Thursday, March 20, 2014

album review: 'recess' by skrillex

You asked for this.

And honestly, if I hadn't gotten a request for this, I wouldn't have covered it. Hell, until I got a request for this, I didn't know Skrillex was actually putting out an album, let alone his major label full-length debut. Yeah, turns out all of the singles I had seen cropping up on the charts were really just off of a collection of EPs, which apparently were enough to win this guy multiple Grammies. And while I'll restate the commonly held assertion that the Grammies are a joke, this guy has beaten out the Chemical Brothers, and that's just wrong.

Ugh, look, I don't often cover a lot of electronica - mostly because I'm a sucker for great lyrics and that's rarely ever a priority on electronica records, and half because the genre is so heavily populated that it would be physically impossible for me to cover every release in this category and anything else. That's not saying I don't like electronica - I love the Chemical Brothers, I listen to more than my fair share of trance, and I like some of the weirder crossover material, but I'm more than well aware of the shortcomings in my knowledge in this sector.

That said, I also know what I like, and very little of what Skrillex has released has ever engaged me beyond irritation and anger. Say what you will about dubstep, but I honestly thought the mainstream had absorbed the elements of it we liked into modern pop music and had sent Skrillex and his ilk back out to the EDM or club scene - and even with that, there's so much better dubstep than the squealing clash of harmonics that Skrillex rams together. And the infuriating thing is that I actually see potential behind Skrillex, as some of the melodies he's crafted aren't half bad, but then he triggers his mutated brand of drop and what makes a whole set of angry white boys cheer gives me a throbbing migraine. When he teamed up to work with Korn, it was a musical fusion that made perfect sense to me - irritating, painfully shallow abrasion that doesn't have the decency of having a coherent tune.

But I've always said that making judgments without in-depth knowledge is not the mark of a good music critic, so I picked up his debut album, which had collaborators that looked interesting at the very least. It couldn't be that bad, right?

Well, believe it or not, it's not terrible. It's not good, let me hammer that point and I'll explain why, but Recess by Skrillex is not quite as bad as I was expecting. Maybe it was the benefit of going in expecting audio torture that would leave me catatonic with rage, but this album doesn't deliver that. On the one hand, I can't exactly complain about that, but on the other hand, it doesn't leave me a lot to really say about this record, other than not to recommend it.

So let's ask an interesting question: what does Skrillex do right? Well, as much as I dislike the painfully adolescent and juvenile flavour he brings to these songs, with the plastered rough edges and drastic harmonic wobbles to sound as abrasive and tough as possible, it is a flavour. For better or for worse, you can recognize a Skrillex sound and even with his arsenal of collaborators, he places his own spin on it. Furthermore, as much as I'm annoyed to admit it, he's a decent melodic composer, and the moments where the tracks actually tried to let those keyboard melodies through were glimmering highlights on this record. Hell, there were points you could tell he was trying to make his harmonics encapsulate some of those melody lines, which was a noble attempt at least. And I would be remiss not to mention that sometimes his percussion can have some welcome texture that I did like - nothing with any measurable force or potency, but it was there and I appreciated it.

But that being said, Skrillex is a painfully limited producer, mostly because his focus is in the wrong places. Instead of paying attention to a proper balance in the mix, he tends to overload the very top, which ends up feeling overstuffed. All of his squealing harmonics also tend to be confined to this area in the mix, and it leaves the lower and mid-range in the mix feel strangely empty of sound. And too often he tries to compensate for this by way too much pitch-shifting, and those sounds don't tend to have the same rich resonance in the mix. That's one of the reasons Skrillex's drops feel so weak and unsatisfying - there's a crescendo, often a pretty good one, but the payoff is undercooked and it doesn't service the entire mix. On top of that, for as much as I liked the melodies he creates, it's clear he has no idea how to fit them into his style, and it comes across as incredibly clumsy when he tries to shift his squealing harmonics to fit the tune or cadence. 

Worse still is his complete inability to let a good sample or collaborator speak for themselves, mostly due to a lack of patience or restrain. There are a few exceptions - Fatman Scoop and Michael Angelakos do a decent job with the title track, the Ragga Twins bring their characteristic rough flavour for their two tracks, and the Niki & The Dove sample for 'Ease My Mind' was pretty potent, but when shoved through Skrillex's fuzz-saturated lens, they lose a fair amount of their texture. And when Skrillex does choose to ease off, the only presence of him on the track is a lack of good dynamics and fuzz. Take his collaboration with Chance The Rapper on 'Coast Is Clear', which seems to be trying to recreate a jazzy feel, but I get the feeling the track would have actually been a lot better if Skrillex's distinctive touch was nowhere near it! Then again, when placed with performers where Skrillex is a better fit, like the two k-pop stars G-Dragon and CL on 'Dirty Vibe', the song ends up approaching aggressive obnoxiousness way too fast. And then you have a song like 'Stranger', which talks about 'finding comfort in hell's flames' - and you get such a bland, dreary performer like Sam Dew and can't do anything besides pitch-shifting to evoke the necessary demonic images, you're doing it wrong.

And even though the lyrics really don't matter, I will say one thing here: if Skrillex was trying to come across as mature or remotely intelligent, the lyrics pretty much nip that in the bud instantly. Most of them are shallow, vapid nonsense about being awesome, swearing for no reason, and trying to convince women to screw him, and they can't even manage to rise to the vague philosophical platitudes that you find in most dance lyrics. It really does reflect an immaturity on Skrillex's part both as a producer and songwriter, because even by the low standards of dance pop the lyrics are extremely thin. But even if you don't care about the lyrics, there aren't many good dance grooves on this record, even in the EDM scene of 'put your hands up and jump' party music. The closest is the title track with the interesting percussion progression after the first drop and the multiple crescendos and call-and-responses, but even that's painfully limited.

In the end, I know this album isn't for me - it's for the angry teenage guys who think this music is 'so hardcore and heavy, bro'. And as much as I want to slap them all the face with Dig Your Own Hole and inform them better electronica acts exist, that's a process they'll have to discover on their own. As for Skrillex... well, the frustrating thing is that I feel he isn't playing to his strengths. If he ditched the juvenile attitude and started focusing more on his melody lines and bringing them to the forefront, I might be saying a very different tune. As it is, this record can't even claim to be as catchy or interesting as previous Skrillex releases, and while there are moments that save it from being truly worthless, they don't do enough. 4/10, no recommendation, and let's just thank our lucky stars that even if Skrillex won't be going away, I get a pleasant feeling his time in the spotlight is probably over. 

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