When Kanye West dramatically pulled out of his headline Sunday slot just two weeks ago, without a reason, few people could have predicted his replacement. A landmark rock act, perhaps? An unexpected pop maven? Nope, it’s a mash-up between America’s brooding prince the Weeknd and Swedish House Mafia, the trio who helped usher in the decade’s turbo-hetero wave of maximalist EDM. They last played the festival in 2012, breaking up not long after. The Weeknd is at the level where he commands the Super Bowl half-time show and, reportedly, West’s $8.5m appearance fee. He hardly needs these three.
So what happens when they fuse together?
Besides sharing a manager, their pairing makes sense on paper. Mafia men Steve Angello, Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso are using this to launch Paradise Again, their debut album 15 years in the making, with an apparently darker, more apocalyptic sound – a move to distance themselves from the now taboo EDM tag, which has become synonymous with gimmicky acts like Marshmello. The Weeknd is one of a smattering of its big guest rappers and vocalists like Ty Dolla $ign, ASAP Rocky, and some guy called Sting. His own most recent album, Dawn FM, meanwhile, is his most experimental yet and leans heavily on the noirish electronic pumpers. Together, they have promised a show in three parts: a bit of SHM boingy-boingy, a frisson of Weeknd nihilism, and a collaborative megamix bit. They’ve barely had time to put it together. For once at Coachella, the stakes feel fairly high.
Running 30 minutes late, the three Swedes finally appear on stage and assemble like bouncers behind a table about to check your coats, under a giant halo. “Allow us to reintroduce ourselves,” Axwell yells, before an assault of whirring electro, warped trance, piano arpeggios and sandstorm visuals lands with the subtlety of a slap. In SHM terms, their set is fairly diverse: one song has the punch of Justice and a whiff of the riff from Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name. Another chops up 90s vocal house and breakbeats. Then it’s into some industrial-edged rap from their new album, and back to sexy techno and crunchier takes on their peppy anthems like One (Your Name) and Don’t You Worry Child. Clearly they are looking to the recently divorced Daft Punk, whose 2006 pyramid show at Coachella signalled a new dawn for electronic music in America. Or at least Axwell and Ingrosso are, as Angello bounces sort of awkwardly to their side, seemingly not doing very much. SHM’s new dawn are reinstating themselves as a dance music powerhouse, which is all very well, but it still sounds like … EDM?
After what feels like forever, here he comes, the Weeknd, ad-libbing on new SHM-produced track Sacrifice, his diamond vocals cutting through the static. SHM appear to still be in a line behind him, prodding buttons. Then it’s into his electro-stomper How Do I Make You Love Me, for which the thwacking drums sound a little soupy. This continues for Can’t Feel My Face, which comes off like it’s been “mafia-ed” into a slightly new distorted version, in keeping with their set. Blinding Lights, however, the Weeknd’s very own Take On Me, is a promising moment, SHM now gone from the stage. He does look a touch lost compared with the Harry Styles and Billie Eilish of nights previous, though, having been parachuted in from filming a TV series at late notice to put on a show, without a band, dancers or any added extras, like, say, a striking outfit. It’s a little like a Swedish House Mafia DJ set with a Weeknd PA.
Still, he’s got the hits: I Can’t Feel My Face, Starboy, I Feel it Coming, it goes on, and the glowsticks remain in the air, while his latest Dawn FM material, much of which he debuts tonight, sounds superb. There’s a nod to his predecessor too, as the Weeknd performs part of West’s track Hurricane, as a bridge to older song The Hills. It might have actually made sense to flip their performances, the Weeknd’s moody pulse building into SHM’s triple-pronged ejaculation, though the DJs do reappear for a closing rendition of their collaborative single – and the jewel of SHM’s new album – Moth to a Flame. For a festival that doesn’t seem to take many risks, at least this was something a little off the wall. But it might not be one worth repeating.