Review: Skrillex at Dim Mak: Mad, alienating, virtuosic

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A Skrillex live show will make you feel either impossibly young or blood-chillingly old.

The category-busting 24-year-old producer (real name: Sonny Moore) is a hopping, bespectacled dervish behind his laptop and sampler, with a sideswept haircut that looks like a goth kid halfway through a locker-room shaving prank. His sample-built music -- rooted in many strains of dance and beat-music subcultures while gleefully smashing all of them together -- is some of the most avant-garde stuff to ever be nominated for five Grammys. Yet its brute physicality might be best understood when one is many vodka-and-energy-drinks into a dance floor spazz-out.

His small-hours Tuesday set at Dim Mak’s club night at the old Cinespace was the first of five underplay club shows across Los Angeles this week. It was a Rubicon between generations of dance music fans.

If you’re in his target audience of late-teenage club kids, Skrillex is the charismatic and virtuosic artist most capable of confusing, infuriating and alienating your parents (which, naturally, means he’s enormously popular and getting only more so). If you just missed the cutoff, he can feel uncannily like the end of music: the logical terminus of a young American smash-and-grab dance culture, smacking gum while falling down the Internet’s instant-gratification rabbit hole.


He evoked both feelings when he started Tuesday’s set with “Breakn’ a Sweat,” from his surprisingly tactful new EP (his preferred format), “Bangarang.” On paper, the tune seems like a paella of bad ideas -- bongo exotica, butane-soaked synth bass, a futurist spoken-word monologue and a big nick from the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” But the whole thing is so berserk and adventurous that the track’s technical skill and audacity won out.

Onstage, Skrillex performs in an au-courant style somewhere between a DJ set and live performance. Other electronica artists are more obviously invested in real-time manipulations, but Skrillex’s mixes move so quickly, and he’s such a live wire onstage, that it doesn’t especially matter where on the “hitting spacebar” to “micromanaged beatmatching” continuum he lies.

His 90-minute set careened between the woofer-frying subbass of dubstep to the soda-pop house beats of Daft Punk, spliced with treated vocal samples that nodded to first-generation rave. Most of his songs are built on almost comically brutal bass drops that, fairly or not, led to his reputation as the leading light of “Bro-step” (a slur against the genre’s recent appeal to fans who would have loved rap-metal in another era). But it’s easy to hear how a party crowd reared on crunk and pop-punk could transition into battering electronica with the right pied piper. And given the utter dominance of dance music among all swaths of young fans, he can both play to his intensity-craving base while pursuing the festival masses.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the questions his sweaty and rapt set raised about what we want from music: What is a song? Does genre-promiscuity mean neglecting history? Is temptingly easy production software the equivalent of a mustachioed weed dealer by the middle school fence?

Or is caring about these questions just the equivalent of a wizened rave veteran yelling, “Get off my lawn?”

While Skrillex is entirely of his moment in future-thinking music, a better place to unpack him might be in his past. Before inventing Skrillex, he was the singer for the Tampa metalcore act From First to Last. Throat surgery ended that venture, but it’s easy to hear the DNA of metal-infused pop-punk in Skrillex’s current music. Those genres prize technical proficiency, quick-cut aggression and immediacy; they use half-time breakdowns, big buildups and alternately anthemic and indecipherable vocal styles to get there. You can hear the same constructs in Skrillex.

Bits of his best recent tracks, like his post-punky collaboration with Kaskade, “Lick It,” and the candy-necklace blissout of “Summit,” came and went quickly at Cinespace, and his laptop had occasional overheating issues that he shrugged off amiably. But small gestures, like emerging from a joint-snapping dubstep breakdown into Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock,” drew sly connections between genres rather than simply beating them into submission.

Skrillex’s vast production talent and knack for viewing all of music as a text to be snipped apart and re-imagined puts him in a promising position. He draws from music born out of a wildly inclusive (gay, minority, female) dance audience, but his sonic harshness can be alienating. If he can corral his interests into something more coherent and grounded in dance music’s revolutionary history, he has the chops of a generation-defining artist.

Whether or not it’ll be your generation, however, is a different question. RELATED:

Album review: Skrillex’s ‘Bangarang’

Skrillex announces new EP, video release, weeklong L.A. takeover

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-- August Brown