those ~*moments*~ as a music fan. Off the heels of this anthem, the people demanded more. SBTRKT answered with an encore including the sentimental “Something Goes Right” and a remix of “Lotus Flower” so exhilarating and individual that even Thom Yorke would be left questioning his creative worth.
What can I take away from this concert? A renewed confidence in SBTRKT as one of the few unique talents continuing to push for innovation in electronic music. So many superstar DJs have found a sound that the frat doods love and they have stuck to it. How easy it would have been for Aaron Jerome to spit out albums full of “Wildfire” re-worked and re-titled, but instead he pushes for something more complex. Something different and unheard of. After watching this frenzied, impassioned performance, I am beginning to think that maybe the beauty is not in the method, but in the madness.