Steve Aoki has been a huge presence in electronic dance music since the mid-‘00s. He was at the forefront of the scene, along with his label Dim Mak Records, when it was at the height of its popularity. With Wonderland, one might get the sense he’s trying to re-establish that era. What’s surprising is how well he manages to hearken back to those days while remaining firmly rooted in the present, even if the first collaborator here (Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo) hit the peak of his popularity several years ago.
Cuomo’s track, “Earthquakey People”, sets the template for much of Wonderland. Each of these 13 tracks (save the last one, a remix of “Earthquakey People”) brings in at least one new featured collaborator to touch up Aoki’s production. “Earthquakey People” serves as a good introduction to the album and stands out as one of its finest moments. It’s everything you’d hope for on an album like this—an energizer that boasts a catchy melody and fun production. In short, a song to kick off a party.
However, after the relatively good “Ladi Dadi”, Wonderland falls prey to the most difficult trap to avoid in the genre: extreme repetition. It’s possible Aoki (among countless others) thought he could avoid the feeling of similarity by bringing in so many guests, but only so much can be done over the same pulsating beat. This becomes particularly evident in a run starting with will.i.am—operating under the supposed secret moniker (((Zuper Blahq))))—and his track, “Dangerous”. Wonderland also reveals its insistence to be flirtatious with the already incredibly tired tropes of Americanized dubstep.
After that, Wonderland doesn’t really have a notable moment until “Emergency” is alternately brought to life and decimated by Chiddy Bang’s kind of incredible verses and Lil Jon’s continuously grating existence. “Emergency” unwittingly becomes the most representative track of Wonderland by simultaneously showcasing both skill, promise, and inventiveness, as well as a refusal to let go of the past and steadfastness in sticking to the same bland ideals.
LMFAO & Nervo step up and deliver another one of Wonderland’s catchier moments with “Livin’ My Love”. Everyone involved on that track is familiar or already a part of the EDM conversation, and that undoubtedly plays into how well the track works. Blaqstarr ends up in a similar situation on the ensuing track, as the overall style complements her vocals quite well, even if the slap-bass takes things a touch too far and detracts from the track.
“Steve Jobs” weighs the small momentum burst down a bit and revels in tired clichés. The track was originally entitled something else but changed to be a tribute to the late Apple figurehead. While the two are connected via the emphasis of overtly old-fashioned computerized sounds on the track, neither Aoki or Jobs are done any favors here, and it almost instantly becomes Wonderland‘s weakest moment. Lovefoxxx (the CSS frontwoman) steps things up a fraction with the pleasant-but-not-memorable “Heartbreaker”, and it’s another fairly representative track in regards to the album.
“Cudi the Kid”, the next track, starts off promisingly enough before being bogged down by both Aoki’s gravitation towards dubstep-lite bass drops and Travis Barker’s bizarrely out of place drumming. Its strong start makes the rest of “Cudi the Kid” so frustrating—at times, it can be difficult to listen to. However, “Ooh” comes off even worse. From the very beginning, it feels like a tired retread and continues the dubstep reliance aspect of Wonderland. Then “The Kids Will Have Their Say” happens.
This is the part of Wonderland that immediately becomes the most fascinating: Aoki going for broke by enlisting not only one of the most important hardcore bands but one of the most important punk bands as well. While Die Kreuzen and The Exploited don’t exactly mesh with Aoki’s electronic flourishes, the end result of their collaboration is undeniably intriguing, even if it is a little difficult to digest. All things said and done, it’s a hell of a lot better than Brokencyde.
Wonderland ends where it begins with “Earthquakey People”. Unfortunately, the remix is trounced by the original, and Wonderland ends on a severely disappointing moment that feels more like an afterthought than anything else. While Wonderland may have its moments, it can never sustain them, and although it stands as a surprisingly listenable album in contrast to the usual dance-party-only affairs to come out of this genre, it’s never more than merely good.
// Notes from the Road
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