Chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A” filled New York's Terminal 5 on Friday night as fans clamored for Marshmello's arrival. Toward the front of the shouting crowd was a giant American flag. The evening's headliner, whose identity is a loosely guarded “secret,” never appears in public without a white helmet that covers his face and a matching outfit. Seeing such a nationalistic display for a (presumably white) man in all-white attire felt a bit weird. Once Marshmello took the stage, he treated Terminal 5 to an over-caffeinated cacophony of bright lights and absurdist bass. This wasn’t a safe space for nuance.
Earlier this year, Marshmello put out a debut album, Joytime, which largely took its cues from the warm, bright sound of the French producer Madeon’s excellent 2015 album Adventure. It was a decent approximation, but it failed to reach the same heights, because Marshmello too often flattens out the charming chord progressions and melodies that make his peers’ music so endearing. Even so, the masked hero became mainstream EDM's 2016 zeitgeist, consistently selling out his current tour -- New York City included.
As it happened, Madeon was in town this past week, too. His joint tour with North Carolina producer Porter Robinson struck a much more reassuring tone when it came through the Theater at Madison Square Garden last Thursday. Robinson and Madeon kicked off their set with their joint single “Shelter,” seamlessly weaving their styles into a radiant three-minute burst, and the audience joined Madeon in singing, “And it's a long way forward, so trust in me / I'll give them shelter, like you've done for me.” They next transitioned to Robinson’s beloved “Sad Machine” from his 2014 album, Worlds, and the energy of the crowd only continued to build. The duo's pace eventually tempered after the first few tracks, but the opening 20 minutes felt sweeter than adding sugar to a soda, in the best way.
At Terminal 5, Marshmello wasn't able to match Madeon and Robinson’s euphoria. Midway through his performance, the masked star played his biggest song, “Alone,” which over this sound system sounded like a Nintendo 64 console imploding; but that track’s simple joy is lost on his latest single, “Ritual,” for which his tour is named. This latest track, put out on Skrillex’s label, OWSLA, is fairly rote EDM pop that regrettably could be confused with a latter-day Calvin Harris single. Onstage, the producer acted even more like a crossover EDM star, playing the Chainsmokers' hit “Don’t Let Me Down,” ignoring that both of his openers had already played the exact same song. We might have been listening to an EDM radio station, repeating the same hits on the hour.
That wasn’t an issue with Porter Robinson and Madeon, as the duo would have taken at least another hour before exhausting their respective discographies. Robinson’s music dominated the setlist, though Madeon’s work (“You’re On” and “Pay No Mind”) shined when it popped up. Throughout, the duo alternated between singing and pounding away on electric drum kits, which Robinson clearly took joy in doing. Their visual presentation — projections of anime, pixelated impressionistic collages, and what looked like promotional material for trippy Nintendo games — lent the performance a feeling of warm nostalgia.
At Terminal 5, Marshmello’s set blurred into sonic mush due to the venue’s bloated bass; but even as Robinson and Madeon transitioned from otherworldly pop to massive dubstep drops, their set kept a crispness and clarity. After Robinson’s “Goodbye to a World,” the duo scurried offstage and returned for an “acoustic” version of “Shelter” with Madeon on lead vocals and Robinson on keyboard. The lights and technicolor extravaganza of both nights were energizing, but Robinson and Madeon, unlike their masked peer, made sure to keep a touch of humanity in their set.