Over two years ago, Pretty Lights–who at this point is equally well known by his given name, Derek Vincent Smith–released Glowing In The Darkest Night. It was part three in a trio of 2010 EPs, each embodying a deliberate mood. In addition to twenty of today’s most pioneering tracks, Smith gave us a narrative in the form of electronic music. The aura of each release was calculated, as was the cover art and title: All characteristics that are obviously conscious, but it was clear that Pretty Lights approached it with skillful intentionality. It seemed to be the embodiment of quality over quantity, and as fall turned to winter two years ago, we were left wondering–excited–about what would come next; how Smith would build upon, if not top, these three EPs.
Here we are, two years later, and excluding a few singles and videos–all of which, predictably, are exceptional–there has been nothing; No EPs, no LPs. This is notable for two reasons: The obvious being that two years between bodies of work for any musician is long period of time. But, more importantly, Pretty Lights is operating in a movement that is nearly defined by quantity. It seems the surest way to keep one’s stock on the rise is to release singles and remixes at a nearly overwhelming pace. The more your name surfaces on blogs, the better. This true in some respects, but the fact that Pretty Lights has been able to maintain such an esteemed position in our culture with this purposeful mindset deserves praise in and of itself. To all of our relief, though, buzz of a new LP began to swirl at the end of last year. In an interview with AOL’s Spinner, Smith admitted that he has not only spent $250,000 on its creation, but has actually produced his own soul/jazz/R&B records which he will then sample from and turn into Electro-Hip-Hop-Soul bangers.
Since his initial rise some 4 years ago, PL has solidified his style through spectacular live performances. With every tour, the emphasis on a complete sensory experience has reigned supreme. It is bigger than the music. This is evidenced by the steady additions to his truly groundbreaking light show, which is conceived by Greg Ellis, or The Lazer Shark. It should come as no surprise, then, that Smith opted to showcase new tunes from the highly (highly!) anticipated upcoming LP on the road. With an entirely new stage design that admittedly and appropriately resembles past set-ups, Pretty Lights hit the road earlier this fall with the promise that The Illumination Tour was the only place to hear unreleased tracks. Beginning in Canada and covering nearly every corner of this country, Derek embarked upon one of his most ambitious tours yet. And after 50+ performances, he stopped by the US Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington, Illinois for its second to last show. I was in attendance.
Throughout The Illumination Tour’s many stops, fans were graced by today’s biggest and best names: Big Gigantic, DJ Shadow, and aarabMUZIK being just a notable few. In Bloomington this Friday, that trend continued as the crowd was warmed up by Pretty Lights Music’s Paul Basic and the South African wobbler MartyParty. Each were impressive in their own right, but because of the venue’s size, or maybe because of the dull incorporation of lights, or simply because of the performance that we all knew would follow, it was a little underwhelming. However, I will admit, MartyParty succeeded in one right. When his set ended, the energy was so tangible that it exploded both figuratively and literally as hundreds of fans burst out of the stadium’s seating section and rushed the ground floor. Security did their best to stop the chaos, which simply led to one or two unlucky fans being plucked from the stampede and escorted out of the venue.
The lights dimmed promptly at 10:00 p.m. and a 5 minute countdown began. With various snippets from a wide range of tracks, anticipation was built in a very interesting way. But soon the first syncopated seconds of “Total Fascination” barged through the swarming Coliseum and Smith’s shadowed figured took the stage. Thus commmenced the audio-visual assault. With a bird’s-eye view, it was enthralling to watch the admirably rowdy crowd ebb and flow, anticipating every climax with a unanimous pulse. The new stage design was fascinating, too. Smith improved upon the cityscape-esque feeling of previous tours by clumping the light columns on either side of the stage and highlighting the collage of stunning images projected behind him instead. Fierce lasers penetrated every corner of the massive venue. Stunning is the only applicable word here.
Then, about 30 minutes in, Smith took to the microphone to deliver the introduction we were all waiting for. “This is some new PL shit right here,” he said as a funky, slow, hip-hop number began. With a minute-long, uninterrupted sample, which was covered in a classic PL vibe, Smith broke this currently unreleased track down in spectacular fashion. (Realizing that this was the first piece of the upcoming LP I have heard since “So Bright,” I had a moment of such extreme awe that it is worth noting here.) His following crunchy tweaking of “Hot Like Dimes” was only topped by more unreleased cuts–the most impressive of which took sultry pianos and embedded them amongst a slow hip-hop beat.
As last Friday at Illinois State University was Pretty Lights’ second to last stop–he capped the tour off in Detroit the next night–it’s hard to comment on whether he pulled any major punches for its conclusion. What is certain, however, is that with a true artist’s patience and eye to detail, one can create a show that is elevated above the usual confines of a concert. In conjunction with his decision to display new tunes solely on the road, this is precisely what Smith achieved on The Illumination Tour.