MusicWeekend

Skrillex: The 100th Greatest Guitarist of All Time

Skrillex performing at the 2011 Royal Bank Bluesfest, (image via Wikipedia)
Skrillex performing at the 2011 Royal Bank Bluesfest, (image via Wikipedia)

Everyone who said Skrillex was a novelty, a fluke, a parody, a caricature, a passing fad, the last straw, a new low, the most ridiculous music to ever hit the charts, the most ridiculous music to ever hit your eardrums, a one-hit wonder, oops-make-that-a-two-hit-wonder, or a man with bad hair was probably right. But he’s also the most important electronic musician in America. His songs, largely instrumental with minimal vocal samples, actually chart pretty high. He’s won a bunch of Grammys, impressive given that the committee in charge of those awards also hears deep soul in Mumford & Sons. You notice his songs in public places — on the radio, in stores, as ringtones, or maybe just blasting out of people’s earphones when they turn the sound up too loud, something that happens a lot with Skrillex. He’s burst the bubble around the silly subculture that is “dubstep,” hence he’s hated by both pop and dubstep purists alike (sad life, being a dubstep purist, but they do exist). Needless to say, he’s the reason people like dubstep to begin with.

For the uninitiated, dubstep is a techno subgenre that began in England circa 2002 when DJs started applying reggae mixing techniques to drum&bass and/or jungle breakbeats, deepening the bass, and making everything buzz. The dark, spooky, roiling computer noises beloved of so-called pioneers like Skream and Digital Mystikz tend toward the minimalist, lacking all the rich expansion that ’90s jungle icon Goldie and the like introduced to the music. This is nothing new in electronic music, especially electronic music in England, where clubs are more widespread, the only aesthetic imperative being to make people dance. For a couple years, dubstep barely made the clubs, its audience widening only when it outgrew the stripped-down utility common with such “functional” music. Its deep vibrations easily grew into deep beats, with producers like Burial and Cyrus riding these vibrations down into heavy atmosphere, and particularly with groups like Silkie and Nero converting them into hummable tunes. So people started noticing how funky the wobble bass sound was, how bouncy it could be in a pop context: the context of Britney singing, for example, on “Gimme More” and “Piece of Me.”

Skrillex2The emergence of dubstep as a pop sound is striking not because of how new it is — it isn’t: it has precedents in Metallica, L7, and especially Ministry — but because of how unlikely it is. Conceived as club soundtrack, most techno follows a very repetitive, unobtrusive musical strategy, looping the same rhythmic pattern over and over again until you find a way to move your body in time. If clubgoers have settled into a groove, DJs have no reason to make whatever’s next on the playlist substantially different from whatever’s currently playing; since rhythms are made for natural repetition, it makes sense for DJs to suck one dry before moving on. If you think all dance music sounds the same, it’s not just because you’re an outsider. It’s supposed to. Anonymity is part of the fun in the context of a club. This is why most techno rarely gets played outside of clubs. There are huge piles of techno albums completely untouched by critics, especially critics like me who dance poorly if at all. So when a hermetically sealed subculture starts sneaking its way onto the Top 40, there’s reason to be surprised.

As for the pop sound itself, imagine a flying tank, sleek and aerodynamic when it revs up  to speed, spraying out lasers and vacuums and lightning bolts and making the ground tremble with its magnetic thunder, shooting Fun Dip all over the air. Synthesizers, millions of them, mesh to form a jittery explosion. Since, say, 2010, DJs have cranked out some of the most outrageous noises of our time, from hedonistic dancefloor overkill to sped-up drum-machine overkill to the freakishly warped, excruciatingly abrasive inside-out synth sound that splits the difference between a heavy bass and a distorted guitar so common in dubstep. For those who can’t stand the genre, I suspect it’s less the immoderation or even the overkill than how hard this synth sound is to get over; it makes your ears bleed. Personally, I find this irresistible. Different dubstep producers emphasize different aspects of the genre, from Modestep inflating it into arena-rock to Rusko flattening it onto a reggae backbeat to Kavinsky turning it into an ’80s videogame soundtrack. But to  my ears the obvious parallel is heavy-metal. Strip metal of its excess, its pretense — its overbearing singers, its sci-fi fantasy lyrics, its conceptual pretension, its preening virtuosos, its suburban dorks pretending to be working-class heroes, virtually everything save the musical dynamic and the geeky arrogance — and you’ve essentially got dubstep. This happened in the early ’90s with industrial-rock, and now it’s gone a step further as computers replace guitars. When played on synthesizers, without vocals, and for three-to-four minute stretches, the fierce aggression that drives most metal somehow becomes bearable. It’s tightened, purified, dehumanized, by all means strengthened given that machines can’t show off like self-anointed guitar gods. Potent, uncorrupted power display — its sheer raw intensity demands mechanization as a prerequisite.

In short, the music is an occasion for showing off, its structural precision having been compressed so tightly it’s all but eclipsed any residual content, and only once a certain level of formal proficiency has been reached can the music carry meaning. As with every supposedly purified/filtered genre, dubstep is a technician’s game. With factors like personal expression out of the picture, the DJ who pumps the sound up the loudest will take home the prize. It’s simply a matter of how dense you can make your hook barrage and how schlocky you can make your barely-extant tunes. Given the pathological urge among musicians to one-up  their contemporaries, there’s constant competition. Excision plays up industrial durability, Bassnectar slows things down for the sake of being tasteful, and Deadmau5, who favors the subtle, makes goopy, antiseptic contemporary-classical-in-disguise. They’re all topped by Rusko gliding in on a casual backbeat, Magnetic Man jumping and shimmering, and DJ Fresh sneaking in some car-alarm tunes. And they’re all topped by Nero’s glittery riffs, Chase & Status’s glammy electropop, and Dillon Francis’s forward-driving robotfunk, just as those three are topped by Katy B, who gets emphatic mileage out of yoking a slickened, smoothened variant on the dubstep groove to conventional song structures and her own Britdroid voice. Just as she, in turn, is topped by Skrillex.

Skrillex1Skrillex, aka Sonny Moore, is a dubstep producer from L.A. Since 2010 he’s released two albums and four EPs (Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites and Bangarang are called EPs, but they’re totally long enough to count as official albums). He’s done a number of popular remixes (“Bad Romance,” “Cinema”) and collaborated with Damian Marley, Ellie Goulding, A$AP Rocky, and Korn. He’s won six Grammies as of 2013 and will likely win more. With the possible exception of Daft Punk, nobody in the “electronic dance” world is more famous or more major than him. This is because he’s won the formalism game, and how. On one level, I know all he’s done is compress dubstep convention and turn the volume up ten notches. But his compression is so intense it’s all you need to hear a new aesthetic synthesis, one that just bristles and snarls and detonates with hooks that are often so mind-numbingly dumb/obvious/original they could and probably will give you a headache, only this headache is fun and profound and makes you stronger. In 2010 he scored a neat single with “Weekends!!!,” but it was his startlingly excellent 2011 breakthrough Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites that made him a star. Scary Monsters carved a spiraling vortex of a musicality out of the generic dubstep sound, and 2012’s Bangarang ripped into that musicality with such volatile fervor it inspired Christopher R. Weingarten to include him in Spin‘s list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” despite not knowing whether or not Skrillex has ever even touched a guitar. (For the record, he has: he used to be the rhythm guitarist for hardcore band From First to Last. But that’s not the point.)

From “Right In”‘s violent staccato onward, Bangarang lays on mighty riffs at a feverish degree, more riveting than Scary Monsters because it rocks hard not just by dubstep standards but by the standards of hard rock itself, climaxing in the absolutely shameless “Kyoto,” whose metallic synth masquerading as a guitar sets a new world record for schlocky-in-your-face. Then its speed eases a little with the sensitive-Skrillex showcase “Summit,” a closer where he masks Ellie Goulding’s guest verse in a vocoder and a tunelet so adorable you even enjoy the part where  she sings in her real voice. (I count that as the last track, at least. Ignore the “Skrillex Orchestral Suite” bonus track at all costs.) My favorite moment on this album is the intro to the title track, where a bunch of spiky guitar figures quickly escalate with that constantly rising note and right when you think the beat is about to kick in everything stops and he spits out “BANGARANG!,” smashing the hook over your head. But moments like that are everywhere. With its twisted choruses, Bugs Bunny voices, pitch-corrected squeals, giant molten synth slabs, and Jim Morrison samples, it’s one radical pop world, in which keyboard textures abruptly change mid-hook and melodies stop and stutter even as the underlying rhythms charge forward. Beyond its breakneck pace and aural rush, the whole idea is the inherent hedonism of exaggeration, of the slam-dunk. Its dazzling technical mastery is matched only by its ability to ram a big fat hunk of music permanently into your subconscious. Resistance is futile. You’ll internalize that “BANGARANG!” whether you like it or not.

It’s possible to imagine  that one day there will be techno more outrageous than Skrillex, or techno dinkier than Skrillex, or techno smarter than Skrillex. Right now he’s the limit. Inchoate extremes always wind up intimidating people one way or another. But since the type of potent, uncorrupted power display he specializes in has long been a staple of rock & roll, there’s no need to be scared. Überaggrandizement exists for a reason, you know. It’s überfun.

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