Sophie at the Commodore Ballroom, 9/16/18
“Subtle” is not the word you would use to describe Sophie’s music. In the mid-2010s, the experimental pop producer established a name for herself though singles that took the sounds of sugary electro-pop and mutated them into something jagged and abrasive, all while keeping their pop sheen intact. The results were some of the most forward-thinking pop songs out there — but its cartoonish pleasures were never subtle.
So it was a surprise to see her open her show at Vancouver’s Westward Music Festival with “Pretending,” a dark ambient soundscape with soft, understated beginnings. Eventually, however, the track built in tension, and it became apparent that it was merely a warmup for the carnage to follow. Once it ended, Sophie let loose — and for 50 minutes, she bulldozed the audience with a thrilling barrage of sounds.
“Not Okay” and “Whole New World / Perfect World” came next, two of the more chaotic tracks from her debut album, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. Crashing walls of synth, overwhelming bass rumbles and flickering lights combined to create a bewildering show of technical prowess, all as the audience stood in awe at the spectacle they were witnessing.
She then performed some of the more pop-oriented tracks in her catalogue, but it wasn’t until she played the first notes of “Ponyboy” — following a long ambient interlude — that the intensity of the dance floor matched the intensity of the music. Bodies jumped up and down and slammed into one another while punishing bass riffs pummelled the crowd, ultimately creating the show’s most rave-like moment.
Sophie cites house and disco as her primary influences, but the animated aggression in songs like “Ponyboy” and “Faceshopping” is oddly reminiscent of Skrillex-era dubstep. Both acts overwhelm their audience with bass and noise, and in response the audience revels in all of its madness.
After years of near-anonymity, Sophie’s revelation of both her face and identity as a transgender woman last year suggested that we might learn more about the mysterious producer. However, her stage presence showed that she prefers to keep us at a playful distance. Her head spent a lot of time turned downwards, which meant that her long red hair often covered her face.
Sophie stayed silent the whole show — in fact, she vaped more than she spoke. Despite this, Sophie’s fans couldn’t get enough of her. During “Is it Cold in the Water?” — an icy, beat-less standout track that grows to an immense level of intensity — they collectively raised their hands to her as if she were a messianic figure. She remained still as it happened, betraying little emotion, but nonetheless standing triumphantly.
The show ended on a high note with “Immaterial,” a chirpy pop song about self-fulfillment and taking control of your own identity. But just when everyone was cheering for more, Sophie blew the crowd a kiss and walked off stage.
Her set might have been short, but the sum was undeniably greater than its parts.