|Bassnectar, the nom de plume of musician, DJ, and producer Lorin Ashton, is the face of American dubstep, whether or not he likes or deserves it (he doesn’t). Closing out his spring tour in front of 4,500 fans at the Washington Avenue Armory last weekend, Ashton worked his way through a two-hour-and-20-minute formulaic, repetitive set that would have felt concise at 60 minutes and comfortable at 90. Yet the long-haired, head-bobbing, T-shirt-clad Ashton had little trouble putting concertgoers in a frenzy for the full 140, splitting his time between two laptops, mixers, and MIDI controllers stationed atop a roughly 10-foot-long podium, churning out a lengthy mix of electronic dance music.|
Ashton’s mix is not dubstep, but trying to pigeonhole the grab-bag style of electronic music he purveys to such acclaim and popularity is about as useless as trying to define what dubstep is. His music is often slapped with the label because of his incessant use of wobble, the low-pass-filtered, oscillating bass tone, which has become so pervasive in today’s dubstep scene that its growing (over)use has caused a rift between the genre’s old and new guard, spawning pejorative terms like “drumstep” and “brostep” in order to try and separate the good from the bad. Suffice it to say, the genre, stretching into its second decade of existence, is in the middle of an identity crisis.
Genre signifiers and labels aside, Ashton’s onslaught of bass-heavy electronica was relentless—just how both the artist and crowd demanded it. However, the massive wall of sound came at a price: Ashton seemed afraid to build tension over the course of his lengthy set, giving only brief moments of clarity and suspense before dropping the bass, shifting the pitch, and squealing onward. This was all for good reason: Anything resembling nuance or attention to detail outside of the “how loud and low can we get this” approach deflated the amorphous blob that filled the Armory’s floor within seconds. Another bass drop here, another chart-topping rap sample there, and the crowd found their way again, swinging their arms to Ashton’s self-proclaimed “omni-tempo maximalism.” The whole thing worked like a cheap gimmick, but no one in the room cared.
Ashton opened his set with a sampled and reworked version of Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says” before quickly sliding into his own rattling “Here We Go,” laying the groundwork for the rest of the show’s monotonous execution: Chop a hip-hop sample (e.g., Lil Wayne’s “I’m Me,” Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”), mix it with a Bassnectar-helmed dub or edit (e.g., the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind [Bassnectar Remix]”), and cap it off with a Bassnectar original (e.g. “The 808 Track,” “Bass Head”). Rinse, repeat, and get ‘em dancing.
Trying to think about Bassnectar’s set in a track-by-track way is beside the point. The originals, remixes and samples all blurred together into one thunderous act that came to rest only for a few seconds throughout the night. The mix was only part of a full-blown production, a collection of beat-matched, hyper-danceable tracks synced with a lighting and video spectacle that added to the madness. Matching the hectic, aggressive tone of the music, strobes flashed, animations whirled across large LED screens, and multicolored spotlights washed over the crowd. Then, as the set came to a close, animations were replaced by muted footage of Fox News’ talking-head elite. What seemed like an attempted middle finger to right-wing media heroes turned out to be an odd moment of raving and dancing to Sarah Palin, not at her.
So the dubstep purists can and will reject Bassnectar as anything but dubstep. They’re entirely correct; this isn’t dubstep. Ashton and his frequency-oscillating, face-melting brethren are making something different, reimagining an older genre and manipulating it into something they see fit. Saturday’s crowd of self-proclaimed “bass heads” weren’t there to debate genre or discuss style and influence; they were there to dance and be assaulted by Ashton’s blitzkrieg of bass. They got what they came for.