Many of today’s most prominent d.j.s and producers have found fame as jesters on the festival circuit. Think of Steve Aoki, the electro-house hype man, pumping up the masses at this summer’s Electroland, at Disneyland Paris. Or of Marshmello, the twenty-six-year-old d.j. who wears an enormous emoji-esque mask, and who will, this year and next, provide the soundtrack for the debauchery at the new club Kaos, in Las Vegas, for a rumored sixty million dollars. Mike Lévy, a thirty-one-year-old Frenchman who records as Gesaffelstein, has taken a more ascetic tack. Lévy, one of electronic music’s rising stars, has an ear for dance-music history and an affinity for brutalism, as well as a committed disregard for the appetites of the Everyman. His first album, “Aleph,” from 2013, was a master class in universe-building. A high-concept tone poem, the record took the frantic, four-on-the-floor rhythms of techno and splattered them with screeching industrial textures, creating a sound that was better suited for the apocalypse than for the festival tent, although it had its place on a certain kind of dance floor nonetheless.
On “Aleph,” the relatively unknown Canadian-born musician Chloé Raunet supplied spoken-word narration, amplifying the album’s themes of addiction, violence, and self-immolation. “I welcomed old habits like a long lost friend, to spite you,” she said in a hoarse, deadened voice, on “Destinations,” whose menacing low throb built to a paranoid hum, like an approaching killer-bee attack. It was a far cry from the style of the standard electronic-pop album, on which d.j.s deploy a carrousel of chilly-sounding female pop voices over their big-room beats. Raunet’s voice, in concert with the relentless throttle of Lévy’s rhythms, trapped listeners in an adrenalized hellscape they weren’t sure they wanted to exit. Amid the booming world of electronic dance music, which has largely become a kind of maximalist but vague orgy, Lévy offers counterprogramming with the specificity of his sound.
Accordingly, Lévy comports himself like a reclusive aesthete, avoiding social media and generally eschewing a public profile. During his live sets, which are infrequent, he tends to wear skinny black suits and a deep grimace; he focusses intently on his work, seldom gesticulating. His cigarettes dangle from his lips until they burn down to the filter. And yet, despite Lévy’s taste for gloomy esoterica, he demonstrates a marked facility for the ways of pop. When Kanye West, on “Yeezus,” took a turn toward the brash and industrial, he invited Lévy into his brain trust. Lévy helped on two of the album’s centerpieces—the hiccupping punk-rap anthem “Black Skinhead” and “Send It Up,” a squealing, anxious rallying cry that sounded like a drum circle in an auto-body shop. Abel Tesfaye, who records as the Weeknd, found an ally in Lévy, using his vigorously dark beats on an EP, “My Dear Melancholy,” from 2018. The fashion-forward New York rapper A$AP Rocky, too, has a fondness for Lévy, using one of the producer’s trademark panicked beats for his song “In Distress.” For these cool-hunting artists, Lévy’s severe aspect was not a deterrent; it was the point.
And so it was not surprising when, late last year, Lévy signed with a major label. In January, he appeared on the announcement of this year’s Coachella lineup, his name written in large print next to the chart-topping d.j. Zedd and the elastic global phenomenon Bad Bunny. It was perhaps a sign that the fractured, novelty-hungry mainstream had room for more types of outsiders—or that Lévy was willing to compromise.
At first glance, Lévy’s new album, “Hyperion,” looks like a crossover effort. It has the kind of track list that music blogs like to describe as “star-studded.” He enlists the vocals of the Weeknd, as well as those of Pharrell Williams and HAIM, two acts whose friendly cheer seems at odds with the style that Lévy has cultivated. (Pharrell was a key figure in the late-career revival of Lévy’s fellow-Frenchmen Daft Punk, singing on the inescapable lite-funk hit “Get Lucky,” from 2013.) But here these artists yield to Lévy, playing bruised and moody versions of themselves. On “Blast Off,” the album’s excellent pure-pop single, Lévy harks back to the post-disco sounds of “Thriller,” using Pharrell as his not altogether convincing spokesman. Pharrell lowers his voice to an obscure hum, chanting a lyric more befitting the manic optimism of early-nineties rave culture than the austere Rust Belt dance music of the late eighties and early nineties that Lévy likes to reference: “When I’m looking in your face, you give me faith,” he says. “I feel this faith. This must be fate.”
Most of the record, particularly its drifty, despondent back half, discards the conventional rhythms of dance music, relying instead on a chromatic, arrhythmic synth-pop haze. The sound is not exactly popular, but it’s influential and ubiquitous nonetheless—indebted to the eighties but largely divorced from any particular era. It’s the sort of music best suited to movie soundtracks, a major channel of distribution for electronic music in recent decades. It’s no coincidence that “Forever,” the best song on “Hyperion,” features Electric Youth, the Canadian band heard on the soundtrack for “Drive,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s brooding, highly stylized thriller. (In 2015, Lévy produced the soundtrack for “Disorder,” a French thriller about a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.) Much of the record is filled with empty, contemplative space, which can be challenging to sit with. It has all the despondence of Lévy’s earlier work, without any of the horsepower—a result that feels like the outcome of a battle between Lévy’s stubborn impulses and the expectation that he make main-stage music.
The name Gesaffelstein is a portmanteau combining Albert Einstein with the Wagnerian term Gesamtkunstwerk, which can be loosely translated as “total art work.” (Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet; Hyperion is the name of an esoteric figure in Greek mythology.) This comically highfalutin self-presentation would be familiar to Kraftwerk, the German act that, in the seventies, legitimatized electronic music, sending an enduring shock wave through popular culture. Lévy is a student of Kraftwerk, and part of his power lies in his ability to create an all-encompassing concept, uniting his music with a distinct visual aesthetic; he often pairs his songs with striking, cinematic videos. Some of Lévy’s work on “Hyperion”—like the album’s bright, pointillistic, eponymous opener—seems like an explicit homage to his German forebears, whose work can often be found in major art museums.
There are perhaps no musicians whom history has trampled over so forcefully as electronic producers, who are disproportionately burdened by whipsaw shifts in popular taste. Lacking the force of celebrity that typically accompanies marketable vocalists, they can easily be overlooked. Those who try to keep up with the tides of pop music usually do so by capitalizing on trends and aligning themselves with current stars. Even the seemingly too-big-to-fail E.D.M. industry risks becoming obsolete; earnings have declined of late, and the figure of the party-starting festival d.j. has come to feel cartoonish. (Kraftwerk, in fact, is one of the only acts to make it out of the gantlet of electronic music with its legacy intact.) In this era, in which artists live and die by their ability to sell concert tickets, electronic producers have been forced into two schools. One is made up of an underground network of aficionados who perform mostly in smaller clubs in Europe and Asia; the other is part of the cash