Emancipator is the unsung hero of the modern chill, fall-wintery electronic music scene. While acts like Nujabes and Bonobo usually get most of the credit when it comes to influencing a new era of electronic music producers making use of blissful, ice-cold synthesizers and soundscapes, chill, downtempo beats, and occasional live instrumentation, the Portland outfit has been incredibly prolific and influential in the near-decade he’s been making music, reliably releasing one great album after another for his passionate, extensive fan-base. The project recently released its fourth studio LP, Seven Seas, through figurehead Doug Appling’s record label, Loci Records. The Seven Seas Tour came to Seattle’s Showbox on Saturday night, during which the five-piece Emancipator Ensemble et al completely floored a packed, restless audience.
One musician whose art is noticeably influenced by Doug Appling is local rising star Grant “Manatee Commune” Eadie, who opened the Emancipator Ensemble’s performance at the Showbox, and was tapped to play a good majority of the Seven Seas Tour. I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly subtle in my fandom for this electronic music project, having named his excellent 2014 album Brush my favorite of last year, and having wrote highly favorably of his great live performances in the past. Saturday night was my third time seeing the Bellingham solo act live, and time and time again, Grant never fails to disappoint.
Manatee Commune continues to please fans and critics alike with his vivid, extremely well-produced electronic music, which pulls from downtempo music as much as it does chillwave and indie pop music. In the live setting, his jubilant music comes together beautifully, mixing pre-recorded music (which he performs using a MIDI controller) with live guitar and violin, which he’ll switch off at a moment’s notice. The crowd response was a mix of cheering, head-nodding, and turning the venue into a dance-floor during the rare four-to-the-floor sections of his music. His set closed out with his latest single “Clay”, one of the best he’s ever released, which made for a particularly great end to his already great performance.
Support also came from fantastic New York-based hip-hop producer Blockhead, whose set was the least performance-heavy of the night, but still a very potent set of one great hip-hop beat after another. Blockhead’s solo material for Ninja Tune has always been more chilled out and easygoing than his more experimental and boisterous production for guys like Aesop Rock and Billy Woods, and his live music sat more on the mid-paced end of things. His performance made heavy use of samples from a lot of different hip-hop songs, most notably “Drop It Like It’s Hot” towards the beginning of his set. Earlier on, his set was punctuated by a loud, deadpan voice slowly saying “Blockhead” over and over again, before fading out again. It was among the more surreal moments of the night.
Supplementing his performance was visual accompaniment in the form of mirrored footage of various movies, among them “The Room”, “The Last Airbender”, “Big Trouble in Little China”, and a handful of others, which went towards the oddball nature of Blockhead as a figure and his live performance in general. His set was seamless for the most part, with him jumping on the mic occasionally to further rile the crowd up. Though his set seemed to yield less of a wild response from the crowd than the performers before and after him, Blockhead’s live set was a good one, and it served as the perfect middle-point to the night.
Finally, at the crack of 11:00, the five members of the Emancipator Ensemble began filing onto the stage one by one, and wasted little time inviting the Showbox crowd into their own cold, musical winter wonderland. Their set was a bit of a slow-burner at first, with the members doing a gradual warm-up on their own instruments before their drummer came barreling through with a pounding rhythm, and the set did little to let up from there. The quintet worked their way through a handful of tracks off of the latest record, before going into a bit of Appling’s extensive back-catalog.
I first saw Emancipator live a couple months ago at Bumbershoot, and though I enjoyed their performance overall, there was something missing about it, a certain “oomf”, that just really clicked for me when I saw them at the Showbox. I think it was mainly that the Bumbershoot performance was just Appling and a violinist, and the music had less of that live, rich, layered dynamic to it that the full ensemble delivered on fully. When the full ensemble is assembled, the violin, the cello, the guitar, the synthesizers, everything just comes together beautifully, and the group just plays off of each other amazingly well.
The inclusion of a live drummer also definitely helps give Emancipator’s music new life. Not that performing pre-recorded drum loops and timbres is inherently bad, but when you have a drummer as fucking awesome as the Emancipator Ensemble has, you really can’t go wrong. From song to song, drummer Colby Buckler tore shit up on the drums, with demolishing snare hits, forceful kicks, and difficult fills throughout these songs. During some of the set, Doug would set up quieter pre-recorded drums and Buckler would play with them, and though this was noticeable at some points, it was clear that as far as Emancipator’s great percussion arrangements go, Buckler was the center of attention.
Towards the end of their long sub-2 hour set, the members left the stage single-file, and an uproarious applause from the crowd prompted their return to the stage to perform “Ares”, a Safe in the Steep Cliffs deep cut, and a couple other crowd-pleasing tracks to wrap up the night. After the set had concluded and all the lights were turned on, my colleague and I looked around at all the others in attendance, and found that they were all just as visibly mesmerized as we were. Emancipator’s performance was nothing short of stellar, and was the perfect way to spend a cold, needlessly rainy night in Seattle.