Last week, I traveled to San Francisco to see Justice and the Knife, two world-class electronic acts who are playing only a handful of U.S. dates each this year, and who represent polar ends of the electronic spectrum—Parisian duo Justice mash up electro, hiphop, rock, and techno to make big, blunt anthems, while Swedish siblings the Knife make obliquely macabre electro pop at subzero temperatures. Their live shows are equally oppositional, with Justice opting for a skillful, if not revelatory, DJ set, while the Knife put on an audio-visual spectacle consisting of predominantly preprogrammed elements.
Justice, as well as openers MSTRKRFT, are at the vanguard of a new, but familiar, trend in techno. They weld arena-sized breakbeats and classic drum machinery to sampled riffs and heavy-metal synths to forge electronic music that's as fit for breakdancing as it is for headbanging. In this, they recall the rock crossover-ready "electronica" of the '90s such as the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy, but where those acts stumbled trying to play rock stars, Justice and MSTRKRFT succeed by delivering the goods without taking themselves too seriously.
Justice's DJ set at SF's Mezzanine effortlessly mixed '90s cheese (Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam," Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up") and modern anthems (their own "Waters of Nazareth," Zongamin's "Bongo Song") into a relentless beatdown that seemed to exhaust the crowd well before last call.
The Knife played only three cities on their sold-out American tour: New York, L.A., and San Francisco, which seems strange and inadequate for a band that arguably released one of the most important albums of the year (Silent Shout). The packed crowd—also at Mezzanine—seemed to agree, judging by their ecstatic response to the Knife's multimedia show.
Their performance began with a countdown sequence projected on a scrim in front of the stage—the crowd shouted "3, 2, 1!" before one of the Knife's trademark icy arpeggios kicked in and the pair appeared onstage bundled in puffy, black body suits and wearing orange simian masks that glowed under black light. Karin Dreijer Andersson stood still before a microphone, with Olof Dreijer behind a silhouetted bank of equipment. For some songs, Dreijer also wielded matching orange drumsticks in time to the beats, but without clearly triggering them. Andersson sang live, but the transformative vocal processing and pitch shifting were presumably preprogrammed.
A big part of the show was the visuals, created by the Knife's videographer, Andreas Nilsson. Throughout the performance, projections danced on the scrim in front of the band as well as on a screen behind them—stars, geometric patterns, circles of solid color, computer-desktop screenshots, bizarre television clips, flash animations, and pieces of the Knife's own music videos. Andersson sang "Marble House" as a duet with a face projected onto an orb floating over the side of the stage. Over the course of the set, the face became a skull, then a monstrous thing assembled from displaced facial features.
Justice and the Knife are both talented studio artists, but, while Justice's set was flawless and fun, only the Knife delivered on the promise of their eerie videos and brilliant albums.
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 17
Seattle's all-star, all-live house band boasts Reggie Watts on vocals, Nordic Soul (AKA Decibel Fest mastermind Sean Horton) on laptop, and a whole lot of synthesizers. Their music is smart, floor-filling house, and Watts's vocals are suitably restrained. It's a rare treat to see a band create truly live electronic music, and the able musicians of Synth Club do it well. With Das Rut. Nectar, 412 N 36th St, 632-2020, 10 pm, $8, 21+.
Kaskade's music is, like the man himself, clean-cut and boringly pretty. Cheesy diva vocals, tinkling pianos, glossy synths, and the occasional session guitar play out over precise, canned house beats. Formulas don't come out of nowhere, so some people must like this sort of thing. With Jon Lemmon and Nate Starr. Neumo's, 925 E Pike St, 709-9467, 10 pm, $15 adv, 21+.
SATURDAY NOVEMBER 18
For their ninth-anniversary party, the Baltic Room has Daz-I-Kue, who hails from West London's world-famous broken-beat collective Bugz in the Attic. Bugz recently released their first album of original material, Back in the Doghouse. Expect Daz-I-Kue to represent his crew to the fullest with a grab bag of riotous beats, funky bass, old-school synths, and soulful vocals. Baltic Room, 1207 Pine St, 625-4444, 9 pm, free, 21+.
JAMIE DROUIN AND YANN NOVAK
Seattle sound sculptor and Dragon's Eye Recordings impresario Yann Novak teams up with multimedia artist and fellow field-recording aficionado Jamie Drouin to present a site-specific composition exploring "the ability of sound to alter the atmosphere of spaces we inhabit—physically and emotionally." A short conversation with the artists will follow the performance. Henry Art Gallery, UW campus, 543-2280, 3–4:30 pm, free, all ages.