Whether or not you dance to Porter Robinson's dense baroque creations, the young master of electro music works within the parameters of the dance floor without sacrificing any avant-garde credentials in the process. Robinson makes music that is on the edge of melody, rhythm and harmony — if his 2011 EP, Spitfire, features sections that employ the old-fashioned harmonic language of 19th century classical music, it also sports all manner of oddball sounds and rude interruptions of the flow. You can dance to it, but it's also good for listening.
Robinson turns 20 this summer, and the Chapel Hill, N.C., native has become a high-profile exponent of what's often termed "complextro." And although Robinson has remixed such megastars of the dance floor as Lady Gaga — check out his 2011 reworking of Gaga's "The Edge of Glory" — he's an artist for whom the endless possibilities of technology provide a way to do amazing things to sound itself.
Coming off a swing through Western Canada ("It's a lot like the United States," Robinson says. "There are slightly fewer fans in Canada, but at the bigger venues, it was like 1,000 or so"), he explains the origins of the "complextro" label.
" 'Complextro' was a word I put up on my MySpace to describe my own sound when I first started," says Robinson. "It was kind of a joke — underneath your name on your MySpace page, you can put a phrase or a word or a quote. I put 'complextro' on there as a funny little portmanteau to describe the complex nature of what I do to the average American, and it just spun out of control. I don't self-describe that way anymore. But it definitely is a thing."
Robinson first tasted success as an electro exponent when his 2010 track "Say My Name" went to No. 1 on the influential Beatport Electro-House Top 100. Whether or not you hear it as a cousin to dubstep or as another super-manipulated piece of dance melodrama, "Say My Name" reshuffles the conventions of diva-driven dance music. Robinson's art lies in his breaks, with big, fat synth sounds dominating the mix.
There are other tracks that sound a bit like "Say My Name" — Paisean Ceol's 2011 "Ignition" uses the same monster bass licks and wittily slips in all manner of extraneous sounds. Still, Robinson is an original, as Spitfire demonstrates. What's interesting about Robinson's work is its distance from dance-music conventions. Using what sounds like a number of detuning options, he makes slightly ironic music from his sequencers and plug-ins.
The similarities between such dance-oriented music as Robinson's and Lady Gaga's and the more astringent creations of Autechre and Amon Tobin are there for anyone who wants to listen. Spitfire's title track begins with a series of chords that sit comfortably within the parlor games of 19th century harmony, and Robinson expands upon those chords. Soon enough, video-game sounds take us out of that dusty parlor and onto the dance floor.
That basic technique seems central to any definition of "complextro," which I hear as an attempt to add melodic contours to the basic formula of bass and synth. Robinson has told interviewers that video games have been a huge influence upon his art, and I believe it. There are also hints of '80s-style movie-theme cheese in Spitfire's "Unison." In a world that has left analog recording behind, Robinson is in it for the rush of finding new ways to produce sound.
Robinson is young, so some of the comments you may read about his aesthetic preferences could be provisional. As he told a writer for the Salacious Sound website last year, "Often times an artist can create something impressive despite their constraints, but scarcely is it better." And that's the thing I admire about Robinson's work: It recognizes no technological constraints, but never goes overboard into melodrama.
If "complextro" is a word that's already as dated as, say, MySpace itself, Robinson seems willing to move beyond its implications. Whether or not he'll ultimately embrace the big emotions that dance music traffics in is something only the future can decide.