Gesaffelstein (a portmanteau of Gesamtkunstwerk, a German term meaning “universal artwork” and Albert Einstein, for those who are wondering) is the moniker of Mike Lévy, a French DJ and electronic music producer from the city of Lyon who is currently most famous for co-producing a few killer tracks on Kanye West’s modern classic Yeezus. While the genius of “Black Skinhead,” one of the songs that bears Lévy’s co-producer credit, is everlasting, Yeezus was released in 2013 – at least three or four Kanyes ago – and Gesaffelstein has strived to make his mark on the pop music landscape ever since. He released his own debut collection of dark eletronica, Aleph, that same year, followed by a string of EPs, remixes, and collaborations with compatriots such as Phoenix, Miss Kittin and the Hacker, and Jean-Michel Jarre.
It’s clear that Gesaffelstein seeks to fit into the elite and impressive pantheon of French dance music, and his slightly somber electronic songs, brimming with pulsating synths, metallic beats, and eerie, warbling melodies recall the darker moments from legendary acts such as Daft Punk and Justice. However, the struggle here is for Gesaffelstein to differentiate himself from the pack instead of fade into the line-up of the dozens of French electro producers that came before him. It’s a tricky balancing act, and his new record, the uneven-yet-somehow-still-sexy Hyperion, makes a formidable effort with a string of high profile cameos and genuinely accessible pop tunes, but ends up recalling past greats rather than cementing a unique identity for its creator.
Given the A-list talent recruited for Hyperion, its first single, surprisingly, is “Reset,” an instrumental soundscape whose purpose seems to be recalling the kind of gripping proto-techno soundtracks of the 1980s: Vangelis’ Blade Runner, or even the classic example of “Axel F” from Beverly Hills Cop. “Reset” adds a hip-hop beat and a droning, police-siren-mimicking synth line, but something about it sounds empty – it could be that we live in a world where Kavinsky already mined that genre for everything it’s worth for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive soundtrack almost a decade ago, and while it may seem unfair to Gesaffelstein to make these obvious parallels, the strong sense of dejà-vu is undeniable.
“Reset” goes straight into what could only be referred to as the jewel in Hyperion’s crown: single “Lost in the Fire,” a scintillating slice of ‘80s R&B pop featuring The Weeknd, who has become nothing short of the go-to vocalist for this sort of retro-sexy sound. After the lulling nature of “Reset,” “Fire” starts off with a bang, literally: “I want to fuck you slow with the lights on,” croons The Weeknd, first line, zero preamble, and we’re off. The opening of the song is so direct and matter-of-fact that it’s almost unintentionally funny; channeling frank sexual machismo like only the French can, from Serge Gainsbourg to Sébastien Tellier. But The Weeknd’s semi-earnest delivery veers it away from pastiche, and the track blasts on as a tight, fun romp (“Baby, you can bring a friend/ She can ride on top your face/ While I fuck you straight,” he sings in the second verse, because that’s how committed to unbridled sexual healing “Fire” is).
The last time Pharrell Williams was featured on a French dance album was Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which yielded the smash hit “Get Lucky”; here, he flexes his chops on “Blast Off,” another single from Hyperion, and its second most engaging track after “Fire”. Its stuttering bassline infuses a death disco riff with a copious dose of codeine, numbing your senses. Gesaffelstein has also recruited HAIM (“So Bad”) and The Hacker and Canadian synth-pop band Electric Youth (“Forever”) to round out the vocal tracks. It’s interesting to hear these fairly disparate artists work within Gesaffelstein’s wheelhouse, and it kind of makes you wish all 10 tracks featured these kind of high caliber guest vocalists.
Thus, Gesaffelstein tries to fill in the blanks: Hyperion’s opening, eponymous track consists almost solely of a jittering synth oscillation, a motif that recurs throughout the album to tie in its more reflective, less pop-y moments, to enjoyable effect. That being said, after the bombast of a song like “Fire,” it’s hard to not feel like these tracks were somewhat neglected. They work within the framing of the album, but the general problem of semi-anonymity – who is Gesaffelstein? What is he trying to say? Where would be be without these celebrity cameos? – remains, even after repeat listens. Hyperion has moments of real connection, where the references, influences, and homages all come together. Now, Gesaffelstein’s work will be to sustain that magic for an entire record; to keep those balls in the air and to continue to enchant in a way he is obviously capable of.