Like a descending prophet, Floating Points (real name Sam Sheppard) brought the ambient genius of his new LP, Elaenia, to Manchester’s The Ritz last month—one of only a handful of UK dates the universally praised electronic composer offered. As if the people of Manchester weren’t lucky enough, he went and played a 4 hour DJ set at Hidden straight after—a gentle reminder of his masterful talent as producer and mixer. His marathon sessions behind decks have been described as “brainy but banging” whilst Elaenia’s critical acclaim includes a number one spot in Resident Advisor’s album of the year list. It’s fair to say then that both the DJ and live set possessed equal promise. And it had me thinking about a somewhat generational conundrum. Given the growing populism of electronic music and the proliferation of festival culture when it comes to promotion through touring, certain producers have been dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the depths of the basement club and into the neon painted sunlight. The appearance of the name ‘live’ next to the name of artists who make a great deal of their work sat behind a computer has become extremely common and some have managed to make a better show out of their work than others. So which is better? The somewhat contrived spectacle or the all together less showy and yet more truthful DJ set? After various confusions with multiple people about tickets and timings and that, I ended up with the chance to decide in the case of IDM’s new golden boy Sam Shepard. Here’s how they stacked up:
Despite a reputation for hauling an 11-piece orchestra around, there were only three others on stage with Floating Points when he emerged onstage. You wouldn’t know it though, as heaps of effects accompanying each instrument expanded the sounds way beyond classical capabilities. The band glided and thrashed through the album in its entirety without rest, nailing the soft bits just as well as the hard. Such strict adherence to the dynamics of the record was however, lost on an audience that swallowed up the quieter musical moments in a tide of conversation; which frankly felt a bit embarrassing. Ending on a blistering ‘Peroration Six’, the just-under-an-hour set also fell short of satisfying those who were expecting a night’s worth of entertainment. The same can’t be said for the DJ set however. He stormed through 4 hours of relentless funk house, setting the crowd free whilst trapping them in kick-drums and handclaps. The pulse built brilliantly and although he ended at 3am, the crowd this time seemed happily danced to shit.
Winner: DJ set
Several times at The Ritz, I am told—and consequently tell others, too, through small talk—that the technical visuals for Floating Points’ sets are arranged by Sheppard himself. True or not, this is easy to believe. The band performed in front of a shape-shifting display of sizzling green lines, as if one of those festival pricks with the laser pens finally took a degree in fine art. Though the strobes started out at a comfortable level of epilepsy, they did start to feel over-used. This didn’t stop The Ritz feeling like some space-based technicolour orgy in complete sync with the sounds filling it, however. The quality of visuals at The Ritz was a tough act for Hidden to follow and, unfortunately, it became a sort of underwhelming sci-fi sequel, as the lone Sheppard was washed in red and fog whilst everyone else bounced around in mostly darkness. This is not necessarily bad—the music drove the evening suitably without the need of extensive lighting and managed to show everyone the going-ons behind the decks—but nothing can compare to the burning laser tattoo guns at The Ritz.
Winner: Live set
If you listen out for a single corner being cut in the live set, you won’t find it. Each musician is clinical enough to be a genius in their own right. ‘Argente’ and ‘Silhouettes (I, II & III)’ in particular stood out for their identifiable melodies and overflowing build-ups, swelling and pressing against each of the four walls and everything within them. This music is a perfectionist’s dream, with a degree of detail that would have Michelangelo in front of crowd, gurning his face off. You could hear the micro-rhythms, the tremors of instruments that weren’t even onstage. You could hear every artist influencing the young man’s incomprehensible music taste. It’s Brahms. It’s Miles Davis. Above all, it’s something that hasn’t come before. This contrasts dramatically with the Hidden soundtrack, pumping the sound of the ’70s down young throats via disco, funk, fast jazz and house. Not a single song was recognised and not a single song went un-danced to; as sole-burning as it was soulful. At times it did feel slightly safe though, whereas the deep end performance of the live set succeeded for its audacity. As hard as the DJ set tried, there is something truly special about the music at the live performance that elevated Floating Points as a composer onto a level above the rest.
Winner: Live set
The Man Himself
This is a tricky one. There is something sweet about Sheppard’s minimal crowd interaction in the live set (he says “thank you” an impressive two times in the whole thing), resembling a school child who’s won a prize for their Year 6 science display; proud yet shy, he doesn’t need to get distracted from his work’s quality by giving us personality. The man at Hidden, however, was something else. Anyone who has seen Floating Points DJ knows how into it he gets, and he pulled as many of the stops out that night as ever. His gyrating ginger head enjoyed itself in a way that it didn’t at the live set: without the nerves of facing a full-capacity audience and no longer limited by his music’s own ambience, Floating Points went as mad as his reserved demeanour would allow. The difference was that the crowd followed suit. Everyone felt how good a time he was having. In the end it went down to who you’d rather have at a party, the mad scientist or the square. At one point I caught full sight of him grinning and squinting as he dropped the filter; from then on, I know who I’d invite.
Winner: DJ set
So, what have you got. The meticulous beauty of Elaenia, transposed without flaw to a live set up, and a roaring session at Hidden that left everyone smiling—even Sheppard himself. But what you really got was an insight into the two sides of the neuroscience Phd student: the live performance—the masterpiece, the grand unveiling of his life’s work—and the DJ stint, which was the fun on the side, the late night experiment of creating a light show using optogenetic brain patterns. It was unclear which one Floating Points himself loves more, but I have a sneaking suspicion that, when he strolled off that stage to the cheers of 1,500 people, he thought: “Get me the fuck on those decks.”