deadmau5, 'while(1<2)': Track-By-Track Review

Album Review
4.5

Joel Zimmerman – aka deadmau5 – has seen his fair share of strife and success in the two years since his last album release. From a tumultuous ended engagement with tattoo artist Kat Von D to a new record deal with Astralwerks, change has been the only constant for the globetrotting Canadian producer. Nonetheless, the outspoken artist has managed to achieve staggering commercial success and simultaneous critical acclaim without pandering to the charts via predictable sounds or featured pop stars.

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However, it’s lonely at the top. Whether or not he’d like to admit it, the artist’s recent work is indicative of the past 24 months’ emotional toll. Hinting at trouble beneath the surface, Zimmerman replaced three years of Soundcloud uploads with his brooding “7” EP last November, which consisted of seven mournful piano sonatas that were downright painful to listen to. Not because they weren’t good (they were), but because they imparted a visceral sadness that even had his fans flocking to social feeds to check in on his condition.

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While such melancholic moments do not define “while (1<2),” they purposefully interrupt it at times. The majestic 25-track effort veers from spirited progressive house and experimental electronica to tender piano interludes with surprising ease. Its varied textures seem to mirror its creator’s own emotional and experiential extremes, from the thrill of the festival spotlight to the seclusion of the studio, where the alienation that accompanies a marquee artist’s lifestyle is only a few thoughts away.

Although “while (1<2)” is technically his seventh studio full-length, Zimmerman has hailed it as “the first album [he’s] ever done that [he] would even call an album.” Sprawling, ambitious and mostly well-executed, “while (1<2)” may confuse his fan base’s Ultra-attending electro house contingent, but deadmau5’s double album undoubtedly marks his most mature and forward-thinking release to date.

DISC 1

“Avaritia”

A sprawling double album deserves an epic opener and deadmau5 delivers just that on lead single “Avaritia.” An ascendant lead synth melody is joined by a rumbling beat comprised of distorted dark bass hits and fresh percussion, recalling the stark minimalism of deadmau5’s “Random Album Title” output.

“Coelacanth I”

The album’s second track is the first in a series of tone-setting instrumental interludes. Warm and labored organ chords introduce floating background synths that build tension as they ebb and eventually fade out.

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A plucked bass line precedes immersive glitch work and thoughtful female vocals that carry the track’s lovely lead melody. Panned fuzz guitars drift from ear to ear in a lurching funky interplay between the song’s eclectic elements. This remix is complex electronica that can be danced to, but it wasn’t specifically made for that purpose. In retrospect, this track is an augury of the album’s overall approach.

“My Pet Coelacanth”

Joel needs to score films some day. Rumbling sub bass buoys a detuned analog lead and trademark layered organ chords. Just when the listener begins to get lost in the cinematic soundscape, deadmau5’s irreverence rears its head in the form of the song’s “fuck!” sample. A slowly expanding bass synth takes the fore until the lead resurfaces from the depths of a drone-driven breakdown.

“Infra Turbo Pigcart Racer”

In case you forgot exactly why deadmau5 is such a potent producer, he included this friendly nine-minute reminder. Replete with classic organ chords and energetic electro bass gurgles, this throwback progressive track is an instant earworm.

“Terrors in My Head”

A creeping modular synth progression teams with a foreboding low-voiced bass while a throbbing melodic hit ushers in a sonic fever dream. The breakdown’s unsettling voice seeks to wake the listener before contemplative piano chords lead them back into dark techno rhythms and sporadic percussion.

“Creep”

Hinting at the album’s darker output to come, pensive piano notes preface a downtempo broken beat that could almost come courtesy of Four Tet or Rockwell. Amid resonant hits and shivering percussion, robotic breath intakes and glitched-out sounds herald the first disc’s most experimental offering.

“Somewhere Up Here”

Panned analog toms set the stage for an overdriven bass to throb along with whispered voices and laidback piano until a decidedly real drum set kicks in. Gorgeous and unconventional in both sound design and approach, this song exemplifies the best aspects of the double album.

“Phantoms Can’t Hang”

The album’s fourth single is also its strongest. A percussive arpeggiator finds support from distant crashes and rises as a piercing cutoff synth pluck carries the lead melody. Layered synthesizers and pulsing delays preordain a haunting wordless vocal breakdown amid uplifting pads and delayed bass notes, setting up a masterful build into pure progressive house.

“Gula”

The sad piano passage that closes the first disc recalls deadmau5’s gloomy “7” EP and carries palpable loneliness. Supported by creeping sawtooth synth swells and off-kilter pounding percussion, “Gula” reprises the album-opening melody with new synth layers and 80s-style stabs propped upon murky filtered pads.

DISC 2

“Acedia”

Ponderous piano chords introduce a driving beat to open the second disc as groaning synths ride shifting filters to reach a varied breakdown. The centerpiece of this aptly named opener is a guttural acid synth line whose tortured ululations set a twisted tone for the album’s second chapter.

“Invidia”

The second disc’s evil-sounding opener gives way to delicate piano melodies, painting a perfect soundtrack to a musical’s secluded monologue. Upbeat in the face of dark atmospherics, the interlude leaves a lingering feeling of unresolved tension.

“Errors in My Bread”

Sporting sparse drum work and a gliding lead that recalls Depeche Mode, this nuanced electronica offering lapses into a sorrowful solo piano break that is intentionally abrupt in its marked mood shift.

Nine Inch Nails’ “Survivalism” (deadmau5 Remix)

To his credit, Joel has never shied away from taking stylistic risks and importing past influences into his present. On paper, a deadmau5 remix of Nine Inch Nails should be divine. However, Trent Reznor’s overdriven vocals and crushing rhythm guitars are jarring at this album juncture. Perhaps that was exactly what Joel intended, but it doesn’t prevent this from being the album’s weakest track.

“Silent Picture”

Following the nu metal intermission, Joel allows us re-entry to the lush electronica that had defined the album thus far. Delayed ping-pong synths hover like bees while simple strummed guitars bolster this beat-free melodic beauty.

“Riyehs Lament”

Chill downtempo progressions and distant stripped-down percussion characterize this relaxed number before a crunchy broken-beat loop escalates the intensity halfway through. Another well-executed experimental outing that will be interesting to see adapted to live performance.

“Superbia”

Warm and swelling with sound, “Superbia” marks the album’s most uplifting piano interlude. It’s a welcome transition from the preceding track’s eccentricities into the speed demon vibes of “Mercedes.”

“Mercedes”

“Mercedes” is the second disc’s answer to “Infra Turbo Pigcart Racer.” Deadmau5 delivers another progressive nine-minute masterpiece whose arcing arpeggiators and percolating softsynths could draw comparisons to Giorgio Moroder and Todd Terje,

“Bleed”

Filtered low-end chords and contemplative melodic hits characterize this serene analog lullaby. Despite being practically beatless, “Bleed” is an emotional production that succeeds in also being one of the album’s most memorable.

“Ira”

Another thoughtful piano ballad interjects with a placid progression of heavy chords and whirring remote atmospherics.

“Monday”

Crisp acoustic guitar chords unwind into complex rhythms and warbling top-end synthesizers in advance of a brilliant vocoded break. Play this for a room full of dance fans and it’s doubtful anyone would attribute this to deadmau5. “Monday” is the sort of mold-breaking production that has the power to change minds.

“A Moment To Myself”

A lush soundscape of birds and indefinable background sounds introduces musing melodic notes and a mesmerizing tapestry of interwoven synth pads. Zimmerman wisely supports the fragile interplay with minimal percussion that complements the stirring song without breaking its spell.

“Pets”

Whether or not this one drew inspiration from his celebrity cat Mr. Meowingtons, as its name might suggest, the second disc’s strongest track is affectionate and endearing with its upbeat galloping synth line and gentle reverberating drums.

“Coelacanth II”

The final “Coelacanth” interlude bridges the playful melodies of “Pets” with album-closing vocal swansong “Seeya” via a sweeping assembly of oscillating synth drones.

“Seeya” (ft. Colleen D’Agostino)

The double album concludes on a funky future house note with Colleen D’Agostino crooning over a hefty bass line. It’s an interesting stylistic choice to end with a track judged catchy enough to enjoy second-single status.