Veteran EDM artist turns towards ambience in latest release
Born in the small city of Tupelo, Mississippi, Thomas Wesley Pentz entered college as a total unknown and left as a critically acclaimed DJ and producer, going on to produce for pop artists spanning from Beyoncѐ to Justin Bieber to Snoop Dogg. Pentz’s style of EDM and electronic music landed him collaborations with some of the biggest names in the dance music scene, including Skrillex, Switch and Mark Ronson, among others.
People might know him better as Diplo. The popular American DJ has a lengthy catalogue of supremely catchy dance tunes, but in 2020, Diplo released MMXX, marking his first foray into the realm of ambient electronica and establishing him as a more versatile artist than many give him credit for.
MMXX doubtlessly achieves moments of shimmering beauty and woozy surreality, oftentimes sounding like a synthesizer-fueled fever dream. Diplo’s style of ambience is grand and atmospheric, frequently combining techno synths, strings and white noise effects in a glitchy, fluid style. That being said, the record’s mixing is often jumbled or muddled, leaving listeners with much to be desired.
“MMXX – I” opens the album with a dreamy, whimsical sound chock full of color and nuance. Gently glowing tones play an arpeggiated riff over an amalgamation of synthesizers, while a deep, dark bass pierces through the mix entirely, causing the track to sound simultaneously pretty and ominous, like the calm before a psychedelic storm.
The following track, “MMXX – II,” maintains many elements of that opener, but on the whole it feels much more murky. The arpeggiated tonal riff and cutting bass stick around, this time joined by light percussion and a slew of white noise effects ranging from scratching to fizzling, but Diplo seems to have bitten off more than he could chew, filling the mix with sounds to the point that it can become overwhelming at times.
He rebounds nicely on “MMXX – III,” a tune whose ’80s-style keyboard riff and underlying intensity would make it feel right at home on the soundtrack to Stranger Things. Disembodied voices, sounds and noises build and swirl around the main riff, culminating in a shimmering conclusion. “MMXX – IV” also utilizes white noise heavily, but has a more surreal mood, with its raspy synthesizers and deep bass tones making up a sweet, dreamy, glitchy soundscape.
“MMXX – V” and “MMXX – VI” are sonic polar opposites. The former track is a muddled collage of strings filled with layering and dissonance, with some strings occasionally breaking through the fog to hold a melody. It’s messy at first, but by the end of the song, there are tons of gorgeous chords being generated. The latter track is perhaps Diplo’s vision of a grandiose music box. Its glowing xylophone hits sail over wavering strings and a sea of white noise, forming a beautiful sound packed with nostalgia.
The messy and surreal “MMXX – VII” seems to lack cohesion, as jarring white noise, detuned droning strings and shrill synthesizers form the foundation of a jumbled mixture of sounds. But Diplo comes back with “MMXX – VIII,” an epic, swelling tune that sounds as if the listener is lost at sea. Morse code, static and radio feedback open the track, and it slowly builds in a triumphant crescendo of strings and synths, all the while maintaining a watery, bogged down effect.
“MMXX – IX” and “MMXX – X” begin to incorporate more vocals into the mix. The former track is a ghastly sounding collage of warped and layered vocal choruses and is one of the riskier tracks on the project, but it pays off. Diplo’s blending of different voices and frequencies is masterful here. But on the latter track, things seem to come undone. Glitchy effects, white noise and a rumbling bass overtake the vocals, and the song in its entirety feels messy.
The penultimate track “MMXX – XI” is somewhat forgettable. Unlike other tracks, it’s got somewhat of a beat, but the combination of layered synthesizers, distorted vocals and techno beeps doesn’t do much to differentiate it from MMXX’s other offerings. However, closer “MMXX – XII” is a satisfying conclusion to Diplo’s ambient experiment. It’s the most reminiscent of a “normal” Diplo song, warm and glowing with a nice little beat. The vocal performance by Rhye is haunting, and the track’s dark, rich sounds end the project on a high note.
While most listeners probably didn’t expect an ambient album from Diplo, the American DJ delivers on several fronts. MMXX has a surreal mystique to it, pulling elements of psychedelia, electronica and experimental music together into a glitchy, gauzy soundscape. And despite its tendency to stray into muddled or sloppy passages, the project has atmospheric continuity. Diplo produces some truly stunning moments on MMXX, maybe enough of them to justify the record’s oft-jumbled mixing.