REVIEW: Steve Aoki – ‘Wonderland’
By: Jax Spike
In Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” the famous poet ponders the issue of whether taking the road less traveled by is actually the best choice or not. Granted, that decision could lead to myriad of outcomes and possibilities, but I think Frost would have taken great delight in studying the path that Steve Aoki has taken with his career in music. It is definitely safe to say that Aoki has chosen a path less traveled by many of his peers, which has definitely led to a very eclectic career in music. Not only has he released a vast quantity of remixes while being featured on the Bloody Beetroots tracks, he also manages his own record label, Dim Mak, which features a very diverse and eclectic set of artists from Infected Mushrooms to the Gossip to even MSTRKRFT. So at his age and with these accomplishments at hand, it is hard to believe that it is just now that Aoki has finally decided to release his debut album. With his recognizable name and celebrity status in check, Aoki was able to call upon several big name talents to collaborate on this new album and those names are just as diverse as his musical choices. With the release of Wonderland, though, we find the tracks are only as good or bad as the artist he collaborates with allow it to be and the degree to which his production can support, supersede, or salvage their performances.
While I admit that I am a fan of the band Weezer, Wonderland opens with a somewhat awkward track from lead singer Rivers Cuomo on “Earthquakey People” as he tries to drop a rhyme over rave beats which almost becomes cringeworthy at times. While Cuomo seems to struggle to bridge the gap from his usual quirky style of music, Aoki does his best to try and compensate by adding a thumping house bass to the rave beats and disco strings which helps save the song from being a total disaster. Fortunately, the next track feels a bit more natural as it slips into a mixture of dubstep and house beats with Wynter Gordon lending vocals to smooth over the rough edges, even though the lyrics are a bit generic and stale. “Ladi Dadi” is definitely passable as a dance floor filler, though, and especially when the dubstep kicks in with Gordon singing passionately to the crowd. I was really looking forward to Aoki’s collaborations with Will.i.am but was sadly disappointed to find that “Dangerous” sounds too eerily similar to the far superior “Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff” from Deadmau5. “Dangerous” also does not benefit from its unoriginal lyrics that seem far too derivative at times, while Will.i.am’s overproduced vocal work can be distracting at best. Fortunately, we forget this misstep with the gorgeous vocal work of Polina on “Come with Me,” even though the track does nothing to separate itself from the other typical club anthems that can be heard anywhere. The track still provides just enough pleasure with its bouncing synths and lush atmospheric vocals to lure you to the dance floor.
On the track “Emergency,” Aoki leaves the rapping to skilled artists Lil’ Jon and Chiddy Bang, which works very well with the thumping bass and skilled production from Aoki; with the right remix, this could be a club destroyer. The album gets even better with the inclusion of “Livin’ My Love” that excels in large part to its turbo-charged pop bounce and the sheer energy of LMFAO and NERVO while being enhanced by Aoki’s finest production on the album. Unfortunately the album falls prey again to substandard and uninspiring tracks like “Steve Jobs,” with its annoying loops, and “Heartbreaker,” while the Kid Cudi and Travis Barker-led “Cudi the Kid” drifts through Aoki’s house-synth beats. These work well at the beginning, with Cudi’s immaculately autotuned crooning. But when the dubstep-style drop kicks in though, the track becomes disjointed and loses its focus which disconnects the listener. This dubstep trend is also seen in ”Ooh,” featuring Jacksonville newcomer Rob Roy, who raps with real swagger. This time it works quite efficiently when the dubstep wubs and electric, accenting strings start kicking in. Sure, the track comes off as bit of an oddity, but Rob is able to pull it off and makes it one of the more engaging tracks on the album. The album ends on an even odder note with the industrial-infused sound of “The Kids Will Have Their Say,” which is actually a lot of fun to listen to but really doesn’t fit in with the whole spirit of the album, as if it was accidently misplaced or meant for a b-side release.
While Wonderland has its fair share of unique and fun tracks, it really lacks a knockout punch in any track that will generate any real buzz on its own. Aoki has the ability to produce some great music, but unfortunately he seems more content in showcasing his rolodex of musical celebrity friends while he lingers in the background, which really creates a somewhat disjointed and uninspiring listening experience. With this being his debut release, he is allowed some slack for trying to mix things up, but hopefully on his next release he will realize that sometimes less is more. For the diehard Aoki fan, this release might be worth looking at, but I think most casual fans are better passing it off and looking at some of the better dance albums being released lately.
Steve Aoki – Wonderland was released January 2012 on Ultra. Disclaimer: A review copy of the CD was provided by the record label.