The last time Pretty Lights released a body of work, Paper Diamond was still Alex B, Skrillex had just put out Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, and The Dankles was still an idea growing in the mind of a young CU Boulder student. It was 2010, and the producer Derek Vincent Smith celebrated the year’s end with Glowing In The Darkest Night, his third and final installment in a trio of EPs released that year. It is now 2013, though, and a lot has happened in the world of electronic music, all while Smith has remained relatively silent, annually touring, which is occasionally accompanied by a rare recap video or single, but hardly ever alluding to the possibility of a new EP or LP. For almost two years, Smith remained silent in that respect; one of electronic music’s most defining figures appeared to be sitting on the sideline as the genre continued to evolve. (While a lot of today’s most influential electronic musicians use social media habitually, which can function as a daily form of advertisement for their next single, LP, or tour, Pretty Lights has been something of an online introvert.)
However, last year , Smith finally made known that he had been occupied with the production of a new record– just as we had hoped. However, a notorious crate digger, he claimed that he had foregone the usual sampling process and instead was spending nearly one hundred thousand dollars recording and pressing his own vinyl. He would then use these original blues, jazz, soul, and funk records as the groundwork for his electronic production.
In mid-2012, Smith announced that he would be playing cuts from this new album during his fall tour, but the all-important context of these tracks was nonexistent. Was he playing just the most crowd-pleasing songs? Would the rest of the album sound similar? When was it actually coming out? What was it called? Smith offered no answer. That is until this April, where, on the same day, a music video for the album’s first single, a crunchy, horn-driven number featuring Talib Kweli titled “Around The Block,” and a trailer for a short documentary covering the making of the LP, titled A Color Map of the Sun, were released via YouTube. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this trailer finally provided the necessary tangible evidence of what Smith had been up to. We see him nearly clinking his head on exotic wooden stringed instruments as they dangle from the ceiling of a small, foreign shop. We see him in the studio quite literally conducting small ensembles of violins, trombones, and pianos. And, most importantly, we finally receive a real explanation from Smith himself. “This record was an experiment in creating modern, cutting-edge music,” he tells the camera. Although just a trailer, it gave immense justification to his nearly three-year absence. And, if just on the surface, quickly reestablished Pretty Lights as the game-changer we’ve grown to expect. (Two weeks ago, the full documentary, running just shy of 30 minutes, was released on YouTube in part with THUMP, VICE‘s new electronic music website.) He wasn’t simply coasting after hitting the top as some feared, but instead was using his elevation to reach even higher– experimenting with, if not helping to redefine, the production process of modern electronic music.
A Color Map of the Sun is a diverse and refined album that succeeds due as much to its subtleties as to its bombastic rhythms. It is a seamless mix of delicate and earthy numbers (“Press Pause” practically borders on therapeutic) and hard-hitting, adrenaline-inducing tracks. What Pretty Lights has always done best is take the listener on a journey– his flow, for lack of a better word, has always been his standout trait as a musician. Whether this took the form of one sonic idea sculpted over a short period of time, as on each one of his 2010 EPs, or many ideas wonderfully balanced over the course of an album, there has always been a sense of extreme purpose– narrative even– in his work. A Color Map of the Sun is no different, but here there is more vivacity in the voyage than ever before.
Across all thirteen tracks, there’s something underneath the surface, some intangible presence that was never there before—or, more accurately, it may have always been there, but Smith decided to light fire, so to speak, under each track and bring these hidden, complementary elements to the surface. This might be a result of the self-produced base material, or it might simply be Smith growing as a producer.
The lyrical samples are still every bit traditional Pretty Lights, comprised mostly of symbolic prophesies, but here Smith uses the wonders of analogue manipulation for reimagination like never before. On “Go Down Sunshine” and “Done Wrong,” the vocals are distorted nearly to the point of inaudible grittiness. As a result, they are ambiguous and eerie. They add a vibe to each track that would have been lost with a more traditional sampling. This is just one small example of Smith’s attention to detail on A Color Map of the Sun. After listening to it several times, you begin to hear these delicate, flawless undertones across the entire record.
However, the overall direction of this album very clearly follows the tracks that Smith has laid out over the course of the last seven years—which might be a bit troubling to some listeners. With three years of production, perhaps a bit more experimentation was expected. The samples and instrumentation, although first-class, could have, upon first listen, very easily come from an obscure album that had been pulled from a dusty crate in a local Denver record store. I would be quick to argue, however, that lack of experimentation does not equate lack of innovation. The process of this album’s production aside, which speaks for itself, the intricacies of his sampling, layering, and even timing have never been in better form. While the listener does not encounter a shred of doubt about who’s responsible for A Color Map of the Sun, Smith and his signature sound feels more complete than it ever has.
It might be inappropriate to start looking into the future so soon, but one can’t help wondering what’s next for Pretty Lights. He has made a career out of being one step ahead of the general electronic music world– whether that’s with his no-charge distribution model, remarkable light shows, recent production process, or even his willingness to be patient, which is a rare quality nowadays. Additionally, how will this album change the game for crate-diggers? A large group niche producers have sculpted their work around the method of finding the rarest of vinyls to sample from. Although there is almost no one who mimics Pretty Lights’ sound, he shared this means of production with many other producers– a process that will inevitably be shaken up as a result of this album (how are we as listeners supposed to remove ACMOTS from the back of our minds when listening to sample-based records going forward?). I suppose as fans, all we can do is simply sit back and reap the benefits of these artists– with Smith among the leaders– as they truly push boundaries. And A Color Map of the Sun just set the benchmark.