Theory: Electronic-music luminaries typically age with more dignity than do rock stars. This could be down to rock's longer history; with each passing year, innovations became scarcer and uninspired regurgitation increasingly common. The desire to appear "relevant" among middle-aged rockers rarely results in memorable material. Few bow out of the rock game like Captain Beefheart did—excelling and evolving to the end of their discographies. Artists in the much younger post-disco electronic-music world still reliably add new stylistic wrinkles to existing templates; they still find interesting fusions to keep redundancy at bay.
With that in mind, how are three of electronic music's biggest names—DJ Shadow, Moby, and Aphex Twin—faring after a quarter-century in the game? Judging by their most recent releases, Josh Davis, Richard Melville Hall, and Richard D. James have maintained relatively high quality control, even if their peak efforts seemingly remain beyond their grasp.
Moby's latest release, Long Ambients1: Calm. Sleep., comes as a free download from his website. The former rave icon—and author of a fascinating new memoir called Porcelain—has had ambient elements in his work almost from the start; in fact, he released Ambient in 1993. Even his more uptempo and popular numbers contain chillout undercurrents—e.g., "Go," "Feeling So Real," "Porcelain." Over the last couple of years, Moby has generated about four hours of, as he puts it on his site, "really really really quiet music to listen to when I do yoga or sleep or meditate or panic." Now he's just giving it away.
Dip in anywhere of the album's 11 long tracks—ranging from 17 to 35 minutes apiece—and you'll find luxurious swathes of nimbus-y synth sighs and moans that will slow your pulse and (potentially) ease your worries. Moby's melodic gifts emerge in subtle ways over extended durations, resulting in a tranquil comedown soundtrack—from work, drugs, the 21st motherfucking century, you name it. It's high-quality utilitarian music, but it likely won't make much of a dent in public consciousness. However, it does feel like a logical endpoint for a notorious party animal and rave exemplar, although it's doubtful Moby will go quiet after this. Don't worry, though: Obscure free record or not, he'll still be able to afford the finest vegan cuisine.
I haven't heard all of Aphex Twin's Cheetah EP (due July 8 on Warp Records), so let's focus on the one track from it that's available: "CIRKLON3 [Kolkhoznaya mix]." It's a nice enough midtempo electro jam that doesn't deviate from its opening theme—which is a real anomaly in RDJ's sonic universe. Instead, James gives us eight minutes of steady-state Aphexian melodic melancholy, off-the-rack 303 squelch, and unobtrusive, cruise-control beats that won't baffle even the greenest electronic-music n00b. For a minute, I actually thought one of James's young children might've composed it. Compare this to Syro's vibrant, discombobulating "CIRCLONT6A [141.98] [syrobonkus mix]" and notice the uneventfulness of the newer piece. Let's hope "CIRKLON3" isn't indicative of the rest of Cheetah. Whatever the case, it's hard to imagine RDJ ever totally losing his genius-level inspiration—or running out of stockpiled archival material that won't besmirch his lofty reputation.
Because we can never regain the relative sense of innocence we had in 1995 and 1996, when What Does Your Soul Look Like and Endtroducing hit our grateful ears, DJ Shadow's subsequent releases—including his new and fifth album proper, The Mountain Will Fall—have carried the air of anticlimax. Shadow had taken deep-crates selections and arranging of obscure samples to unparalleled heights of technical sophistication and emotional depth. (This is not to diminish similar efforts by the Bomb Squad, Prince Paul, and the Dust Brothers, but their virtuosity and acumen were put to different aims than Shadow's.)
The Mountain Will Fall maintains Shadow's rep for stylistic promiscuity. (This LP is a joint release through his own Liquid Amber imprint and Nas's Mass Appeal label.) The title track starts with a somber orchestral movement before it's interrupted by a wild yell and exceedingly chunky and splashy funk beats and zingy video-game synths. "The Mountain Will Fall" sounds like a Boards of Canada pastiche concocted by someone who has only read about the Scottish duo. It ends with the nostalgic sound of someone putting a cassette in a boom box. You'll scratch your head until it sounds like "Best Foot Forward."
Run the Jewels animate "Nobody Speak," which sounds like the record's stab for radio glory, even though El-P alludes to Trump fucking his youngest daughter in it, among other abundant profanities. But the ominous funk, punctuated by flagrant blues-rock guitar and bass and fluttery video-game synth wonkiness, combine for a wonderfully anomalous hiphop banger. "Three Ralphs" is a studied exercise in trap, all infernal low-end dirgemongering and molasses-slow, handclapped beats. Shadow once more deploys a sample of Timothy Leary's utterance, "The time has come, Ralph/Are you ready to die?" from his 1967 LP Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out. (While in UNKLE, Shadow used part of the same snippet on 1994's "The Time Has Come.")
On the brutally funky "Bergschrund," vaunted German keyboardist Nils Frahm contributes some of the most intriguing synth tonalities to appear on a Shadow release in years. Then we're whiplashed back to an eternal 1986 of the mind with "The Sideshow," a party-/battle-rap track with bass blurge bleeding beneath guest MC Ernie Fresh's ultramagnetic flow and furious scratches. Two cuts later, "Mambo" sets mambo instructional record chatter over mid-'00s dubstep gravitas. This is hilarious cognitive dissonance—you can tremble in the extreme bass frequencies and panoply of science-fictional synth coloration.
The rest of Mountain contains more dalliances with dubstep and shooter-video-game atmospheres, David Axelrod–esque orch-funk grandeur, and a psychedelic romantic ballad, all impeccably woven and inventively programmed. Shadow is still in the lab, challenging himself, rarely compromising, exploring tangents, and putting his best foot forward more often than not.