By Paul Ballard
Date / Venue: July 3rd, Whammy Bar, Auckland
The spontaneity of electronica performed live is something that can definitely make or break an artist. It is the great illusion: even though it can be performed live is it rarely created in real-time. All the programming and sequencing is often (for the most part) created using pretty much the same technology upon which it will be performed; therefore the opportunity to breath something new into the fray, to de-construct and re-construct things within the 'live' environment becomes ever more prevalent.
When we first heard that TOKiMONSTA was finally gracing our shores, it was with a buzz of anticipation and excitement. Any artist bearing the Brainfeeder brand (and now with releases on Ultra Records) is worth their salt and it can easily be said that TOKi has been one of the more arresting artists to surface through the new 'bass-age'. Her woozy, eloquent style has brought a certain symphony to the table and I was interested to see how she was going to translate that mood live.
I wasn't the only one. A healthy crowd of beanie-wearing devotees had also stepped out on this wintry Wednesday evening, unperturbed by the relatively late change in venue from Toto's to K Rd'sWhammy Bar. I refrained from forging any immediate and somewhat clichéd notions that this was still an 'underground' scene; however I must admit the threadbare carpets and graffitied walls gave things a foreboding sense of purpose.
When we arrived, local artist Kamandi was already warming up things nicely and that included the bass-bins. For the slowly gathering crowd it was the perfect entree - deep choppy beats that were so heavy I imagined him having to carry his laptop on a trailer. Suren Unka then stepped up - another emerging local talent with a wildly different yet complementary take on things. We were treated to some pounding 4/4 kicks and enough piano-laced trance to evoke fond memories of 1998's Return to the Source parties at Brixton Academy. With drumsticks firmly in hand, he added and overlayed sounds within the live context, which brought back a sense of the organic. He was loving it, and it showed.
The pace was set, the room had definitely heated up and all coats had finally found a rack of their own by the time Jennifer Lee (aka TOKiMONSTA) graced the stage. Sporting a glittered silvery cap and a Californian smile that lit up the room, it was obvious that she was stoked to finally be here in NZ. After a brief welcome though a feedbacked mic we were straight into things. and there was little time to gather our thoughts as it kicked in hard from the get-go. With precision, Lee began to layer bass and drum breaks under swirling visuals. It was a train that we were already running to catch from the outset, hastily climbing aboard as it traversed smoothly around corners at speeds between 70 and 140bpm.
"Are you still with me?" she asked with a smile as she took things up a couple of gears through a giddy trip of hiphop, house and trap style percussion. Vocal samples were looped and chopped to keep up with the pace, moving quickly past the window of the speeding carriages almost like conversations on a fairground ride;XXYYXX, Grandmaster Flash, Blackstreet and even Armand van Helden at one point found themselves spinning headlong in the mélange. The dancefloor heaved and surged like a breaking wave; hold tight, Auckland!
After about 20 minutes in, it had become increasingly clear that this was not exactly the journey most had expected, and the nausea kicked in. Although clinical by its organisation, construction and delivery, the continued alternating between styles and genres every 16 bars eventually started to take its toll. Lee had the opportunity here to cleverly de-construct things, to have fun with her own creations that we in-turn had grown to love, especially in light of the fact that a new album had just been released.
Instead she had opted for an all-out assault on the senses, scratching the surface of all genres with little or no space for any real depth. Understandably, elements from the new release were very much in the mix here: the hard Kool Keith vocal overlays from The Force; the instantly recognisable riffs of Let It Go; and the milky sounds of Gavin Turek among others. But there was no real chance for them to deservedly breathe and flourish. Instead they too became part of the white noise, without the chance to leave any lasting impression. There was a small break of sunshine as the beautiful strings and vocals of Darkest (Dim) finally clambered to the surface, but it was soon swallowed up again in the 140bpm calvacade, extinguished just as quickly as it had sparked.
After 60 relentless minutes the show had reached its final destination, but for some the interest had faded long before that. Primarily, it wasn't really anything that we haven't seen before. This non-stop megamix (a seemingly fitting description) of scraping through genres got tired very quickly, and it wasn't as if her selection choices were original either. It would have been slightly more forgivable had it have been a purely vinyl DJ set, but only slightly. The samples would still have been stale and outdated, but at least it would have been more intriguing to look at. As a result, the only interesting thing to come out of the speakers was of course her own compositions; it was just a shame that they needed to fight for so much space during the proceedings.
"I can play one more song," Lee proclaimed, ironic given the fact that she hadn't really played 'one' song in its entirety the entire time she had been on stage. Maybe this was the chance; maybe we would finally get to hear the real TOKiMONSTA, breaking down and celebrating all those delicious layers and showing us what she was made of? My mustered excitement was short-lived. All that was left in the tank was a three-minutePurple Haze/Dam Funk mashup. Sadly, it was as if Lee herself was not confident that we would 'get it'. Almost like it was assumed we would be unhappy for her to simply stand in the spotlight with her APC and do what she is so good at - touch our soul with beautifully produced music. Surely the very idea of the interaction is to explore?