Album Review: Electronic Producer Porter Robinson's Dramatic 'Worlds' Is Ideal Headphone Music

Ryan Pfluger
Porter Robinson photographed by Ryan Pfluger on June 9, 2014 at Hotel on Rivington in New York.

Porter Robinson’s Worlds is the product of EDM exhaustion. The 22-year-old electronic producer played nearly every major music festival in 2011 and 2012, delivering well-manicured, crowd-pleasing bangers to the masses. But the used-up arrangements of big-room house and an increasingly homogenized dance scene got old. Burned out and, perhaps, a little bored, he moved into his parents’ basement in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he played ’90s-era video games and prepared to pivot.

What that downtime inspired is a dramatic 12-song compilation that spans ambient, disco and electro-pop. Obligatory bass drops and dance-friendly rhythms are replaced with delicate chord progressions and deep, forceful synths. This is post-EDM, a genre largely defined by patience, and one that is bound to throw a few of Robinson’s old fans for a loop.

Consider “Sea of Voices,” a five-minute orchestral track that he released in March via YouTube to tease the album. It has the emotions of a tear-jerking blockbuster and carries on for more than three minutes before a single beat kicks in. It was exciting to some fans, but others weren’t sure what to make of it. “I love this song, don’t get me wrong,” someone confessed in the video’s comments section, “but I hope the entire album isn’t like this.”

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It isn’t. “Voices” and similarly styled escapist track, “Divinity,” are juxtaposed against electropop-leaning songs like “Years of War,” which features vocals by frequent Owl City collaborator Breanne Duren and Sean Caskey of Last Dinosaurs. Robinson is a computer guy, so it isn’t often that he lets vocals take center stage.

The album’s most dynamic cut is “Flicker,” which features a faint female voice speaking in chopped-up Japanese. The track begins with a laid-back disco beat and plugs along like a retro video game, the subtle bassline building in the background. A little more than two minutes in, the voice suddenly skips and the synths drop out for 30 intense seconds of thick, swinging bass. Robinson may be in an experimental place, but he hasn’t thrown out his invitation to the party just yet.

As a package, Worlds is ideal headphone music, but for a live environment, it begs for something highly experiential. And while DJs like Steve Aoki and Bassnectar are bringing their multisensory shows to venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden, the emotional range of Robinson’s work may make it better-suited to the silver screen. Ultimately, the album feels less about the collective and more about the individual -- a novel approach to EDM. And for Robinson, who seems to prefer being tucked behind the comfort of his laptop and virtual worlds, it is the next frontier.