Colorado native Derek Vincent Smith’s Pretty Lights project has always been the most accessible entryway into the so-called “EDM” (electronic dance music) scene. Smith achieved household name status in the vastly popular though esoteric modern rave scene through vivacious yet clever sample-based medleys of hip-hop, soul, and yes, electronica that eschew the more extreme wobble bass assaults of his peers Skrillex and Bassnectar. While those two artists’ take on dubstep, a genre which began with modest roots in the UK before its commoditized Americanized version swept the festival scene by storm, can reach nearly comical speaker-shaking heights when played on home speakers, the music of Pretty Lights sounds just as comfortable on your car stereo as in a field of three thousand sweaty fans.
A Color Map of the Sun is the fourth album Pretty Lights album of a discography that blends together nearly seamlessly. It’s a prodigious effort spanning well past the 70-minute mark that touches base with the myriad of genres Smith has incorporated in his past work. Pretty Lights is the type of act that inspires a rabid cult following, and in my conversations with more zealous members of that club, they attest Smith’s album work is best devoured as a whole, disregarding track or even album distinctions: just push play and don’t bother reading your iPod screen. I won’t argue the point, but nevertheless Color Map is an album distinguished by its highlights. Rave-friendly tracks like bombastic “Let’s Get Busy” and “Around the Block”, which features a turn from veteran rap powerhouse Talib Kweli, will please the festival circuit crowds, but the record’s finest tracks are those based on soulful vocals and horn samples: the declarative opener “The Color of My Soul”, the elegantly melodic “Yellow Bird”, the dark and obscure “Almost All Ways”. Furthermore, the last third of the album, beginning with “Done Wrong” and including the riveting synth-propelled “Prophet”, ranks among the best electronica of Smith’s work, and certainly some of the best electronic music of 2013.
Critics and music journalists have been quick to liken A Color Map of the Sun to another sprawling electronica work released this year, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. The basis for comparison is easy, but lazy: dance-based artist releases long-running opus simultaneously championed and decried by critics and masses. But in addition to the obvious stylistic differences in the two works, Smith’s work, as he was quick to point out in a recent VIBE interview, is inherently his own. While Random Access Memories bloats with guest collaborations, Smith limits visitors to the occasional guest rapper, allowing the efforts of his samples to shine. Those samples remarkably were all composed and recorded by Smith himself (his first full-length to do so) and can be heard on the album’s bonus disc: they are occasionally revelatory and certainly worth a listen, which, given the album’s lengthy running time, attests to the album’s quality. Long-winded? Perhaps. But A Color Map of the Sun is the sound of an established voice in electronica completely taking over the reins on a grandiose effort with manifest success.