When you think back to your earliest memories of finding music online, what do you remember? If you’re like me, you remember searching far and wide for the highest quality version of your favorite Daft Punk song via file-sharing sites and software. In the midst of this digital playground, the arena contained a range of underground and experimental electronic songs that went on to fizzle into the digital abyss. Nestled in that abyss is Virtual Self, whose own music derives from what the early 2000s sounded like through a hard drive.
In an interview with The Fader, Porter Robinson dove deep into the meaning behind his latest endeavor, Virtual Self. He cites his inspiration for the entire project as his interpretation of music he heard on the internet. “I didn’t draw distinctions between J-hardcore, jungle, trance, and IDM,” he said. “There weren’t rules of what does and doesn’t go together.” Later on, he commented on the goal of the project itself and his inspiration for the aesthetics: “I felt like I could acknowledge that certain elements had fallen out of fashion, and still write a love letter to them. Some of this stuff was genuinely amazing, and in some cases, worth revisiting.”
In many ways, Virtual Self is Robinson’s love letter to the many niche genres that lived solely on the internet back when we perused the illegal worlds of Limewire and the like, and one of the most unique facets of this project is his love for hard dance. What’s so significant about his devotion to the harder styles is that Robinson draws the same crowd of thousands who secured their spot for Marshmello’s headlining slot at the same festival the night before.
Since Virtual Self debuted in October 2017, there’s been a trend of people describing his music as “halftime DDR music” or something along those lines (see below), but what does that really mean? If you’re mega-young or you just need a refresher, Dance Dance Revolution is the music video game series produced by Konami in 1998 in which players dance along with their feet to musical and visual cues. What people are referring to when they describe Virtual Self’s music with this game, though, is the hyperactive, fast-paced music we heard within the game as kids and teenagers, and we danced our asses off to it for the sake of a high score.
might just fuck around and bring my DDR mat to Virtual Self’s set
— chad dominic (@chaddominics) July 31, 2018
According to a DDR machine that was taken to multiple conventions, one of the game’s most popular songs is none other than “Butterfly,” the Eurodance hit by Swedish bubblegum group Smile.dk. Characterized by ultra-feminine vocals and a ravey synth melody, this track is noted as one of the most iconic songs found in the game and often triggers nostalgia in those who played when they were younger. If you were a master on the platform, though, you tried your best to tackle the game’s most difficult tracks; for example, my favorite song in Dance Dance Revolution 5 was “Healing Vision (Angelic Mix)” by DE-SIRE. At 196 BPM, I was dripping in sweat by the time I made it to the end (if I even made it that far), and found myself falling in love with the hard dance flair the more I played the game.
VIRTUAL SELF joins Beatmania IIDX. pic.twitter.com/05zPRWMv2F
— Virtual Self (@virtual_self) August 3, 2018
The premiere of his project brought us the single “EON BREAK,” and the immediate audience reaction brought about nostalgia from the days of DDR. It’s apparent that the mainstream EDM audience is only able to make this connection because it’s quite possibly the only popular medium of entertainment that was accessible to an American audience that contains European and Japanese dance music, more specifically that of hardcore and happy hardcore. It’s not that it’s a style of music we’ve never heard before in America — it’s that for most, it lived inside the world of video games and anime rather than on our stages or in our CD players.
In 2016, the late Thump published an article titled “Hardstyle’s Biggest Attempt to Take America By Storm Ended With a Whimper,” citing the failure of the Trauma Harder Styles Tour to succeed. The tour helmed by Trauma Live, an event company based in Los Angeles, came to an abrupt end when in Brooklyn, a disastrous booking mishap unfolded: “The anticipated event imploded on its final date when many headliners unexpectedly refused to perform, leaving many hard dance heads disappointed and concerned about the viability of the beloved but relatively niche genre in America.” I agree wholeheartedly that this was a promising attempt to bring that niche genre to the states, and it was snatched away due to poor management of the tour.
This was two years ago, and there hasn’t been anything else like it in America. Sure, we’ve got hardcore artists like Angerfist, DJ Mad Dog, and AniMe playing Insomniac festivals like EDC thanks to the brand’s hard dance arm, Basscon, but it’s likely only those who are already invested in this music will make their way to that stage. It seems the ship has sailed for European hardcore artists to infiltrate the American scene on their own terms (and it seems as though small promoters here aren’t to be trusted handling visas after Trauma’s fiasco). So instead of the American audience breaking themselves into hardcore, Virtual Self is bringing it to them, and he’s doing so with a highly curated and brilliantly aesthetic package.
Beyond his own halftime hard dance-inspired productions, a live set from Virtual Self features cuts from some of the biggest and baddest producers within the hardcore genre. When I’m talking hardcore, I’m not referring to the stylings of rock bands that would include, say, Minor Threat or Black Flag representing hardcore punk, nor am I talking about post-hardcore bands like Silverstein or A Day To Remember. I’m talking I:gor, Outblast, Gammer — yes, these artists are staples in his live sets. If you’re not so familiar with electronic music’s hardcore subgenre, it’s characterized by the power of the kick drum and tempos ranging from 160 to 200 BPM and above.
Now, here’s Virtual Self, playing the headlining slot at festivals like Ultra, EDC Las Vegas, and HARD Summer, dropping thunderous kicks, glittering synth melodies, and tracks like I:gor’s 175 BPM cut “Game Tight” on a stage where no one in the hard dance world could have imagined it’d see the light of day. For those who have never heard of I:gor, he’s a Polish hardcore, speedcore, and breakcore producer and DJ who’s been in the game since 2000. He’s linked up with Angerfist, the most accessible hardcore producer and DJ, on multiple occasions and hangs his hat on diabolical, aggressive kick drums for the meat of his project.
Virtual Self’s admiration and fascination for this hardcore sound is something we’ve really never seen brought to the main stage of an American festival — yes, we’ve heard Hardwell drop a good chunk of hardstyle at the end of his sets in America, and Timmy Trumpet is dabbling into hardstyle as well, but here’s where dropping some hard dance in a set versus an act like Virtual Self differs: it’s all in the digital aesthetic of Virtual Self, and he’s created a unique, comprehensible aesthetic that guides his artistic movement with the goal of bringing the iconic music of the internet to the center stage.
There are two halves to the whole entity of Virtual Self: technic-Angel and Pathselector. The technic-Angel persona is credited as the voice behind songs such as “Particle Arts,” “Key,” and “EON BREAK,” and its visualization is associated with traits of femininity. On the other hand, Pathselector is said to be the creator of “Ghost Voices” and “a.i.ngel,” donning a mask over its face within Virtual Self’s visual designs. For Virtual Self’s upcoming tour, the show combines the two personas into one: audiences will experience a techno, 2-step, and trance segment from the technic-Angel moniker, followed by a set of gabber, jungle, and hardcore from Pathselector.
Similarly, an essential element in hard dance is the theatrical component of the events and of the music itself. For example, it’s common for a European hard dance festival like Defqon.1 or Dominator in the Netherlands to have an anthem for each year. These anthems are incredibly cinematic — much like the phenomenon of how house music vocals seem to often preach about how great house music is, hard dance anthems feature some sort of speech about what it means to be hardcore. Along with the two personas within the project, take Virtual Self’s state-of-the-art live production featuring a whispering digital voice at the introduction, spelling out his alias and remaining omnipresent throughout the entire set through gratuitous words like ‘digital’ and ‘belief.’ It’s painfully thematic and represents the idea of stepping into another world to escape the reality we see every single day.
One of the greatest strengths of the Virtual Self project is that it isn’t confined to his previous work under Porter Robinson — because it’s a separate entity but still the work of Porter Robinson, Virtual Self is a highly accessible medium for audiences to experience niche electronic genres like hardcore. If he’d released “Ghost Voices” under his original name, I don’t doubt his audience would still love it. But for the entire package that includes industrial techno cuts and hardcore elements, Virtual Self is a necessary character to make the project accessible and loveable to an American audience. Ticketholders come to a Virtual Self set for everything: the lights, the visuals, the glitchy, robotic vocal chops, and of course the music, but an audience unfamiliar with hardcore and heavy techno (and even some who would otherwise hate it on their own time) feels as if they’re embarking on an experience like they’ve never been on before.
And it is quite the experience. I’m typically alone within my local scene and my group of friends in my obsessive love for hard dance, and I’m often questioned about why I love a form of music that’s so aggressive. Some people prefer to fall in love with poetic lyricism; some prefer to relish in divine instrumentation; some prefer to feel the groove in the bassline — I prefer to escape the confines of what is ‘normal’ in electronic music and simply get lost in pounding kicks and theatrical melodies. I believe when a crowd is jumping and pumping their fists to hardcore during a Virtual Self set, they’re experiencing all the same things I can’t get enough of.
It hasn’t even been a year since Virtual Self debuted, but we’re already seeing an enormous surge of hard dance from artists who originated in America and a higher demand for hard dance artists to come to the states. Take Gammer, for example, who’s credited for contributing to happy hardcore as it sounds today — he’s touring the United States right now as a headliner. Furthermore, music from the likes of American producers Yultron and k?d represent the fundamental elements of hard dance, not to mention their own DJ sets including cuts from hardcore OGs. I’ve seen this wave coming for a long time, but I finally feel like the the American EDM scene is ready to welcome hard dance into their musical experience with open arms, and I’m thanking Virtual Self for his enormous contribution to this movement.
To end my personal love letter to the existence of Virtual Self, I urge you all to listen to his latest release “ANGEL VOICES” if you haven’t already. It’s a spin-off of “Ghost Voices,” jacked up in a variety of ways to emulate the stylings of different hard dance subgenres like hard trance and hardcore. By the time you reach the end of the six-minute storm of kicks and melodies, you’ve experienced a story filled with long-lost sounds of the internet and music that’s tucked away in nightclubs of the Netherlands every weekend. I don’t have to dream of what it’s like to be across the world to truly appreciate this music, because Virtual Self is coming to my city in September. And you better believe I’ll be front row center.
Virtual Self is embarking on the North American ‘Utopia Tour’ beginning August 31st at Electric Zoo in New York. View dates below and buy tickets here.
Aug 31 – Electric Zoo – New York, NY
Sep 1 – Riverworks – Buffalo NY
Sep 2 – New City Gas – Montreal QC
Sep 3 – Echostage – Washington DC (CLUBSYSTEM)
Sep 6 – Royal Oak – Detroit MI
Sep 7 – Aragon – Chicago IL
Sep 8 – Armory – Minneapolis MN
Sep 10 – Ogden – Denver CO
Sep 11 – The Complex – Salt Lake City UT
Sep 13 – WAMU – Seattle WA
Sep 14 – Commodore – Vancouver BC
Sep 15 – Shaw Conference Center – Edmonton AB (CLUBSYSTEM)
Sep 27 – City National Civic – San Jose CA
Sep 28 – NOS Event Center – San Bernardino CA
Oct 3 – Emo’s – Austin TX
Oct 4 – Bomb Factory – Dallas TX