I’d hope this man needs no introduction. Pop music has started to meld with the new age of EDM that’s cropped up in the past decade or so. One of the many benefits includes the exposure of regular Joes to a new genre of music. Along with that, it unearths an entirely new culture, aesthetic, sound and scene, and gives well-needed exposure to an art that’s matured greatly with the advent of digital music production. That’s where Deadmau5 slots nicely. I’ve always thought of him as a stepping stone of sorts: Joel’s music is by no means pop, but his brand of House lends itself to the mainstream with its simple structure and accessibility. But until last week, I’ve been shy to it. I’ve managed to go this long without hearing a single song of his from start to finish. That changed. And so did my opinion of Deadmau5.
I knew this review was coming, but I didn’t know when. I’d meant to get around to listening to Deadmau5 for a while, and he came up in watercooler conversation at work last week. Coincidentally, before discussing his music, the topic centred around his PR image. If nothing else, Joel knows how to market himself, and I maintained that that’d serve to bolster his audience. I mean, who does this? I mean… he even did the brake callipers… I guess there’s no such thing as bad press. But anyway, I had a few albums to choose from. For Lack Of A Better Name was recommended to me, but I also recognized Ghosts N Stuff when skimming through the track list. I’ve also been embracing Spotify more and more recently (which I’d highly recommend if it fits your routine), and this was their first suggestion. I’ll start with the good, which is the production. I listened to this album first through headphones, and then I had such an urge to hear it on a system with a good subwoofer. There’s a reason Z103.5 here in Toronto is jabbed for playing his “Stuff”. These songs are bangers by definition. (But hey, support Canadian content!) House music finds its strength in the pulse of the kick that rarely fails to fall on beat. I was actually impressed to hear the album start with a full minute of drums before the first synth kicked in.
I’ve always found Deadmau5’s sound to be a tad simple. It comes down to his synthesis – the settings he’s applying to his keyboards to create the sounds you’re hearing. I figured I’d get sick of the FM Synths and resonant filters that define his gritty sound, but they maintained well throughout the album. Pair that with some good sidechaining to a ridiculously punchy kick drum, and you have an album that pumps and thumps hard! But I have to get into the substance of the album, and now we’re going to run into problems. I have 2 major criticisms of this album that go hand-in-hand.
Deadmau5 needs to break out of the linear loop habit. There’s nothing wrong with using loops in music, whether you create them yourself or source them from elsewhere. Rap music wouldn’t exist if not for loops. But there is a proper way to use loops, or at least, proper in the sense that rules are made to be broken. Anyone with a free edition of Fruity Loops can throw together a drum loop, a bass loop, and a synth loop and say they have a song. But that’s boring. To make a song dynamic, you have to start manipulating the loops. Have the drums fade in, lowpass the synth during the build, filter out the low end of the bass before the chorus to make the chorus hit harder, but do SOMETHING to the loops so that they don’t statically repeat.
I really hope this isn’t the direction EDM is shifting towards, and I’ll be listening to more of it to confirm or deny my theories, but For Lack Of A Better Name is an incredibly boring album. All of the ideas that comprise the songs can be heard within the first minute of the track, and from there, the loops are added and subtracted to form structure. This isn’t inherently bad, but when you’re using only 4-6 synth loops per song (if that, in some cases) there’s nothing to move the tracks along. You might disagree with me on that point, but I’d first ask you to consider my other criticism with this album: it is MUCH too long. That’s bolded, and I will draw your attention to it again by stating that this album is too long. It runs for 75 minutes across 10 tracks. Carry the one, and each song averages seven and a half minutes long. I like long songs. It gives the artist more room to tell a story and create an atmosphere for you to sink into. But bringing in the aforementioned repetitiveness, I was dragging my feet to give this album any subsequent listens.
“Word Problems” is nearly 8 minutes long. Not only is that a problem for a track that’s lacking content, but it actually recycles loops used from other tracks. I’m not kidding. There’s a low synth line in the intro that’s the same synth that was pitch shifted to rise during Hi Friend. That’d be like me writing the same guitar riff for 2 different songs. That’s entirely unacceptable. I’m not oblivious to the music’s demographic. I don’t feel this album was meant for you to sit back and take in. If someone was playing this at a party or a club, it’d tend to better suit the situation. But that being said, if we succumb to being satisfied with simplicity on this level, we’re ignoring an entire group of musicians that can create interesting music that’s still centred around it’s consistent pulsing rhythm. Truthfully, I don’t feel I’m being harsh. If I’m not holding back, this album feels amateur. I’m not convinced that your average novice producer couldn’t read an article on Wavetable Synthesis, open Reason, pipe it through Ableton, and churn out something of similar caliber.
Compositionally speaking, of course. I don’t fail to see why For Lack Of A Better Name is popular. I’m just entirely surprised that it is. “Ghosts N Stuff” saves this album, but mainly because it’s the only song under 5 minutes. Well, “More Ghosts N Stuff” is four and a half minutes long, but since it uses more than half of the loops from “Ghosts N Stuff”, I see them as a single 8 minute track. Even “Strobe”, a track a really enjoyed, could have a good third of it lopped off without losing content. Deadmau5 is capable of so much more than For Lack Of A Better Name. My homework is to listen to a modern Deadmau5 release (since this album was released in 2009) to see if there have been any improvements. I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be after 6 years, especially considering his prominence. My hope after listening to For Lack Of A Better Name is that it won’t be an influential album for future producers to follow. We can set the bar higher.