I'm not into EDM, at least in the way Harmonix's new DJ game Fuser frames it: massive crowds decked out in fluorescent makeup and gaudy outfits bouncing around in tireless anticipation of our lord, The Drop. It's an expression of love for mainstream EDM festivals, minus the smell of sweat and molly marketplace. It's not my scene at all, which is why my unabashed love for Fuser feels like such a miracle.
Me, the guy who broods to rare black metal tapes out of Australia and likes electronic music to physically hurt, bouncing around in front of my computer (standing desk) like I'm genuinely raising the roof up in here.
I'm cutting the vocal track for Evanescence's Bring Me to Life into a warm mix of Bad Bunny's Yo Perrero Sola bass track and Shania Twain's Any Man of Mine guitar track, and I'm doing the thing where you kinda make a pointing gesture, raise it into the air, and wave it to the beat. I'm still learning the ropes, but Fuser is making me an EDM-liker, even if what the crowd wants to hear rarely aligns with what I'm going for.
All mixed up
Harmonix was not thinking of me while assembling Fuser's tracklist. It includes over 100 songs, mostly big hits from the 1980s to the present that you've probably heard before. This is a pack of crowd pleasers, not some deep interrogation of the history of acid house or experimental electronica—you won't find any Aphex Twin or DJ Pierre here. We're exploring Amy Winehouse, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Sean Paul territory in Fuser, which is fine! I'd just hoped for some deeper cuts to fill in the space between well known earworms. Rock Band introduced me to a ton of artists, new and old, that I still listen to today, but Fuser is a salted, scorched field of excessive familiarity.
There's still plenty to play with, and Fuser's magic charm comes through immediately. When I first combined the bassline from Glenn Campbell's Gentle On My Mind with the vocal track from deadmau5's Ghosts 'n' Stuff, I felt like a damn genius. And Fuser did the work of matching the RPM and pitch, crossfading and adjusting volume cleanly to produce the honky tonk EDM hit of the summer. Even better, I could experiment with a 32-bar sample, edit it if my live performance suffered, and export it as an MP4 video all within the game. Slick.
But here's the friction: Even if you hate the tracklist, Fuser's crowd requests and scoring system often push me to net a high score rather than make interesting mixes.
There's no note highway clearly telegraphing what to hit, just some loosely defined guidelines for what the crowd likes, underscored by specific crowd requests to play specific songs, instruments, or genres, and optional objectives that refresh as you complete them. The latter can feel a bit arbitrary and forced even if they're meant to pull you out of your comfort zone. If I'm digging how something sounds, but the objectives want me to drop two discs or throw in a few tracks from a specific decade, I'll feel like I'm failing if I don't oblige, and the score will reflect it.
Switching records on the beat or on telegraphed drop points also nets bonus points, while keeping the mix diverse and constantly changing keeps the score steadily filling up a five-star meter. I'm not sure it works, because rather than do what I think would sound nice I'm forced to keep the crowd on its toes. If I'm not constantly switching records and playing with sound dynamics, like muting or solo-ing tracks, the crowd gets pissed and the score slows its build.
Sometimes they're right though: I'm not a great DJ, so maybe with time I'll learn what makes for a good score and integrate it with my expressive intuition, which isn't particularly sharp. Yet. I'm a long way from committing what the drum track of Imagine Dragon's Thunder sounds like to memory—it's the case with most of the songs here—and thus a long way from being a genuinely good pretend DJ.
But if I stick to the tools at the top of the toolbox, dipping into songs etched into my brain like Naughty by Nature's O.P.P. and Smashmouth's All Star, then I can scrape by. I mean, I wish I didn't have to scrape by and could ignore the campaign favor of the freestyle modes, but since a big chunk of the soundtrack is locked behind an in-game currency earned from leveling up your player profile, putting on mediocre shows in the campaign makes sense for now.
Freestyle mode, though! When I'm allowed to dink around without penalty and no expectations, Fuser shines. Tracks fuse together in surprising ways and I regularly end up dancing, which truly feels like a gift since the pandemic shuttered the live music scene. Sure, it's EDM, not some meandering Siberian industrial post-punk, but if even I can possess myself and move to the chopped and screwed pop monster of my own creation, I'll take it. I'll gobble it up. Let's just hope that tracklist expands into territory outside the Top 40, stat.