“We just announced a new EP today. This is the title track and it’s about dead people,” Will Wiesenfeld stated before launching into the darkly expansive “Ocean Death.” Contrary to the somber introduction, Wiesenfeld, better known as electronic musician Baths, was all smiles. It could be that he’s excited to release the five-track collection, a companion piece to last year’s widely praised Obsidian. Or maybe the fact that, at the age of 24, he’s selling out a headlining show Bowery Ballroom on the merits of what initially amounted to a solo bedroom recording project has something to do with his good cheer. Either way, the crowd hung on Wiesenfeld’s lush washes, thudding bass beats, and cheered in encouragement during the expectant breaks and builds. That his audience’s familiarity and excitement over this ultra-new material made it seem like he’d been playing this song for ages speaks to the resonance of Baths’ music. It underscores something universal despite the honest and unabashed references to Wiesenfeld’s personal life.
Baths’ new material is certainly in keeping with the sound of last year’s moody Obsidian. Wiesenfelds’s trademark falsetto haunts the mix like a specter, floating ghostly above churning rhythms and samples of wave noises. What words one can pick out as the lyrics loops back on themselves are at once morbid (there are references to graveyards) and grandiose (“I am the ocean”). Wiesenfeld slips easily back and forth between the serious, searching quality that lends gravity to such declarations and the warm, carefree nature he exudes between songs, thanking his fans for filling the venue “On a Friday! New York City!” when, as he goes on to note, there are so, so many options.
That dichotomy gave Wiesenfeld some hesitation when it came to presenting the follow up to 2010’s Cerulean. As a debut, Cerulean introduced Wiesenfeld as a bright, bubbly beatsmith given to bouts of romanticism. His Los Angeles address drew automatic comparisons to like-minded producers Flying Lotus and Nosaj Thing, though he hadn’t really come up in any sort of scene; he’s classically trained but is also something of a savant when it came to recording his own electronic compositions, a habit he got into as early as thirteen. In many ways, Obsidian was a departure for the artist, focused on the sinister aspects of human relationships, or at the very least, bitter realism with regards to them. It’s a move that showed maturity and gained Baths plenty of accolades, but more importantly, it’s a sphere that Wiesenfeld feels absolutely confident in. His set on Friday mixed in favorites like “Lovely Bloodflow” but by and large, his more recent work dominated. Though it might seem like the heft of that material would be out o place in a live setting, it actually makes perfect sense – Obsidian (and likely the entirety of Ocean Death) is more performance-based, with a much greater emphasis on Wiesenfeld’s vocals. And the boy can certainly wail.
In the interim between Cerulean and Obsidian, the popularity of electronic music skyrocketed. While that meant that Baths would have greater shoes to fill, it also made electronic musicians a staple at many festivals. It’s clear that Wiesenfeld is intent on rising to the challenges that both truths present. He’s done so by bringing back that human element into his electronic compositions. And far from simple sampling, DJing, or playing tracks from a laptop, Wiesenfeld recreates these pieces in their entirety while also playing his role as charismatic frontman, even if his companions on stage consist of one other performer (Morgan Greenwood of Azeda Booth) and a bevy of complicated-looking synths rather than a full band in the traditional sense. More than once, Wiesenfeld’s falsetto erupted into something more akin to screamo, his whole body trembling. These outbursts lent a personality to songs like “Phaedra,” criticized for sounding like more wounded Postal Service. His deft renditions of the piano interludes on “No Past Lives” also served as proof of his authenticity as a true musician.
Anticon labelmates Young Fathers face the same sort of hurdles when it comes to translating their alternative hip-hop project from mixtape to stage, but they had more than enough energy to get the crowd pumped. Fronted by three MCs of eclectic backgrounds with both live and electronic drums punching up the back-up tracks, highlights of the set included the wonky stop of “Rumbling” and “Get Up” from this year’s Dead LP (the group’s debut studio recording). The Edinburgh, Scotland-based trio alternately croons and raps, the voices of members Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole, and ‘G’ Hastings blending and bending around the others’ as often as lead verses emerged with aggressive, intelligent delivery. Bankole had a particularly spastic strut he liked to do as the sonic pace picked up; Massaquoi kept things pretty serious, a long black trench coat enshrouding his extremely tall frame.
Both Baths and Young Fathers have some growing to do, but they’re making huge strides early on in their careers. It’s noteworthy that despite the popularity of their works in the digital realm, both are set on raising the bar when it comes to delivering their compositions in a live setting. That’s a good thing, as their tour continues throughout the next month.