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Album Review: ‘Worlds’ – Porter Robinson

It’s been almost four years since Porter Robinson dropped his Worlds album and I still hear the ripples of its influence all across EDM today. In 2014, the then 21-year-old Porter Robinson switched the game up by abandoning his heavy-hitting DJ sets to instead chase video game and anime-infused nostalgia tunes. And to accompany his album, Porter Robinson’s vision for dance music was fully realized with his Worlds live tour. This groundbreaking album and tour completely changed the tone of EDM, and many up-and-coming artists today have found inspiration from the young producer.

I still remember the first time I listened to this album. Someone, somewhere on the Internet had posted a link to NPR’s First Listen channel which is a site where you can listen to select albums a few days before they are officially released. The big feature on this day was Porter Robinson’s Worlds. I had seen chatter about this album for months up to this point and had also listened to and enjoyed the singles ‘Flicker’ and ‘Sad Machine’, but I still wasn’t prepared for the full album experience.

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The Tracks

The album begins with ‘Divinity’ featuring vocals by Amy Millan. This track is perfect for setting the tone for the rest of the album. It includes all of the ingredients that define Worlds: heavy drums, ambient build ups, dream-like vocals, retro video game sounds, and the overall feeling of floating in some sort of digital oasis.

Next up is the iconic track ‘Sad Machine’ which was one of the original four tracks released as singles before the album release. ‘Sad Machine’ is known for being the first ever track to feature vocals from Porter Robinson himself. It is also one of the first tracks to really begin the storytelling of the album. The lyrics to this song suggest the awakening or rescuing of some sort of virtual entity. It reminds me of any video game that requires a hero to venture out into the world to rescue a loved one.

The third track on the album, ‘Years Of War’, continues the melodic motif of the previous songs, but this time lyrically takes us back to the years of being children with vibrant imaginations. ‘Years Of War’ is a playful retelling of the experience of children at war, either between each other or with the authorities that be. The uplifting tone in conjunction with the melodic motif of the previous two songs reveals its message of innocence. ‘Years Of War’ is another nod to the fantastical, but this time delivered through the memories of children gearing up for a role-playing game, whether it be physical or virtual.

Track four is another album single called ‘Flicker’. This is still one of my favorites. While staying true to the overall vibe of the last three tracks, ‘Flicker’ also incorporates Porter Robinson’s interest in Japanese culture. ‘Flicker’ features random samples of Japanese phrases that he pretty much designs to sound like a rap of sorts. Overall, ‘Flicker’ is an upbeat, funky tune. I’ll admit that I’m an unapologetic bass fiend, so it was a pleasant surprise when a little after the halfway point of this song it drops into a glitchy, somewhat heavy breakdown that somehow manages to retain its Worlds vibes. Even more pleasant is how this song’s position in the tracklist basically primes the listener for the next track, ‘Fresh Static Snow’, which leads with one of the heaviest Electro basslines on the album. ‘Flicker’ received its own music video right around the album release. The video portrays one of the major themes of the Worlds project: the blurring between the physical and the virtual.

The first four songs on the album (‘Divinity’, ‘Sad Machine’, ‘Years of War’, and ‘Flicker’) seem to have been intentionally placed to ease the listener into the virtual fantasy that is Worlds. Each track on its own conveys a specific aspect of Porter Robinson’s new style. Every track on the album is of course unique, but they mostly act as extensions to the themes set in place by the first four. In fact, like all great albums, Worlds in its entirety can be seen as a self-contained story. By the time the album nears ‘Sea of Voices’, the third-to-last song, it becomes clear that we are nearing an end to an epic journey. The last three tracks on the album, ‘Sea of Voices’, ‘Fellow Feeling’, and ‘Goodbye To A World’ in my opinion act as a three-song outro. And this brings me to my all-time favorite song on the album, ‘Fellow Feeling’. This track is more experimental and acts as a sort of meditation or recap of Porter Robinson’s sound design and overall direction. I also think that it’s a call-to-action and a statement about the state of EDM during that time, as suggested by a line in the song, “now please, hear what I hear”, before dropping into a distorted and jumbled bassline; one of the most unexpected things to hear on such a refined album. The live version of ‘Fellow Feeling’ was definitely a moment to remember as well. After ‘Fellow Feeling’, tensions ease as ‘Goodbye To A World’ literally bids the listener farewell.

I don’t pretend to like every song on the album. ‘Hear The Bells’ for instance has a pretty epic crescendo, but overall it sounds a little generic to me, almost as if it were intended for an indie rock radio segment. Also, ‘Lionhearted’ — while being one of the signature songs on the album (complete with its own music video) — took me a long time to appreciate. It didn’t strike me as anything original at first, and instead reminded me of older songs by MGMT. ‘Polygon Dust’ off of Worlds was a similar song, but less Pop-y and more inline with what I thought about the rest of the album. Many people seem to enjoy those two songs though. And I have come around to enjoying the chorus of ‘Lionhearted’ a little more, but mainly just the melody.

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Porter Robinson’s Worlds changed the state of EDM by infusing it with honest and substantial emotion that challenged conceptions of masculinity, femininity, and noise vs. beauty in regards to music. Where before we had producer after producer creating random singles that are only listenable when mixed into a DJ set, Porter Robinson invites his listeners into an immersive world-building experience. He also proved to be even more relatable by revealing his love for video games and anime, two interests of mine that have increasingly become more accessible and popular in Western culture.  Since the release of Worlds I’ve noticed a profound change in the EDM landscape. All of us bass heads were suddenly reminded why we love electronic music in the first place. Whether consciously or not, it seems many producers have borrowed the themes and sound design of Worlds for their own purposes. I wouldn’t even go as far as calling these producers copycats. Instead I think they are inspired, and many up-and-coming artists seem to have directly absorbed Porter Robinson’s sound to their own art direction. His influence doesn’t end with the album either. The Worlds Tour live show itself is the second bomb that was dropped on the EDM scene.

The Live Show

By the time Worlds came around I was already familiar with Porter Robinson’s Spitfire EP which was an eclectic mix of classic EDM bangers (fun fact: it was also the first project to be released on Skrillex’s very own OWSLA label). I had never seen Porter Robinson live and didn’t believe I was missing out on much due to the over-saturated nature of DJ sets around this time (circa 2012-14 was definitely the peak of EDM’s rise in the U.S.). However after my first listen to Worlds I was suddenly intrigued by this producer whom I’d only associated with high-octane EDM sets before. This new Porter Robinson resonated much more with me, so I decided to buy tickets to the live show.

Lucky for me, the Worlds Tour came to my city just a couple of weeks after the album release. By this point I had listened to the album front-to-back multiple times. I had heard some opinions about the show from people who had seen it in prior cities. A couple people mentioned how low tempo it was, almost to the point of making them fall asleep, and others talked it up as being one of the greatest shows they’ve ever been too. Given my reaction to the album I was almost positive that I would love the show. Based on screenshots and video clips I saw online I also already had a good idea of the stage setup.

With the Worlds Tour, Porter Robinson wanted the live show to be just as immersive as the album. He decided to go completely clear and transparent with his equipment table in order to make the visuals behind him more visible. This helped to take emphasis off Porter Robinson himself and add more focus to the visuals that help tell the Worlds story.  It also became apparent that this show would be special when he brought out the various instruments he’d use during the show; these included a drum pad and a couple of other MIDI devices such as keyboard and microphone. The typical EDM set usually consists of nothing more than the DJ, his/her controller, and whatever visuals the artist’s team decides to throw on at a given moment. As the Worlds show progressed, Porter Robinson could be seen live mixing songs and occasionally singing on his microphone and playing the keyboard live. The most epic moments of the show however were when he’d grab his drum sticks and start jamming out on his drum pad. His drum pad was of course mapped to some heavy Electro percussive synths, so every once in awhile the crowd was treated to a unique and aggressive jam session that stood in stark contrast to the more serene and melodic sections of the show. All in all the Worlds Tour was a rollercoaster of emotions backed by anime and 8-bit video game visuals as well as Porter Robinson’s sentimental performance.

 

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The Worlds Tour was one of the first EDM shows (that I’ve seen) this decade to really push the DJ and the controller to the side and focus on a traditional and organic live show. Nowadays I’m seeing more EDM producers integrating live instruments into their performance. This is the synthesis of digital and analog that I believe EDM has been working towards since the beginning. It’s no surprise that one of the major themes of the Worlds album is how the line between the virtual and the physical are blurring.

Soon after the first time I saw the Worlds Tour live show (I think I ended up seeing it 4 or 5 times) I created an 8 minute compilation of some footage from it. Watch it below for a taste of what was experienced!

To my surprise, there is much more I can say about Worlds and Porter Robinson’s projects in general, but for the sake of being concise I think it best to draw this post to a close. I would be doing everyone a disservice however if I did not at least recommend listening to the Worlds remix album after becoming familiar with the original. For the remix album, Porter Robinson selected very specific artists who must’ve met a certain criteria of his, and every song on the original album got a remix. What I love most about this remix album is how every selected artist brilliantly adds their own signature sound while retaining the essence of the original track. This is something that takes tons of skill, otherwise the original song has no relevance to whatever beat the remixing artist is trying to add to it. It’s no surprise that the Worlds remix album is almost as good as the original; every artist chosen was already proven to be amazing at what they do. Listen to Worlds (Remixed) on Spotify. I also want to use this as an opportunity to recommend Porter Robinson’s newest project Virtual Self. I recently wrote about it here. Expect more posts about Virtual Self from me soon!

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