Critic review: Skrillex’s ‘Bangarang’ lives in the glorious moment

Not feeling Skrillex? Join the online mob by pelting his music with the adjective of your choice. Cartoonish, puerile, indulgent, impatient, bombastic. Pitchfork, the taste-making indie rock site, recently brushed it off as “inelegant.”

And while plenty of words stick to the 24-year-old’s outsize dance tracks, that one doesn’t. This music is elegant against all odds. It’s the New York Giants’ defensive line doing “Swan Lake.” It’s digital flatulence made mysteriously anthemic. It’s cartoonish, puerile, indulgent, impatient, bombastic — all precisely folded into the shape of pop.

That’s why there’s a pretty good chance that Skrillex will be the guy jumping onstage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles next month to accept the trophy for best new artist at the 54th Grammy Awards. And if he does, he’ll have done it without a proper album to his name.

Instead, the Los Angeles-raised DJ and producer Sonny Moore has been releasing songs piecemeal since 2010, occasionally packaging them as seven-, eight- or nine-song EPs. “Bangarang,” his fourth EP, was released digitally in December. Hard copies land in stores on Tuesday.

But fans have known these beats for months. On the road, Skrillex embodies information-age workaholism, spending endless hours hunched over his computer, sculpting new music and avoiding sleep. He’s often tinkering with mixes minutes before stepping onstage. To see him perform live is to watch him pull fresh tracks from his laptop as if yanking mutant fish from the sea.


Electronic music artist Skrillex inside his dressing room at NorVA in Norfolk, VA on October 4, 2011. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The stage is also where Skrillex has burnished his reputation as the mascot for EDM, an umbrella acronym for the various dialects of electronic dance music that swept across suburbia last year. And if Skrillex looks like a rock-and-roll frontman, it’s because he used to be one — for the screamo band From First to Last. Only now, he bangs his head from behind a computer screen, using old-school stage moves to push a new-school sound.

And that sound is bass. Bass that descends from dubstep, the genre of British dance music where the low-end curves and wobbles its way around crisp, skittering beats. Bass that registers somewhere between engines revving and dragons belching. Bass that makes your corneas shake.

Even when his frequencies approach mid-range, the bass remains the centerpiece of every Skrillex track. He decorates it with nu-metal riffage and video game bling-blong. He braces it with a classic disco pulse. He lets it bark like a pet monster on a short leash: WOMP-WOMP-WOMP. The sound is destined to become a sonic time stamp, synonymous with the 2010s the way fuzzed-out guitars remind us of peace and love and glassy synthesizers conjure Aqua Net and the Reagan administration.

Which isn’t to say Skrillex has no latter-day competition. Other producer-DJs enjoyed similar climbs in 2011, with the likes of Deadmau5, Avicii, Kaskade, David Guetta, Bassnectar, Nero and the Swedish House Mafia each bringing accessible brands of house, electro and dubstep to the halls of America’s high schools.

But Skrillex stands as the little prince of this world because his music doesn’t reside at EDM’s center so much as stretch to its edges — and without pulling itself apart. It’s remarkably flexible stuff that can sound foreign and familiar, combative and comforting, stupid and smart, all at once.

You can hear that on the “Bangarang” EP more than on any other Skrillex release. The opening stutters of “Right In” owe a debt to the dance-floor euphoria of Daft Punk, but Skrillex’s signature bass starts convulsing before the song even reaches the 30-second mark. “Breakn a Sweat” is a more patient, less aggressive tune — but it might be because Skrillex was trying to mind his manners. It’s actually a collaboration with the surviving members of the Doors.

Clocking in just shy of 40 minutes, the EP also illustrates Skrillex’s biggest flaw — he often barrels through his tracks with a systematic zeal, as if wolfing down a sleeve of Oreo cookies. But things mellow out somewhat on “Summit,” an ethereal denouement featuring British singer Ellie Goulding where the bass never quite goes Incredible Hulk.

Too bad it’s canceled out by the finale, an “Orchestral Suite” that revisits the melodic motifs of Skrillex’s earlier singles via classical instruments. Let’s just hope it’s a joke and cue back to the first track for another ride.

And another. And maybe another. Okay, one more.

Should Skrillex win a Grammy for building pop’s best new roller coaster? He’s popularized a sound that feels impossible to ignore and uniquely of its time. Crank it loud enough and it’s hard not to throw your hands up and scream, “Yes.”

Recommended Tracks

“Bangarang,” “Right In,” “Kyoto”

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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