Review: Shpongle Live in NYC – How Does a DJ/Producer Become a Shaman Guide?

Last night I saw Simon Posford play one set as part of his project Shpongle, and one set under his stage name Hallucinogen, at his show in New York City. All I can say is: wow. Wow. Wow. Wowwowwow. I first heard Shpongle’s music at a small afterparty to a rave in New York City, my senior year of college, 1999. At that time, in my early twenties, I was into the goa psy-trance scene, and was traveling frequently down from school in Providence to parties in New York City. Shpongle’s first album “Are You Shpongled?” had come out that year, and when I first heard the music come through on the stereo that morning, I had to stop everything I was doing and just sit and listen, because I knew I was hearing something monumental. This was not merely good music, not merely a cut above the rest; this, I could tell instantly, was an explosion and expansion of human artistic creativity. Over the last 12 years I have listened to that album in its entirety several hundred times. It has changed my life, and has been an important part of my own evolution as a creative person, even though I’m a writer, not a musician—Simon and co-producer Raja Ram (who was not at last night’s show) just set the bar for human creativity so damn high in this album. My appreciation for that 72 minutes of music has only deepened over those years. This album is credited as the pioneer of the genre called “psy-ambient,” but it goes so far beyond any specific genre, even the concept of genre itself. It explodes any attempt at sonic categorization. It is an aural Big Bang. The entire album—and particularly the culminating, masterwork track on that album, “… and the day turned to night”—still feels completely fresh, as though I’m listening to it for the first time, each time. It feels not of any particular age—it feels timeless, eternal. I still keep discovering new things in it. It is a gift to humanity, for the ages. I’m not the only one who feels this album was a landmark event in art. Here are some quotes from reviews on Amazon (and the 5-star reviews keep coming in, 12 years on, as more and more people discover the album, as more and more people come to the conclusion that this isn’t just another great album—this is an evolution in sound:

  • Normally, I review CDs with a great deal of depth and heavy description, but for Shpongle, I just want to repeat the word “brilliant” until I hit the word limit.”
  • Simon Posford and Raja Ram have collaborated to record music that goes beyond the boundary of notes…”
  • This is one of the few…. The work of a true genius.”
  • “As other reviewers have alluded to, words simply cannot describe the beauty contained on “Are You Shpongled?”. Simon Posford and Raja Ram create the most awe-inspiring soundscape… I cannot listen to one or two tracks at a time on this album—when I play it, I do so from start to finish. Who says we reached the height of our musical achievements hundreds of years ago? Truly a religious experience.”
  • This is truly one of the best collections of sound you will ever lavish on your ears. A true audio-alchemical delight. It is without doubt the most moving and intelligent albums I have ever heard. If you want to move out onto the edge of sound get Shpongled!”
  • Posford could be been called the Mozart of electronica. His absolute freaknastiness takes over you mind and body and places you in a world with out pain.”

I won’t go into all the details of analyzing the music from last night, as I wasn’t there to analyze music, I was there to have a great time. And that I did. But part of what made it a great time was not just the amazing music. It was the privilege of watching a true master at work. In our day-to-day lives, we are not often in the presence of an artistic master. I have come to the conclusion, listening to that album for twelve years now and still counting—and only more so, confirmed last night—that Simon Posford is the kind of virtuoso artistic talent that pops up once or twice on the planet in any given generation, any artistic medium. I feel his work should not be compared to other psy-trance producers or even electronica producers. It should be compared to the great composers of the ages. Mozart. Beethoven. These were not songs, these were symphonies. What he was doing last night with sound was so complicated, and infinitely textured, that I only had access to about 5% of it, the rest of it was going right over my head—as the human brain just doesn’t have enough processing power to process all the subtlety of his multilayered compositions at once. So, this may be strange to say, but I believe he is a true heir to Western art music—he is keeping that sprit of pioneering in musical art vital and evolving (much more so than anyone composing music under the banner of “contemporary classical” today, in my judgment.) The only other place I have ever experienced such a blending of absolute musical virtuosity with completely ass-shaking danceability is in Cuba, where many of the musicians who create the popular dance music on the island, played on the pop radio and at parties, are also classically trained. They are also mostly santeros – practitioners of the Afro-Cuban animist/syncretist religion santería. Which means, they are not only on the level of classical virtuosity–they are also calling down the spirits, and transporting the audience to divine realms, while they do it. Which sounds exactly what like Posford was doing last night.

***

After Shpongle finished, there was an intermission, the amazing light/video tower was taken down, and then Simon came back on to DJ as Hallucinogen, his stage name when he plays his harder-driving psy-trance solo. I must admit I was a bit skeptical of how this would be. I’d never heard his psy-trance music (this genre is much harder-driving, fast, and aggressive than the downtempo psy-ambient he pioneered with the formation of Shpongle). My skepticism came not from anything having to do with him, but from having moved on completely from the goa psy-trance scene I loved so much from my early twenties, twelve years ago. As my musical tastes evolved, I began finding a lot of the music in that scene mindless, identically repetitive, and often downright cheesy. But not so with Simon Posford as Hallucinogen, at the helm. Holy fucking shit. This was not music of any particular “genre”—this was the sonic expression of an undeniable artistic genius, on the level of any artistic genius you could think of, any medium. We in modern society do not often get access to the shamanistic experiences that were common to humanity when we all lived in hunter-gatherer tribes. The shamanistic experience is a large part of the human condition which gets almost no “airtime” on the radio program of modern life. Simon Posford does not just rank, in my mind, as one of the great artistic virtuoso geniuses humanity has ever produced. In that set he played, just one hour from 2am to 3am, he crossed the threshold from art to shamanism, blurring the boundaries and holding both at the same time. He was not playing a concert. He was guiding us on a journey. I was impressed with how willing the crowd was to go there, to follow him on that journey. It was a lot younger crowd than I expected. It seemed to be mostly early twenty-somethings, people roughly the age I was when I first heard Shpongle. Wow, he’s been cranking it out for over 12 years and has not only *not* lost steam, he’s *gained* steam, and has connected to an entirely new generation of listeners. Not too many musical artists can say that. There was absolutely none of the annoying things one normally finds at nightclubs—the whole “see and be seen” vibe, the constant checking of text messages, the scowering of the room looking for “hotties.” These kids in the club didn’t seem to be there for that. Simon’s music goes beyond that. You can’t listen to his music—particularly over the spectacular sound system in that theater—and fail to pay all your attention; it is not “background music.” The kids in the crowd were obviously there to go on a journey, and Simon guided us. The amount of presence in that room was extraordinary. My generation and below are known as “distracted generations,” but there was none of that here. People had dropped into deep meditation—dance meditation. The vibe and spirit in that room, as we all danced, was extremely high and present. I’ve been to a lot of amazing musical experiences. But this one set the bar even higher. I would expect nothing less from Simon. Seeing how deeply the kids in the crowd dropped into the music and co-created shamanistic/ecstatic space together, confirmed for me something I’d been thinking a lot in the four years since I’ve been going to Burning Man. It’s a vague thought and I can’t quite put words to it, but I’ll try to explain it like this. Last New Years, Jena and I invited a bunch of Burners to a New Year’s Eve party we put on, and we all kicked it down in true Burning Man style. We invited a new friend, a man in his mid-sixties who is now a successful businessman, but who had certainly—shall we say—*tasted* a lot of the fruits of partying that were to be had in the 1960s. I asked him how this compared to some of the parties he had experienced in the 60s, and he said somethiing to the effect of, and I paraphrase: “You kids are going beyond here. You’re raising the bar. This is phenomenal what’s going on here.” The music, the dancing, the costuming, the spirit. It has evolved creatively, has refined into ever more creative boundary-crossing and integration. In other words, and this sounds strange to say, I think there has been progress in the art of ecstatic partying and celebration of life. Not uniform progress, to be sure, but there are pockets where true innovation and creative pioneering are occuring at the intersection of music, spirituality, art, and ecstatic celebration of life. Our generation, not alive in the 60s, has nonetheless absorbed many of the transpersonal and spiritual lessons the kids first started exploring back then. We’re *starting* with those lessons as a backdrop assumptions and building on them, not discovering them for the first time. I’d like to think we’ve tossed out some of the excesses. There was no one “freaking out” last night (well, actually, I did see one guy.) People just dropped in, deep, very deep, and together we co-created a space of magic. Thank you, Simon, for taking us there. Your creative mind has enriched and inspired my life more than I can say in words. And I’m a writer! So when words fail me, I know it’s something big. If you are anywhere even remotely near one of the remaining stops on his tour—and I’ll be telling a lot of my SF and LA friends this, as he still has dates to come there—don’t walk, RUN to get your tickets and experience this for yourself. In our hectic day-to-day lives, running from one meeting to the next, one errand to the next, we often forget how amazing it can feel to be human. If you ever get in a rut and forget that, experiencing this show for yourself and remember.

Comments

  1. Annie says:

    great review, beautifully rendered. i could almost hear the music in your words. thanks for taking us with you, from the past into the future

    -all hail pioneers of sound & thought, A

  2. ralph303f says:

    seen simon a few times in belgium and UK, it’s really amazing. very nice review and i hope we will experience more music from twisted in the future. – ralph [303f]

  3. ricardo ceitil says:

    mat what u feel was the real goa trance spirit and u put that word perfect in this review :)

  4. Jose Alfaro says:

    I disagree with the very end of the 9th paragraph. he is using the term “contemporary classical” too loosely. He is talking about the style of music as if it was dead creatively, or that it is not pushing as many creative boundaries Simon Posford. Seriously?– one man is being more creative than millions of composers writing under this style of music? I want to point out it was given that name because there are too many different styles of it, to actually sit there and name each one is impossible.

    I recognize that you are stating a matter of opinion. but why would anyone that actually knows anything about “contemporary classical” music make such a brash statement about it? I am sorry but you must see the reasoning behind my skepticism towards the integrity of this statement or opinion.

  5. Jose Alfaro says:

    But other than that excellent review. I am very excited to see Simon Posford on thursday!!!! ^_^

  6. Angel says:

    Talking to Simon backstage in 07, I told him that his music never gets old. Heard it for the first time at my first burn in ’02 when my camp was performing to it. I’ve been hooked ever since and yes, it has totally transformed my life. I agree. He’s genius. Great write up. Wish I had made it to NYC.

  7. When I read your lines you expresed what I think. I lived very simillar the shpongle expierience like you did since end of the 90s and evolved my creativity every time I listen to it I have an amazing experience. I saw Simon on a prehispanic place Called Xochimilco in mexico city 2002 or 1, the Islands were moving to his beat. I also think Simon is the Mozart or Beethoven of our time. Thanks for your post. Lets Get Shpongeled