Skrillex got famous by careening recklessly toward the future. The hits that made him dubstep’s biggest star, from 2010’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” to 2011’s “First of the Year (Equinox),” sounded less like songs and more like a Transformer eating Voltron: He used otherworldly robot noise instead of instruments, sampled viral YouTube snippets instead of classic vinyl, and replaced verse-chorus-verse structure with gigantic drops – tense buildups that led into sudden, inevitable bass bombs. For many listeners, Skrillex’s inhuman rhythms and synthetic sounds brought to mind the Key and Peele sketch about nosebleed-inducing dubstep: “I’m sorry, is that music?”
To all the skeptics: Skrillex has heard your complaints. The first full-length release of his six-year solo career shows him fitter, happier and more well-adjusted – it turns out he actually wants to make you dance, not just mosh like a maniac. With hypermacho ‘roid-outs by European EDM headliners like DJ Snake and Martin Garrix all over Top 40, it makes sense that the guy who opened the door for the most aggressive side of dance music is pushing back. Recess‘ track list is full of mean mugging titles like “Fuck That,” but they’re red herrings: The few songs on Recess that feature drops at all explode softly, even welcomingly, as counterintuitive as that might sound. Compared to the geysers of grinding noise Skrillex used to specialize in, Recess‘ climaxes are sleek and friendly – more like a playful game of laser tag than the hungry roar of a robot T. rex.
Skrillex spends much of the album geeking out over the electronic movements that probably blew past the 26-year-old while he was busy being a teenage angst merchant in a screamo band. “Ragga Bomb” explores the blip in early-Nineties North London, when the frenetic breaks of jungle techno were colliding with digital dancehall – there’s even a guest vocal from underheralded jungle pioneers the Ragga Twins. “Coast Is Clear” echoes the late-Nineties commercial explosion of two-step, with 2013 hip-hop breakout Chance the Rapper crooning like Craig David on acid and Alizé. “Dirty Vibe” looks on paper like a contemporary trend overload – joining Diplo with K-pop superstars G-Dragon and CL – but it’s actually a jagged slice of vintage hardcore techno, at a completely untwerkable 160 beats per minute.
Skrillex 2.0 isn’t as much adrenaline-pumping, Neanderthal-grooving fun as the guy who gave us all those shrieking, crashing dubstep drops. But, hey, even Black Flag had a jazz phase, and Public Enemy made a funk album – both of which were way underrated. And many of the elements that drove Skrillex’s initial success are still somewhere in the mix on Recess: the suffocating low end, the serrated edges, the industrial-strength aggression, the disorienting collisions of sound shards, the vocals distorted until they sound like alien transmissions. This is still Skrillex, just with lots of constructive self-remixing. Love him or show your age: He’s making some of the most forward-thinking pop around.