Three and a half years ago, Skrillex released Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites (mau5trap/Big Beat), the EP that would transform him from a onetime post-hardcore singer who dabbled in producing electronic music to the savior of dance music in this country. He did it with a particularly mean stripe of dubstep — dirty, aggressive and sometimes grating — that ignored subtlety and demanded dancing with pneumatic intensity, sometimes in complete ignorance of the beat.
Thanks to the Internet, especially Web sites like Beatport, Skrillex’s sound spread quickly, and so did his influence. His rapid rise gave American dance music something it hadn’t had in quite some time: a superhero figure. In short order, he won Grammys and had a relationship with a high-profile British pop star, and his half-shaved haircut became meme-worthy — all in all, a modern star trip.
What Skrillex never bothered to do on this journey is release an album. Now there’s Recess, which arrives feeling more like a checked-off item on a bucket list. Even the nature of its release is low-impact, though it’s masquerading as a stunt. Surprise-released through an app, Recess streamed for a week on iTunes before its physical and digital debut this week. This is a loose echo of Beyonce’s recent unannounced album release, but it’s actually more consistent with the steady drip of music Skrillex has offered since his 2010 breakthrough: a string of EPs, work on the Spring Breakers soundtrack, some production collaborations and side projects. This album isn’t a standalone event signifying a radical shift; it’s business as usual.
Still, Skrillex has chosen an advantageous moment to release his debut long-player: The past 12 months have reconceptualized what a dance music full-length album can be, whether it was Random Access Memories (Columbia), the Daft Punk comeback that rebuilt that vanguard French house music duo as preservationists of organic 1970s soul, or Avicii’s True (PRMD/Island), in which that Swedish mega-house wunderkind remade himself as an unlikely pop production savant. That’s to say nothing of the recent grand-scale, collaboration-heavy pop albums by the likes of Calvin Harris and David Guetta, dance producers who ruthlessly pursue crossover success by recruiting the highest-profile vocal collaborators available.
But Skrillex has not chosen any of these paths. He has instead remained obstinate. Or maybe focused. Or maybe scared of what change on that scale would mean for his identity.
Recess moves beyond the trademark Skrillex sound in small and sometimes meaningful ways, but it falls far short of upheaval. There is the usual annihilation: percussive synthesizers deployed with force on songs like All Is Fair in Love and Brostep and Try It Out. These are kin to the sorts of industrial-scale tracks Skrillex built and maintained his reputation on.
But he adds a twist on this album. On a pair of songs, All Is Fair in Love and Brostep and Ragga Bomb, he collaborates with Ragga Twins, the British vocalist duo integral in the 1990s intersection of rave, jungle and reggae. This is Skrillex nodding to his early dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass roots or, more specifically, the roots of his roots. At times, Skrillex has felt ahistorical, but this move is a clear attempt to show how the family tree has been formed.
He also wants to give a glimpse of what the next branches are going to look like, nowhere more clearly than on Dirty Vibe, a coproduction with Diplo that features naughty raps from the K-pop stars G-Dragon and CL. Built on a bed of quickly shifting vocal samples, this brassy and convincing song is the sort of cross-genre collaboration that will probably seem less unusual in the years to come. Less successful is Coast Is Clear, an awkwardly casual soul-dance collaboration with Chance the Rapper & the Social Experiment. (It’s not nearly as compelling as Wild for the Night, Skrillex’s 2013 collaboration with ASAP Rocky on which he admirably sandpapered his core aesthetic into a shape resembling hip-hop.)
When Skrillex attempts to do something similar to what other ambitious dance music producers have done — collaborate with signature singers — he generally falls short. Take the wasteful melodrama of Ease My Mind, which is built on a sample of DJ, Ease My Mind, by Niki and the Dove. That group’s singer, Malin Dahlstrom, has a textureless voice that doesn’t convey any tension, and Skrillex’s nominally Middle Eastern-influenced swirls feel tinny and frail.
Similarly, Fire Away, the album closer, features cloying digital vocals by Kid Harpoon that add little. But underneath, a different Skrillex is hiding. Strip away the words, and what’s left is, in essence, an elegant, calm techno number, one of the most mature things Skrillex has done.
The same juxtaposition happens on Stranger, a collaborative production between Skrillex and KillaGraham (of Milo & Otis), which has soft R&B singing by Sam Dew but a far more exciting beat, with elements of garage and trap, that preserves the usual Skrillex chaos with a different set of inputs. It’s the most logical step forward here, and also an outlier: five minutes of promise that render the other 42 minutes around it as little more than Styrofoam packing. So much for the album.
— Jon Caramanica, NY Times News Service
Dan Weiss is a jazz drummer of articulate virtues: You listen to him and you’re reminded of what drum tone should sound like, what multilimb rhythmic organization is, what a displaced beat can do.
He doesn’t spread loud charisma all over the instrument. But he’s gotten to the point where his discipline and restraint radiate their own charisma. That is clearest in Fourteen, his forceful, highly composed new record: one long, interconnected piece divided into seven parts, an original piece of work even if you concede that the notion of originality is a blind alley, or too much to stake hopes on.
Perhaps it’s better to say that Fourteen sounds full of its own convictions. There is no pressure in the world pushing anyone to make a record like this: choral antiphony, new-jazz rhythmic meshing, tabla patterns transferred to drum set, hand-clap patterns transferred to voice, structured improvisation metal.
The album has three singers, but there’s not a word on it; lots of melodies, but no songs per se. It would seem to have a core group — or at least a common rhythm section, with Weiss, pianist Jacob Sacks and bassist Thomas Morgan — but the other instruments, including saxophones, trombone, tuba, electric guitar, harp, glockenspiel and organ, are woven tightly into the metastasizing structures. When there’s something like a drum solo, it sounds composed, and it is quiet.
The flow of these parts isn’t easy to predict, but the first of them, the longest, uses a clear strategy: a constant buildup of instrumental parts, as well as intensity. A solo-piano introduction leads to one of Weiss’ detailed drum rhythms: He hits a ride cymbal softly at regular intervals, but everything around it arrives in sliding puzzle patterns. Female voices come into the picture, splitting pleasant but abstruse melodies into short-syllable unisons and long vowel tones. (They are Judith Berkson, Maria Neckam and Lana Cencic, all distinctive singers, but here I can’t tell them apart.) Horn lines rise and intertwine with the voices, starting to improvise. A harp appears. An overdriven electric guitar enters at the six-minute mark, gnashing and wailing; at the very end, an organ piles on.
There’s one possible reference point here: Henry Threadgill in the 1990s, with his complex, organically growing structures over a groove. Otherwise, this is a piece of music — and an album — that seems built only of one composer’s deep, discrete and bravely rendered interests.
— Ben Ratliff, NY Times News Service