“I believe people want listening music – even on the dancefloor!” So explains Aleksander Vinter of the philosophy driving his musical mastermind alter-ego, Savant. That approach proves in full force on Savant’s iconoclastic new artist album, Zion.
One of the most unique albums you’ll hear this year, Zion manages to fulfill one’s expectations and defy them simultaneously. On the one hand, Zion booms with the kind of speaker-shredding bangers that have made Savant one of dance music’s most popular rising stars – that cause crowds at mega-festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival to go wild with abandon during Savant’s dynamic live sets. On the other end, it’s a complex concept album as would only come from Savant: an abstract, cosmic meditation on the interminable conflicts in the Middle East that have come to define our shared global experience – all set, naturally, to a beat you can rave out to.
As such, Zion cements Savant’s status as dance-music culture’s most unpredictable, impossible-to-pigeonhole icon. That status has remained constant throughout Savant’s madly prolific career, spanning numerous singles, remixes, nominations for Norwegian Grammys, and 11 (!) full-length albums. (Most of Savant’s discography appears on SectionZ Records – the innovative, community-based imprint that was an early spawning ground for the likes of Deadmau5, to whom Savant signed in 2010 and continues to collaborate with.) Savant’s diverse appeal was made crystal clear in the instant breakthrough success of his flagship 2012 release, Alchemist. Alchemist would go on to reach the #1 spot on seven separate Beatport charts: Dubstep, Drum and Bass, Electro-House, Glitch Hop, Drumstep, Indie Dance/Nu Disco and Overall. As such, the music on Zion refuses to conform to EDM genre demarcations, as does its maker. ‘Electronic Dance Music’ is the most generic term, which doesn’t apply to what I do,” Vinter explains of the sound he’s dubbed “complextro.” “It’s all about putting everything into one pot of musical ether. I don’t have a rigid formula; my music manages to be comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. I like breaking rules – that’s where new stuff emerges.”
As such, Savan’t newest, Zion, manages to both fulfill expectations and defy them. As such, it’s a collection of 16 full-out dancefloor killers: thundering drums spanning dubstep half-time to 4/4 house combine bold synth lead lines make for what sound like, on first listen, an album full of individual singles. Listen closer, though, and fractured IDM rhythms that split the difference between Skrillex and Steve Reich, Fela Kuti and Daft Punk emerge. Those unlikely beats alternate amidst surges of untold aggression belying Vinter’s legit metalhead bona fides. The entire sonic stew is then deconstructed yet again via dramatic drops that detonate dancefloors with a supreme, yet spiritual, heaviness. “The melodies in the breakdowns are very Black Sabbath inspired, using the tritone ‘devil note,’” Vinter notes. “This album is really a mix of short, beautiful jingles and a lot of hardcore metal/punk-esque riffs, all created with electronic music tools. But no actual instruments or hardware were really used: this is pure electronic music.”
On first listen, Zion’s individual tracks resemble not so much discreet songs as mini DJ sets unto themselves. “With Zion, I wanted to make an album that was like spending an entire day in the dance tent with your head in the speaker while different acts took the stage,” Vinter says. “In each of these songs, I have all kinds of different shit happening – even different tempos. I’m a terrible DJ, so I like having a song I don’t have to mix. Instead of mixing six songs really quickly, I just make one long one that sounds like six songs! That’s part of my style comes from listening to DJ mixes and thinking, ‘What if you just had the cool parts, without the copy/paste shit repetition?’ I can’t do copy/paste at all – I’d feel like I was cheating myself and wasting the listener’s time.”
Zion indeed serves as a journey through the kaleidoscope prism of Savant’s musical imagination. A track like “Royalty,” for example, might be considered “classic Savant,” even by its maker. “I get lots of pressure from fans to do more super-melodic tracks,” Vinter explains. “That’s ‘Royalty’: beautiful, soaring harpsichords pitted against these moving, 8-bit Nintendo game noises and lots of crazy, angry sounds.” The epic big-room slammer “Apocalypse,” meanwhile, hybrids sexy late-night Daft Punk disco vibes, metallic noise blasts, soaring European folk/classical melodies – a mélange made complete by a sinister sample of Knife Party’s Rob Swire from a sour interview. “I like Queen a lot,” Vinter says. “They’re very theatrical and harmonized, which I also do in my music. That epic feeling – plus the style of David Bowie, and the spunk of Prince – is what I’m going for, but via dance music.”
Zion also reflects the sound of contemporary bass-music culture – albeit rewired by Savant’s polymath circuit board – as on the dubwise-meets-dubstep title track. “‘It’s this frantic ’90s rave feeling, trapped inside of a Jamaican dub reggae track – all set to dubstep rhythms,” he says. “I was tired of using only the two rhythms – 4/4 and half time – you hear in electronic music today. I was like, ‘What else do we have here?’ Even my housier stuff doesn’t have the same BPM all the time.” While tunes like ‘Nazareth’ and ‘Shazam’ move at hip-hop tempos, “Princess of Zion” morphs into an unrecognizable beast – “this really angry, one-note punk & bass that turns into 8-bit trap inspired by this Pirates of the Carribean vibe,” Vinter clarifies.
The title of “Princess of Zion” gives a clue to the album’s Middle Eastern inspiration and themes. That titular character refers to Israel’s jingoistic equivalent of Uncle Sam who appears frequently in nationalist propaganda. No, this is not your grandmother’s moombahton – but then Savant is no stranger to wildly ambitious concept albums exploring visionary topics. 2012’s Vario took the listener inside a wild party that turned out to be a strange 8-bit videogame that’s never existed; the distinctly classical quality of the smash Alchemist from that same year evoked the rise of ancient European dynasties. Orakel, meanwhile, challenged and engaged contemporary rave culture circa 2013 head on with its urgent, futuristic manifesto.
Savant’s last full-length – 2014’s Protos – proved unlike anything in Savant’s voluminous catalog, however: an ‘80s space-rock opera, with Vinter providing guitar solos and passionate New Wave-style vocals on nearly every track. Savant’s fan base found Protos a lefter-than-left turn even from an artist known for unpredictable twists – the key reason almost every song on Zion is primarily instrumental. “I did a whole album of full-on vocals, so I was like ‘I want to do something else now, that’s completely different,’” Vinter notes. “It shocked some of my fans, but I had to rediscover that I could do other things.”
Vinter still hadn’t let go of the idea of doing another Savant concept album – one with a complicated real-world topic not typical for today’s largely apolitical, escapist dance music/club culture. Vinter began creating Zion in early 2014, just having moved from his native Norway to Los Angeles’ sunnier climes. His first idea was to create a retro-fabulous album-length homage to ‘90s “big beat” – a vestige of which remains on the furious bottom end and digi-breakbeats on Zion tracks “Sons of Babel” and “Spider”: according to Vinter, those songs were designed to evoke “that memory of how massive hearing “Firestarter” by Prodigy for the first time was, mixed with the sound of ‘80s pop music shooting for the dancefloor without shame.” But then he fell upon a more spiritual, unexpected, and vanguard concept. “It’s a metaphor for a lot of stuff at once,” Vinter explains. “We’re in Sodom and Gomorrah again – but the Internet is Zion, and the Tower of Babylon is Google Translate.”
Arabic instruments, sounds, and voices began spontaneously appearing in productions that evolved into Zion tracks like “Mecca” – the resulting funkdafied digital stew reflecting in its sonics a nonjudgmental blend of deep emotionalism and satirical detachment. Likewise, Vinter found inspiration for Zion’s opening track “Annunaki” in the writings of Zacharias Sitchin, a ‘70s-era conspiracy theorist who believed extraterrestrial aliens had procreated with the ancient Sumerians. “Writing about the Middle East has been in my mind a long time,” Vinter says. “It’s a very touchy subject, but the album has a lot of black humor and anti-irony amidst the heavier things. It’s all about how you interpret it. If you’re Jewish you hopefully hear Zion as a bar mitzvah party record; if you’re a conspiracy theorist, you’ll see it as an Illuminati thing; and if you’re a kid, you’ll just perceive it as a bunch of cool dubstep and electronic music to download.”
Vinter didn’t start life as a global DJ-producer star. Growing up in a small Norwegian town in the ‘90s, he learned English from reading the subtitles on episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Vinter struggled in school and life until he was diagnosed with a series of mental conditions – primarily Aspergers Syndrome, “but with some autism and ADHD sprinkled in there,” recalls Vinter, 27. “What Michael Jackson and Stephen Spielberg do is totally Aspergers: quirky, super talented, and unable to live a conventional life. That was me, but I was always happy: since I was a little kid, I was like Tim Burton on social steroids.”
Vinter’s treatment revealed a silver lining: he also had a condition known as “savant syndrome,” which allowed for a remarkable focus and aptitude in a particular talent – in Vinter’s case, music. “They told me as long as I kept doing music, I would succeed,” says Vinter, who attributes his incredibly prolific output – he’s created nearly 15,000 pieces of music since he began writing and producing in his teens on a primitive Rave eJay computer program. Vinter quickly went from classically-trained prodigy to playing in black metal band No Funeral. He then graduated to producing solo electronic music that obeyed no genre rules at all – other than rocking the party while honestly reflecting the sum total of Vinter’s life experience and taste.
“Electronic music doesn’t tell you how to think,” Vinter says. “That it was faceless, and mostly instrumental, felt revolutionary to me. This was music that took you on a journey, telling stories with sound, not words. It was a new language – and one that’s still being refined and redefined.” At the same time, Vinter draws inspiration from a wide variety of musical and cinematic sources. He’s quick to detail why he obsesses over Metallica and Hans Zimmer soundtracks as much as, say, Aphex Twin, and still listens to Off the Wall by Michael Jackson every night while brushing his teeth before bed. “I hope that, by the time I’m 40, I’ve recorded a symphony or two, and completed a trip hop/breakbeat album,” Vinter admits. “I also want to do a Motown-style R&B record in vintage ’60s fashion – down to using the same instruments and recording equipment from that era. I’m a perfectionist, yet I want to try to do everything.”
That iconoclastically inclusive attitude is a defining aspect of Savant’s live show –not traditional DJ sets, but instead performances crafted on the spot using digital music production software. “I don’t put tracks together by spinning records,” Vinter clarifies. “It’s more of a concert where you hear tracks redone and remixed my way, so they’re even more sporadic and all over the place than the original versions. It’s not about continuous beats for me: it’s more about, ‘Whoa!’ I want to blow people’s minds with music.”
As such, you’ll often find Vinter onstage as Savant performing in fantastical, elaborate costumes and a custom Guy Fawkes mask – in the process giving the post-Burning Man generation its own shapeshifting glam magpie/provocateur à la Marilyn Manson or Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie. Savant fans often come to his concerts and club appearances in costume as him; they also dress up cosplay-style as characters from the 8-bit influenced art and Savant anime/game-inspired visual personas like “Vario” that characterize Savant’s gig posters and album covers. (Acclaimed game developer Simon Stafnes of D-Pad collaborates with Vinter to create a unified universe of instantly recognizable Savant iconography.) “I see what I do as Savant as building an entertainment brand,” Vinter explains. “I always wanted to make cartoons, comic books, games, films, music – and it all ties together in this mythic fantasy figure I become for people.”
“I’m lucky electronic music hit when it did,” Vinter continues. “Because of Skrillex and Tiësto, dance music has become this thing, inbetween pop and mainstream, where a little autistic guy from Norway can make a living, live in L.A., and prosper. I’m proof it’s possible. But making music for me is an obsession: I’m a workaholic, trying to make something beautiful for myself. It’s like making drugs; I’m trying to take my mind off the darkness of knowing too much. I intended Zion as virtual reality channeled via sonic waves: a journey to this fictional Zion my imagination has created. Escaping from one reality to another is what I do with music. I’m doing it for myself – but if I can hit some chords, trigger a sample, and take somebody into a new world, then I’ve truly succeeded.”