At the beginning of the ’10s, Gesaffelstein had a badass reputation. The breakout EDM star, AKA Frenchman Mike Lévy, ignored America’s rave taste for furry boots and PLUR, instead rocking chic suits, refusing interviews and smoking a lot of cigarettes—an attitude that matched his music. The producer’s trademark was dark and dangerous techno—at the accessible speed of 110 BPM—which came with dazzling music videos full of sex, thugs and gold. Before his 2013 debut album, Aleph, even dropped, Lévy was in the studio with Kanye West and Daft Punk working on Yeezus. All signs pointed to a producer with lots of commercial potential.
On Hyperion, Lévy’s second album, released through Columbia Records, he tries to live up to this in the major label way—namely, big pop collaborations. But these tracks amount to unremarkable radio fare and dilute the artistic voices of all involved. Lévy and The Weeknd team up on “Lost In The Fire,” a cushy R&B track where both artists fail to show their defining quality. “Blast Off,” featuring Pharrell, reaches for Random Access Memories, but falls short in funk and soul. On “So Bad,” HAIM, one of the brightest pop-rock bands in recent years, contribute pretty vocals to a shadowy backdrop. What could have been an interesting synthesis of perspectives sounds more like a contractual studio session.
The instrumentals have more bite. “Vortex” and “Reset” both channel darkness, with wicked synth sounds and oversized bass. The latter is a kind of futuristic G-funk beat, supported by a music video that riffs on West Coast lowrider culture. But even though the visuals depict a wild hip-hop street party—including several tightly framed shots of a woman twerking—”Reset,” with its ominous pads and breakdown, sounds too anxiety inducing to get an actual crowd going.
There seems to be another album hidden within Hyperion. Remove every track mentioned before and what remains tells a different story: Lévy as a wistful, analog synth lover. This part of the album has a quiet power. The title track, a twirl of cascading arps, evokes feelings of spring romance. “Ever Now” is deeply melancholic, with sweeps of noir synths offset by glittering sequences. “Memora” recalls the enveloping synth music of Jean-Michel Jarre (another past collaborator of Lévy’s). “Forever,” a gossamer synth-pop ballad featuring The Hacker and Electric Youth, almost fits into Lévy’s romantic vision—just cut the fat bass and ballistic electro outtro. Not every song has to be overblown for a festival stage.
Hyperion ends with “Humanity Gone,” 11 minutes of downtempo cinematics that plod like a lonely nighttime walk. The synths moan, the drums are sparse and, towards the end, a moody saxophone rings out in the distance. It’s a poignant place to wander. In these moments, you get the sense Lévy set out to write something intimate and grand. Too bad the album is clouded by so many outside influences. Buy/stream it here.