Phantogram opened the absolutely packed and sweaty Orange Peel Sunday night with its brand of trip-hop driven by live drum kit breakbeats and Sarah Barthel’s airy and distorted vocals. Barthel's stage presence dominated anytime the strobes came on and her flung hair turned into snapshots of intense motion. The band set the energy level high for The Glitch Mob – they weren't nearly loud enough, but they got the crowd riled up and involved with danceable beats and tons of movement on stage.
And then The Glitch Mob came out to their light thrones and promptly stunk everything up. The band itself is basically a rehash of Justice’s characteristically choppy, lush and distorted synths, but with more dubstep-influenced beats and three people instead of two. Just another amalgamation of trendy European electronic music repackaged for an American audience.
I could comment on how ending a show on a remix of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” is the electronica equivalent of a rock band going out with a “Freebird” cover, or how Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger” is just dead and done and we can start remixing something else now, but those are just, like, my opinions man. I’d rather talk about how poorly the band used the equipment at its disposal.
The JazzMutant Lemur, from leo.prie.to
At the heart of The Glitch Mob’s setup are three JazzMutant Lemurs, completely customizable multi-touch screens that can act like a keyboard, drumpad, sequencer and filter control, all at once. For each song, the band has a set of custom pages that have all the various instrumentation and effects they need to recreate a particular track. Melody lines are set up as a row of consecutive buttons, like a keyboard with only the right notes. The band can switch between different pages by reaching over to their accompanying controls, an array of physical buttons called a drumpad controller that’s basically a specialized keyboard. It’s all powered through four computers, a workstation for each member’s equipment throne, and wired to a central brain with a total of 18 inputs. It’s impressive and a lot of thought obviously went into setting it up, but they kind of missed something.
Let’s say you have the coolest guitar in the world. It’s made from the highest quality tonewood, completely setup to your specifications with your favorite set of strings, and all the effects you could ever conjure are at your feet in an infinite array of pedals. But when you go to play a note, you can only pick at one volume – the loudest – without reaching down and turning a knob. Is it really an awesome guitar without any dynamics?
That’s the problem with The Glitch Mob’s touchscreen setup: the screens are not sensitive to the velocity of their player’s input. Touchscreens have come a long way since the early resistive types that required a stylus, but they’re still a ways off from being a suitable replacement for a physical drumpad. When the band paused for a series of drum solos on the JazzMutant Lemurs, they fell flat on their face. The timing wasn’t off, that’s basically impossible thanks to Ableton’s quantization, but the same-volume snare hits and complete lack of diminuendos came across as incredibly cheap and boring. The Lemurs are simply not made to be a drumpad – they’re great for X-Y filters, sliders and other things that only need spatial coordinates, but when it comes to controlling an instrument like a drum, how fast you hit the head is crucial.
Now, let’s say you had that same awesome-but-flawed guitar, and sitting literally right next to it was a very similar guitar that could play whatever volume you like with all the same effects, but not setup to your specifications. It still works just fine. When it came time for your solo, which guitar would you pick up?
And that’s where The Glitch Mob’s setup just doesn’t make sense. At least one of the thrones was equipped with a Korg PadKontrol, a drumpad controller with physical buttons that are velocity sensitive (I couldn't identify the other two pads, but interviews suggest they might be M-Audio Trigger Fingers, also velocity sensitive). If you can program custom pages into your touchscreens, you can surely program a button that turns your physical controller into its intended use. Was it showmanship – touchscreens do look pretty futuristic, and hardly any electronic artists have their equipment setup so the crowd can see it – or just convenience? Either way, the setup was backwards.
Even more perplexing is the fact that each member had two Roland V-Pad snares (Roland PD-125SXs, I believe) onstage… And in Roland’s V-Pad line of equipment, only the toms and the cymbals are velocity sensitive – the rest are just triggers. In the same way that the touchscreens are only looking for the small electrical current from your fingertips, these MIDI snares are only looking for enough pressure to send a signal for the computer to render a note. When the band took up their flamboyant drumline-style solos on the snares, it was pure theater. It would have sounded no different if it were played on the touchscreens, and only better if played on the drumpad.
So the band went with the guitar with only one volume, apparently because it looks cooler. Flailing your arms in the air with thick fog and flashing, seizure-inducing lights looks a lot more awesome than pressing rubber pads I guess, but it means The Glitch Mob’s stage presence is mainly smoke and mirrors. You have to give them credit for performing a respectable number of the parts live (a lot of live electronic music boils down to twisting rotary knobs), but the band still blatantly sacrificed function for form. It’s okay to have a neat light show and get the audience on their feet and having a good time, and I don’t think that would have been sacrificed if they played the damn drums where they were meant to be played. Working a drumpad is hard (I mean just look at this). If you understand the tradeoffs the band made in quality for presentation, you have to be disappointed with them as musicians.
Photos by Rich Orris: