Shpongle: It’s Crazy But It Works
The first time I saw Shpongle, I was struck by how diverse the sounds were within just one show. At the beginning, slow, moody psytrance music put everyone in a relaxed mood, warming up the crowd as the swirling 3D projection visuals began onstage. By the end of the show, the dance floor was a Carnivale-esque sweaty mass, fueled by frantic Latin-inspired dance music and visuals to match. How could a single artist change so much within just one show?
It’s not even just a question of how, but of why. In this day and age, with so many musicians vying for attention, fueled by the free publicity provided by the Internet, there’s a lot of pressure for artists to have a brand. For musicians, that means a singular, well-defined sound, which might develop over time according to the demands of the industry but which isn’t hard to summarize in a press release or blog post. Artists that seem to span multiple genres without fusing them into a singular sound are usually ill-advised.
However, that’s just what Shpongle does: within a single concert or album, you might feel as though you’re listening to a host of different genres. And yet it works, somehow. It all has a unique Shpongle sound-stamp on it that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it definitely makes a case for not trying to limit or over-define music. If Shpongle focused only on the dark psytrance or world-music-fusion side of their sound, the listening experience would be far less pleasurable. The variety is what makes it interesting. Although Shpongle is thought of as one of the frontrunners of the “psybient” genre, which combines world music with psychedelic trance and ambient, putting a name to the sound almost seems limiting. Shpongle is just, well, Shpongle.
Genre labels aside, they played an excellent set at Philadelphia’s perennially wonderful Electric Factory on Saturday, April 4. It was something of a contrast to the last time I saw them play: while their show at the same venue about a year ago felt more world-musicy, this set fell more on the side of darkly witchy psytrance, feeling less like a freaky Carnivale than like a wizard party that Harry Potter would have gone to if he hadn’t been so busy fighting evil. Both shows were great, but in very different ways, which matters a lot to me. Had it been basically the same show again, it would be hard to make a case for seeing them once more.
Of course, the two shows were also unified in many ways: the most recent iteration of the Shpongletron (the wild-looking stage creation courtesy of visual artist Zebbler) appeared once again—would the show have really felt complete without it?—and there is something deeply unique about the cyclical, trancey rhythms of Shpongle’s music. But the notable differences between albums, songs, and sets by the same artist are a testament to the experimental impulses of non-mainstream electronic music. Let’s face it: popular artists like Britney Spears may pull from electronic genres in their songs, but we pretty much always know what we’re going to get from them. Artists who aren’t vying for radio time, however, have more freedom to surprise us. Perhaps that explains some of the lasting popularity of electronic music artists like Shpongle: you’ll never get bored listening to them. They’re currently working on their sixth album, and I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.