For the first two minutes of Skrillex’s recent sold-out show at the cavernous Roseland Theater in Portland, Ore., I could almost believe, if I squinted hard enough, that I had time-warped back to a particularly boisterous mid-’90s rave. Swarms of glow sticks traced woozy neon loops on the main floor as Skrillex, perched before a Windows 95-screensaver-quality graphics projection, sent a swelling wave of warm synths through the crowd. Pacifiers abounded. To my left, a young woman wearing lime-green fishnets, a silver bikini bottom, and two strategically placed stickers did ... well, I’m not sure what, as my fiancée was standing beside me, thus requiring a heroic display of ocular control from this correspondent. To my right, a bullet-headed man passed tabs of something to a willowy blonde and two tight-shirted men, who placed them under their tongues. New raves, the casual concertgoer might have thought, same as the old raves.
And then Skrillex, to use the proper terminology, dropped the bass. In its live form, this sounded something like a nuclear assault set to a dance beat. As a thousand barely clad kids leapt up in unison, I felt my face vibrate from the bass’ roaring squall; even my tonsils quivered like a ringing bell. Meanwhile, Skrillex—a restless 23-year-old who looks like Corey Feldman’s goth-elf cousin and possesses quite possibly the world’s worst haircut (long black locks with one shaved side)—bounced ferociously around his DJ booth like a tribal shaman who was contemplating a new career as a heavy metal frontman. The music was as frantic as its creator, veering from aggressive dubstep to high-octane electro and glitch, keeping the crowd in a fist-pumping frenzy. A sign one girl flailed above her head expressed the audience’s mood perfectly. On one side it read, “YES OMG,” on the other “DROP THE BASS.”
At a time when electronic music has suddenly, improbably become more popular than ever—this year’s Electric Daisy Carnival, for instance, drew an audience larger than Coachella—Skrillex stands at the vanguard of a new, harder-edged wave of ravers. (If you don’t believe me, trust Spin, which put him on the cover of its October issue.) Whereas techno once was smooth and light, Skrillex is the sonic equivalent of a giant can of Rockstar energy drink: a sharp, sugary blast that causes frenzied toe-tapping. He may not yet be as popular as his arena-packing mentor Deadmau5, but Skrillex is getting there fast; his tracks occupy five of the top 20 spots in the iTunes dance section, and on the DJ-oriented site Beatport, users search for Skrillex 50 times as often as other artists, according to the Guardian. His sound, undeniably catchy yet somehow disquieting, provides an auditory sign of our hyper-stimulated times: more than anything I’ve heard, Skrillex’s music feels custom crafted for listeners with ADHD.
Quite possibly the strangest feature of the already-strange Skrillex phenomenon is the route the man took to attain global fame. Known to his parents as Sonny Moore, Skrillex began his music career at 16 as the lead singer of the screamo band From First to Last. Over the course of two albums, three years of touring, and a handful of deeply silly videos, Moore emoted so hard that he needed surgery to repair his vocal cords. Despite this thrashy teen experimentation, however, Moore’s real love had always been rough-and-tumble electronica—fittingly, the first two albums he ever owned were Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land and Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy EP—and he soon struck out on his own. After pursuing an equally ridiculous electro-hardcore solo project under his own name, Moore grew frustrated at his lack of progress and created the (it must be said, also pretty ridiculous) “Skrillex” moniker in 2008.
It didn’t take long for Moore to develop the signature sound—growling bass mixed with digital squawks and hyperactive melodies—that has since vaulted him into the electronic elite. Take the early track “Slats Slats Slats,” one of Moore’s most infectious creations. Like most of his best work, the song develops in three stages: First, Moore lays down an almost boilerplate electro opener, underpinned by a wobbling dubstep bass line; next, he breaks away briefly to a finely diced vocal sample; and finally, just over a minute in, the track explodes into gorgeous, synth-laden mayhem. As happens often these days, Moore found himself in massive demand before he’d even released a proper Skrillex album (namely last summer’s My Name Is Skrillex, which boasted several brutally aggressive bangers and the unremarkable hit “Weekends!!!”). For one of Moore’s hugely successful remixes, none other than Lady Gaga tapped him to repurpose her song “Alejandro” into a club juggernaut that, after two minutes of Skrillexian dawdling, drops into a breakdown so wonderfully frantic that it cries out for a Ritalin prescription.
Along with the aforementioned hurricane-force bass drops, these propulsive stretches of melodic chaos have become Skrillex’s trademark, and they make for some of the most oddly virtuosic music you’re likely to hear this year. On “Rock n’ Roll (Will Take You to the Mountain),” the lead track from his breakout EP Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, Moore spins electro, dubstep, and rock into a danceable whirlwind, the whole thrilling frenzy crowned by a hummable chopped-up chorus that wouldn’t be out of place in a Daft Punk tune. The album’s title track, a bona fide hit with more than 40 million YouTube views, jumps between chugging, savage metal and anthemic techno, alternately punishing and soothing the listener. The music is nearly genreless; Moore is as comfortable making catchy and gentle club gems like the charming “All I Ask of You” as he is raking your eardrums across hot coals on the very next track, the bass-heavy “Scatta.”
It’s difficult to say whether Skrillex’s music is “good” in any conventional sense. To some, the man’s very name is anathema; after an Internet commenter posted a video of Moore doing not much other than cheerleading his laptop during one show—a display I saw repeated at his Portland gig—one Skrillex-bashing thread on the Coachella website blew up to more than 1,500 posts. Other detractors have complained that Moore “ruined” dubstep, which makes about as much sense to me as saying that Coldplay ruined punk. The critics are right, however, when they say that much of what Moore has produced is abrasive dreck that feels far too beholden to the cult of the bass drop.
And yet the best Skrillex tracks are nothing short of breathtaking, marked by blinding technical skill and a savant-like grasp of rhythm and melody. At times, Moore shows all the talent of an Aphex Twin or Daft Punk—only with scarcely any of the brains. Songs like “Kill Everybody” and “The Disco Rangers Bus” have been pulsing through my head for two weeks straight; listening to them, they seem to flood every brain receptor at once, making it impossible to do anything but nod your head.
Because of the riveting, attention-deficit-conquering quality of his music, it’s no surprise that Skrillex appeals almost exclusively to the young and smartphone-enabled. At the Roseland Theater show, my fiancée and I appeared to be the oldest attendees by a margin of eight years, which wouldn’t be remarkable if I weren’t 31 years old. Never in my life have I received more “You look like a narc” glares or felt more prematurely parental—particularly while watching a kid hypnotize two glassy-eyed teenage girls with his LED-equipped rave gloves. Being there as an adult felt as peculiar as grabbing lunch at a high school cafeteria. Not much about Skrillex’s performance screamed “maturity,” from his constant shouts of “Make some noise!” to his Fortress of Solitude-esque prop stage with its cheesy graphics display.
But in a city like Portland where tapping your foot at an indie rock show constitutes an almost reckless display of enthusiasm, it was undeniably refreshing to see 1,500 people joyfully dancing to the music. In rumbling tempests of bass and antic bursts of electro, from the main floor up to the rafters, Skrillex had every single body in motion—including my normally straitlaced one. It might not make me run out and buy a pacifier quite yet, but that, I think, counts for something.
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