The minimalist cover art for ‘Hyperion’, the second album from French producer Gesaffelstein (real name Mike Lévy), depicts a simple black block of colour, a deep Rothko-esque void. It has the potential to be bold and striking, but instead just feels a bit uninspired and lacking in substance – which, sadly, is a bit like Gesaffelstein’s new record as a whole.
It’s disappointing, really, because Lévy’s predecessor, his 2013 debut ‘Aleph’, was anything but lacking in gusto. It was a brash and in-your-face onrush of clobbering bass, piercing synths and twisted samples that followed perfectly on from the electronic musician’s star-turns on Kanye West‘s ‘Yeezus’ earlier that year (Lévy co-produced two of the album’s standout tracks, ‘Black Skinhead’ and ‘Send It Up’). At the time, we said of the LP: “Much of ‘Aleph’ has a stainless-steel coldness to it that’s more interested in bludgeoning you over the head than holding you close… combining relentless pace with invention.”
Since then, Lévy has been undergoing quiet reinvention, working with everyone from A$AP Rocky to synth pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre and The Weeknd (for the R&B musician’s 2018 ‘My Dear Melancholy’ EP). Gesaffelstein has largely moved away from the harsh aural tirades that made him his name, either coquetting with the pop world, venturing into slow-jam R&B or producing widescreen ambience for film soundtracks.
This sense of flux is evident on ‘Hyperion’ but, over the course of its 40 minutes, you never truly get a sense of what Lévy wants the album to be. There are glimpses of the grit and immediacy that made ‘Aleph’ so enthralling: ‘Reset’ is a spinning and twisted slice of sci-fi trap, while the all-too-brief ‘Ever Now’ is a captivating menace.
But unlike its predecessor, ‘Hyperion’ largely fails to find its grip. ‘Memora’ is unmemorable and monotonal, while ‘Lost In The Fire’, which sees Lévy unite once again with The Weeknd, aims to emulate fellow countrymen (and new labelmates) Daft Punk, providing a sequel of sorts to ‘Starboy’ and opting for a brooding groove-funk sound that possesses little to no jagged edge.
The big-name collaborations on the record only add to this directionless feeling. If they’re meant to be major label money power-grabs, then they don’t really work. The dystopian, Depeche Mode-y ‘Blast Off’ might be the most sinister Pharrell has ever sounded, but it also works against the latter’s strengths. “Ain’t tryna be slick / But I just wanna slide / Or I can be a kite, and I can just fly away,” Williams sings on the track and, similarly, Pharrell sounds awfully constricted, like he’s unable to soar to reach his usual heights.
Elsewhere, ‘Forever’, featuring The Hacker and Electric Youth (of Drive soundtrack fame), only piques interest at the very end, when it suddenly morphs into a glitching freakout, while the FKA Twigs-esque ‘So Bad’, featuring Haim, fares somewhat better, with its ricocheting bass enveloping the LA sisters’ haunting harmonies.
The collaborations largely see Lévy failing to truly engage with what his guests can bring to the table, and he doesn’t leave a mark of his own identity either. Ultimately, on ‘Hyperion’, despite some positives, Gesaffelstein isn’t able to recreate past glories, nor advance on them –or even successfully reinvent himself. By the end of it, you’re mostly left feeling confused and underwhelmed.