Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Essay: I listened to Skrillex

I have never given myself over to the allure of Skrillex, like many of generation, but unlike them I'm determined to find out why.  I went through his oeuvre and picked out a selection of tracks that I thought best represented his progression in sound.  Come with me on a (ramshackle) listening experience...

Rock N Roll - Sounds like a cocaine-fueled version of Bangarang.  The beat is propulsive, reminiscent of Kavinsky's Testarossa Autodrive, with a sub-Daft Punk chorus interspersed with girly sound clips.  The bass-drop, such as it is, is an 8 bit stop and start which is punctuated by the final chorus, a finishing sprint that is more contemporary in it's continuity.  The lyrics are no indicator as to the message of the music, which seems to be 'forward movement'.  It makes it feel somewhat like a chase, which induces the thrill of fear, whilst also making you move quite rapidly by way of it's speedy BPM's.  Close to being a good track here, but too patchy in its execution.

First of the year - starts with a Caribbean jauntiness that leads into piano plonk and crowd noise.  Vocal manipulation lays over the top before the 'call 911 now' signals the bass-drop and it's hold-release-hold intensity.  It thrills in much the same way Metallica used to -  push and throw yourself around, not for any reason, just because why-the-fuck-not?  The beat picks up before bass-dropping again, this time with more vocal layering, a couple more synths and the volume turned up a little.  Again, not much here to hold onto after the music stops, in fact the thing that sticks most in my head is the screwed-up vocal call of 'random' that punctuated each bar in the bass-drop breakdowns.

Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites - Rising synths fall in followed by a hollow kick drum.  The chopped female vocals are back, followed again by the exasperated female scream, this time 'oh my god', followed by you-guessed-it, a bass-drop.  Hang on, is this another version of Rock N Roll? Or First of the Year?  Another synth 'verse', with the short vocal clip before we do it all again.  Hearing this after hearing his later work first, I can definitely hear what attracted people to him, even if it is aggressively repetitive.  The last vocal verse is quite effective if again built around nothing more than uninterpreted vocals and a repetitious piano loop

Breakn a Sweat - Middle Easterns drums are interrupted by those organs, with a little Skrillex guitar action.  The call and response section of "Breakn a Sweat, it's alright' is as terrible as it sounds, as is the vocal clip of 'C'mon baby light my fire'.  Oh dear.  Devoid of heavy basslines and replaced with kitschy references, this track sinks.

Bangarang - The interesting thing about this track is that it's the one I like the most, and yet it is the most commercial of what I've listened to so far.  That's not to say I love it, as the usual tics Skrillex has become noted for still grate as the song goes on, and even moreso upon repeated listens.  But there is definitely a tempering of the style here, but again, without any real emotional anchor in either the music or lyrics, the song feels empty and forgettable.

Make it bun Dem - The collaboration with Damian Jr Gong Marley feels like it sounds, like it doesn't seem to fit.  Although Marley sounds pretty engaged over the course of track, Skrillex delivers some window-dressing wonk here that does little more than suggest that another style would have sounded better instead of his trademark chop-drop-and-roll..  The ceiling of synths in lieu of a bass-drop breakdown feels unnecessary and like everything else, just slapped on top.  Give this a miss.

After listening to a bunch of tracks that I think are pretty representative of his discography thus far, I don't think my opinions have changed a lot.  I think there are aspects of his music I like, but those aspects are quickly (and loudly) blunted to death by all the stuff I don't like.

Given that he's been around for a couple of years now, we can definitely see a template emerging of his sound.  The choppy synths, the girly vocals, the bass-drops.  For him to make his music timeless, and make it as palatable in my head phones as it is at festivals, he has to find a way to generate emotion with his music.

He has shown an ability to do just that, but more often that not he can't sustain it in a track, or even worse, the track has no direction whatsoever.  If he can discover the magical formula that makes us care for his music (by making it scary, or thrilling, or sad or whatever) then I can start to appreciate all of his music and not just components of it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Essay: EDM is the New Rock, but it isn't all good

deadmau5 615.jpg

I read with interest an article recently that suggested that electronic dance music is ‘the new Rock, Hip-Hop and Jazz’, comparing it to other ‘new’ musical movements of the past.
The article tries to defend electronic dance music; even though its author doesn’t really seem interested in specifying exactly what it is he’s defending.

The reason why he doesn't know is two-fold.

One, electronic dance music is such an all-encompassing term. I dare say Daft Punk, Tiesto, Skrillex, M83 and Caribou would hate to be described as making the same type of music, however in this article they totally are.

Two, he slyly side-steps any mention of music criticism and good/bad quality, other than to say that there is a ‘backlash’ against EDM, and that the music warehouse/rave music of Skrillex and Co is preferable among ‘youth’ than David Guetta, Red One and their ilk.  I think Philip Sherbourne or any respected music journalist would wince at the idea that someone could claim that all electronic dance music is great.

That said, I totally agree that EDM might be the ‘new Rock’, but what does being the new anything even mean?

Hip-Hop in the 90’s was pretty ground-breaking and created some timeless classics, but for every Public Enemy there were a dozen Vanilla Ices.

Skrillex may be the dominant entity of his movement, but so were Limp Bizkit and MC Hammer, two extremely popular yet critically reviled acts of their day.

Skrillex appears to aim for something more, channelling avant garde talents like Aphex Twin; however his aesthetic out of the gate has been more like the Foo Fighters.

He has skilfully avoided a fair chunk of critical appraisal by not releasing an album, unlike fellow dubstepper Rusko, who released a glut of genre-defining tracks before putting out a couple of middling albums (based on critical appraisal).

Like Pitbull and Swedish House Mafia (and indeed, Limp Bizkit and MC Hammer), Skrillex has a schtick, and it's this schtick, whether it's the maximilist sound, the bass-drops or the visual accoutrements of their live shows, that have the haters riled.

The ‘backlash’ from purists and nostalgist’s is a completely valid, yet somewhat redundant commentary on generational musical transitions.

Great music can come from anywhere (I have a weakness for Avicii’s ‘Silhouettes’), but to claim quality from a whole musical movement is ridiculous. In that respect, the fogey’s have it right.

Comparing musical era’s is fraught also, especially now when it’s even harder to claim ‘commercial’ music is strictly bad and ‘indie’ music is uniformly good. Indeed, ‘Indie’ music is more of a description of the music’s sound these days, than its position in the industry. Indeed, the old music system is dead, so how can we compare the old and new when the models of distribution aren’t even the same!

Instead of aggrandizing articles claiming something you can’t possibly confirm (that EDM is the new rock and its all great), lets continue to do what we’ve always done: Search for the innovators, those who have the ability (for even just one song) to fuse together old styles in a way that we’ve haven’t heard before and yet in a way that makes us feel to the extreme that we can.

Let us praise tracks like Ushers ‘Climax’, for its unconventional restraint, and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ for its unique perspective on alcohol abuse and addiction.

We’re in an era where we get to choose what we want to hear. The cliché ‘all killer no filler’ has never been more apt.

Don’t be fooled into rushing out and buying that Ministry of Sound album, just because it’s representative of that all-encompassing ‘new rock’ sound.  Go out and do a little research and find all the odd and innovative sounds that are at your fingertips.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Video: Psy - Gangnam Style

Hilarious, whether you're a fan of K-Pop or not.

Video: Hot Chip - How Do You Do?

The latest track off their new record In our heads, 'How do you do' is a great representation of the theme of the album - positivity.  Although the music isn't uplifting in and of itself, the chorus "How do you do it?  You make me want to live", suggests hope amongst the chaos, which is pretty much something we can all sympathize with.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Video: Le1f - Wut

Le1f is a burgeoning New York rapper and DJ.  I don't know much about him except that I'm loving his new mixtape 'Dark York', and especially the track below 'Wut'.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Stream: Frank Ocean - Lost

Another blazing new track from Frankie Ocean's great new album 'Channel Orange'.  When he sings 'Lost, in the heat of it all', about the protagonist of the track, there's just the right amount of sympathy and pathos.  The bouncing r&b backdrop belies the sobering lyric, an age-old music trope that Ocean tightropes perfectly.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Stream: Frank Ocean's new album streaming in FULL!

Frank Ocean is streaming his new album 'Channel Orange' in full over at frankocean.com

Check it out, it's gonna be a classic.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

What is a DJ?

What is a DJ, and what do we expect of them at a live show?

In light of Deadmau5’s recent comments about EDM producers and their dubious live sets, I set out to discover what being a deejay means in 2012.  

First off I went to Wikipedia, where, according to them, a DJ is a person who selects and plays recorded music for an audience. Pretty simple.

In the context of Deadmau5 and the DJ’s he mentioned in his interview, we are talking about guys standing behind the decks in front of a club or stadium full of fans. We're talking you're David Guetta's and Swedish 'House' Mafia.

According to Deadmau5, the main reason he is disgusted with his fellow EDM DJ’s is because they are little more than ‘button-pushers’, with a technical setup that is constrained by the elaborate lighting rigs that accompany their stage shows.

Specifically, it is the idea that they just have to ‘press play’ to fire off their sets and then they do little more than manage the transition between each subsequent track (and tweaking the levels on the equalizer).

If this is true, then they indeed share little in common with the historical rendering of the DJ - the dexterous dude standing behind the twin turntables beat-juggling and constantly manipulating the vinyl or cd in front of him.  And in this comparison, the superstar EDM DJ (or any DJ that employs this setup) suddenly resembles a curator, a crafty cataloguer of music (great or otherwise) and not a creator of live sounds.   

On the other side of the coin are the DJ defenders, who talk about their having to beat-match without headphones, constantly bring up their mixing credentials and espousing an ‘everyone else does it, so why can't I’ ideology. It's all valid, well, from the DJ's perspective anyway.

So, where does this leave us?

I don’t think it’s about defining what a DJ is or isn’t.

it’s about educating yourself about what you’re seeing and hearing.  

If a DJ is up on stage with a kick-ass light and fireworks display or dancing around the stage Skrillex-style, then chances are he’s spending about half as much time tweaking the mix and being creative as you think he is.  If you’re okay with that, hoist up your glow-stick and have a good one.

It’s also about being honest about what you do as a musician.

As hard as it is to hear Deadmau5 pull the curtain back on superstar DJ live shows, it’s a necessary evil and a refreshing perspective.

If you want to sell your show, and your brand, then this is the compromise that you make.  No matter how you spin it (pardon the pun), you’re still putting your commercial interests (your ability to entertain the largest possible demographic) ahead of your musical ambitions.

In short, you bring in more casual fans and alienate the early adopters.

If you're a DJ, don't be afraid to be truthful about what you do.

If you're a fan, don't be afraid to expect more out of DJ's.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Video: Jessie Ware - Wildest Moments

Hot off the press!  The UK chanteuse delivers a straight-forward clip for the haunting and emotional track 'Wildest Moments', one of my personal faves at the moment.  Thanks to Pitchfork

Video: Usher performs 'Climax' at the BET awards

Usher once again delivers a great performance of a particularly tough song to sing, the falsetto-laden 'Climax'. Usher adds a few octaves to the verses, just to prove that he can.  Throw it down!


Video: Kanye, Pusha T, 2 Chainz and Big Sean destroy the BET awards

Kanye's performances live almost rival his performances on wax, and his opening BET awards blowout with his GOOD music crew added to his highlight reel.

In front of a laser-coated lamborghini, the crew all took turns rampaging through 'Mercy', before Kanye cranked out 'Theraflu' and then went acapella on a new track 'New God Flow'.

The ending of his acapella track highlights his penchant for the original and dramatic and has to be seen to be believed.

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