Wednesday, January 30, 2013

ALBUM REVIEW: Skrillex - Leaving EP

By Danny Spiteri.

Currently, electronic music can be roughly divided into two categories: that which encompasses the dance-oriented bangers aimed for the club, and the "thinker's" music, or that which is best suited for the headphones. There is certainly some overlap between the two, but for the most part, they are distinctly separate, with some broader subgenres boasting microgenres in both sides. One of the most polarized examples is dubstep, which simultaneously holds some of the most critically acclaimed music of the last decade and some of the most universally panned. Such a split did not exist at the inception of the genre, at which time it was a relatively straightforward fusion of ideas from dub, UK garage, grime, and drum & bass. As the years progressed, however, various artists began to push it forward, some opting for a relatively experimental approach, and others exploiting its potential on the dance floor; thus, the split was born. 2007 saw the release of Burial's Untrue, a bleak yet sonically rich expression of loneliness that utilized pitch-shifted R&B vocal samples and skittery percussion to spawn a sibling of dubstep known as future garage. Not long afterward, a much more commercially appealing form of dubstep emerged, establishing a formula that relies on bombastic "bass drops" to create something referred to somewhat derogatorily as "brostep." What started out as just another club trend became a seemingly ubiquitous craze, not only existing within the confines of electronic dance music, but also heavily influencing genres ranging from radio pop to nu metal. It became the face of dubstep to people not very well-versed in its history, catalyzing arguments about what "real dubstep" is, which are conveniently available for your viewing pleasure throughout the comments on YouTube videos of various dubstep songs. Today, members of the post-Burial camp tend to despise its more rave-friendly rival, and those in the "brostep" crowd typically are simply unaware of the former's existence.

Skrillex, a.k.a. Sonny Moore, former singer of emo-pop band From First to Last, is at the forefront of that more mainstream-friendly movement; consequently, music nerds love to hate him. The reasons for this stigma aren't always clear, nor are they always fair. "Brostep" as a whole generally suffers from tacky sounds and an uninspired formula that follows as such: set up faux-euphoric build-ups, pay off with a sensory overload comprised of oscillating bass lines and heavy percussion (i.e. "the drop"), ride out the beat with aimless electronic wankery, then repeat. Skrillex, though not exactly putting forth groundbreaking structures, doesn't completely adhere to this recipe. His music isn't devoid of the aforementioned components, but he seems to at least attempt to break the monotony bore by most of his peers, incorporating various types of electro house into his relatively inclusive style. He is also more melodically inclined than many of his compositionally crippled contemporaries, occasionally stumbling across surprisingly potent melodies, such as that which leads the title track on the Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP. Compliments aside, however, this isn't your typical "everyone hates Skrillex, but he's really not that bad!" review.

The talent Skrillex does wield is one of his most frustrating traits, for it shows that the producer does have the ability to make more interesting music than that which is already under his belt. His production chops are a noticeable hair above those of his competitors, and yet he still resorts to the cheap sounds by which such artists swear. Even when he does write effective melodies, he counterbalances them with overblown instrumentation that doesn't utilize nearly enough well-crafted textures to justify its maximalism. Although he does sometimes implement enough contrast in volume to give his music a semblance of direction, too often does incessant over-stimulation of sounds squash the dynamic, resulting in a listening experience that is far more exhausting than it is liberating.

As if attempting to debunk these criticisms, Skrillex demonstrates an evident stylistic shift on his latest offering, Leaving EP. Its first two-thirds don't venture wildly far from the producer's comfort zone, but the closing title track bears an unlikely yet obvious influence: Burial. The percussion which opens the track is deep, dark, and less rhythmically straightforward than anything one would expect from the the producer, and the overhanging synthesizers that are introduced next work to paint a cerebral atmosphere rather than to galvanize the listener. Leading the song is a chopped vocal sample that is pitch-shifted in a way that re-purposes its melody, perhaps the most blatant nod to Burial yet. With the addition of light piano chords and interwoven strings later on, it is clear that "Leaving" represents Skrillex deliberately at his most refined yet.

The song's heart is certainly in a good place; its execution, however, is not nearly as impressive as that of the music after which Skrillex models it. The drums are decidedly more intricately laid out than those in his prior material, but sonically, they are hardly fine-tuned, taking on a flat and nondescript quality. These simple, generic timbres plague the song's other components as well, whether it be the lazily produced electronics or forgettable vocal clips. Credit is due for being somewhat tastefully dynamic, however, and at times, its marginally pretty sounds and tender melodic approach allows it to be mildly affecting. Ultimately, it's a decent song, but its textures are not nearly detailed enough, nor is its composition memorable enough, to feel like anything more than a severely watered down rendition of Burial's music.

The other two tracks are closer to standard Skrillex fare, though not among his most obnoxious work. "Scary Bolly Dub" is essentially a dub version of "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites." The sounds are characteristically poor and its organization is messy, but it does have the saving grace of the original's strong lead melody to keep it from being an abject failure. Opener "The Reason" is in many ways the midpoint between the EP's other two tracks, particularly in the subtlety of its demeanor. It features a vocal sample which isn't terribly different from that of "Leaving," but this clip's function is dissimilar in the context of the track's more urgent elements. There are also no "drops," yet the drums are still notably hard-hitting. Still, with its exclusion of many of Skrillex's most annoying techniques, "The Reason," though not exactly moving, is never awful.

Whether as an attempt to raise an appreciation for more introverted dubstep in Skrillex's fan base or to demolish the anti-Skrillex mentality in more critical music listeners, Leaving EP is too middle-of-the-road to be completely successful. Although the EP may strike non-fans as the most palatable entry in Skrillex's discography, particularly the title track, it also too clearly exposes his limitations as both a producer and artist. It's far from being wholly offensive, but it also fails to carve out any sort of important niche in the current electronic music landscape. Skrillex feels most assured when he commits to his signature hyperactive form of dance music. As easy as it is for Burial fanatics to deride the musician's definitive work, it is also difficult to ignore his success. Skrillex understands his crowd and how to create music that stimulates them, which is certainly respectable; I am simply not a member of that crowd.

Score: Strong 5

(Was I not harsh enough on Skrillex? Am I being too fair? Please let me know on Tumblr.)

1 comment: