Create or Suffer: Celebrating Life with Ron Mist
After over a year of stagnation and isolation, Ron Mist’s dance album, A Celebration of Being Alive, comes as a much-needed respite. Music writer Ben Gibbons explores the album and finds, within each track, that thumping and irresistible celebration of life.
Art does not have a point. And that is the point. There is no practical reason for art — it can’t change a lightbulb, you can’t use it to get from one place to another, it doesn’t usually lead to big bucks — but it’s something that people are driven to do anyway. I’ve noticed a piece of graffiti on the Herron Ave bridge over the MLK East Busway that commands bluntly, “Create or suffer,” and I’ve always thought that it cuts straight to the heart of why we make art: we do it because our souls — or whatever we have in there — require it. There’s a moment on “Floor Have Mercy,” a track from producer Ron Mist’s new album, A Celebration of Being Alive, that plumbs the same depths of wisdom as that spray-painted phrase: “There’s no need to feel this beat / But I feel it anyway.” The line is deceptively profound, and sums up the album’s message: art, in this case dance, is an inexplicable phenomenon that holds us back from the brink of oblivion.
Over the past year-plus, it’s felt like there has been little about being alive that is worth celebrating. That sounds callous when you consider that COVID has deprived millions of people of the mere choice of whether to celebrate life or not, but a life spent in isolation, with nothing but work and worry as distractions, wears on a person. Even though we’re (hopefully) coming out of the worst of the pandemic, things don’t necessarily feel better. A lot of people are dead, and even more people are alive-but-struggling, be it with bills, work, grief, mental health, or some combination of those things. Even so, Ron Mist dares us to dance and to celebrate, because what else can we do?
A Celebration of Being Alive is similar to Jamie xx’s excellent 2015 album, In Colour, in that it presents a search for dance’s essence as a Jungian spiritual quest undertaken by a composite human entity made of memories, culture, and sound, albeit through ecstatic, disco-adjacent pieces rather than through ghostly, nocturnal rave music. On Celebration’s cover, Mist — the DJ pseudonym of Dylan Kersten, keyboardist for acclaimed emo-folk band String Machine — sits on a bench, clad in a cowboy outfit, in front of what could be the gates of hell. There’s a spotlight on him, as if to say, “Let my sweet beats keep the fires of damnation at bay, if only for a while.” The album’s opening track, “Welcome Back!,” acts as its frame tale; aliens are invading Earth, and they will spare us if we are able to answer one question: “What is dancing?” (Side note: at least the aliens are giving us a chance; COVID seeped its way into the cracks of broken health care systems, broken governments, and broken societies without so much as an “excuse me.”) The responses to that question, spoken by several different people, are mirrored back as thesis statements for a number of the album’s tracks. It may sound like a goofy conceit, and the album does contain a sense of humor, but its belief in the power and profundity of the groove is deadly serious.
“Jeremiah” (featuring FREEPARK), tells us, “Dancing is allowing your body to be a vessel for your spirit,” before breaking into a glitchy, minimalist jam, a vocoded voice hiccupping in and out of earshot like a ghost flickering between the spiritual and physical realms. The phrase, “Dancing is a living fossil of our experiences,” is woven into the sonic fabric of “(The Sun Doesn’t Care About) Fossils” as the track transitions from bombastic, stuttering dubstep to a rapturous house groove. “Dancing is a constant love-hate relationship,” introduces “Oh BB,” a rowdy pop-punk/deep house hybrid featuring indie-rap act BBGuns. We hear that “Dancing is a physical form of expression” before being swept into “Cycling”s hip-hop breakbeat rave-up. We wiggle like techno Squidward as Gorillaz/Daft Punk/LCD Soundsystem’s lovechild, “This Was Your Life!,” zips and squelches like a field of laser beams (“Dancing is a conduit into the runtime of the simulation,” we’re told), and we even get our Dance Dance Revolution sugar rush on with the frenetic slowdanger collab, “Follow It.” Mist’s musical explorations span genres, scenes, and decades, but the insistent, essential heartbeat carries on, regardless of its surroundings. Everything builds to the penultimate, arena-sized, Porter Robinson-esque anthem, “And The Verdict Is…,” a track whose cup runneth over with thunderous drum fills. Silent, everyone, the aliens are deciding if we’re worth sparing! Outro “Ah, Shoot!!!” sees a garbled burst of creature noise translated into the phrase “Disperse, mortals, let me cut this rug,” proving that the ecstasy of dance has swayed our celestial overlords. Art has literally saved us. Mist may convey the message using high-stakes sci-fi hijinks, but the point translates across any number of situations.
As I sat at a folded up drop leaf table in the 375-square-foot basement that has been my home, office, bar, and world for over a year, an angry cat perched on the windowsill next to me, ready to strike, and listened to A Celebration of Being Alive, I found my head shimmying side to side, subtly at first and then with more force, followed by my neck, shoulders, and entire upper body. A goofy smile spread across my face, similar to the one that weaseled its way on there during my first post-vaccine bar excursion, to some tiki-themed dive in Erie that I normally would have hated but struck me as just fine, as I bobbed my gangly limbs across the dance floor to the rhythm of mid-2000s pop songs, celebrating the experience of being alive for the first time in a while. ▲
Ron Mist is marking the release of his album with a two-night silent disco show this weekend at Schenley Plaza.
More information on the event is available here.
Ben Gibbons is a writer, part-time musician, and full-time music fan hailing from the Philadelphia suburbs and currently based out of Pittsburgh. He graduated from George Washington University in 2017 with a degree completely unrelated to music or writing, but, hey, who cares about majors anyway? He loves and appreciates all styles of music, and has spent the past few years exploring the local scene through his Bored In Pittsburgh blog.