The SKRILLing Fields (part 2 of 3) : Monster Fresh Braves a SKRILLEX Concert [Bumbershoot 2012]
Continued from PART 1 (obviously)...
Lights, Lights, Lasers, Fire! : AV Overload
In defense of those that wanted onto the floor, there was a decent amount of empty space down there, but that was probably because everyone had pushed their way forward and were consolidated up toward the front. Plus, this back area operated like a space to catch your breath, if you were getting wub-wubbed too hard or suffering from exhaustion after taking one too many dub-steps in the wrong direction.
In front of us, the dancing crowd became gradually denser as it approached the stage. It was hard to even see Sonny Moore up there with the myriad of lights and video equipment that was going off all around him. There were huge Time Square-style screens on everything, projecting imagery in the back, to the sides of him, and even on the front of the console that he was stationed at. When we first entered in, the screens were mostly red and, with the pyrotechnic set up repeatedly spurting up fireballs from random locations, it felt a lot like we were there to defeat Bowser in the final level of a Super Mario Bros video game. I have to admit that this shit was actually kind of nuts.
I was happy to be kicking it with Dave and Bobby, because these guys had huge smiles on their faces and were clearly into this for the same reason that I was: we were enthralled by the spectacle. Out came the flask and the over -zealous, cartoony, and ridiculous psuedo-mock dance moves. Were we making fun of this shit or actually engaging exactly as intended? I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t really matter; we reacted how we reacted and were having a good time. Unfortunately for me, it was short-lived.
We moved up around the left side to get closer to the front, but it was still often difficult to make out the figure of Moore among all of the laser beams and seizure-inducing chaos of his stage show. Most of the time you could only catch a quick glimpse of the performer between strobing flashes of light, before he vanished behind his console or blended back into the projections and/or fixtures around him. Even then, it was generally little more than a silhouette defined by the trademark Skrillex undershave haircut whipping around. Giant circular lighting tracks flanked the console with a larger oval-shaped track centered horizontally in the back. That silhouette of Moore‘s head would often mix in with the spotlight-style cannons that lined up directly behind him, although they may have been what was beaming out the lasers–something was beaming out those fucking lasers; they were everywhere. There were so many lasers shooting towards us and so much imagery coming off of those screens that it was as if the Pink Panther diamond was being protected in a booby-trapped Japanese arcade. Being a common concern among digital concert photographers that lasers could permanently damage camera sensors, I did my best to avoid having them coming directly at my lens. I also came away with a lot of photos that were nothing but white glares, due to over exposure, courtesy of the blinding flashes. Trying to get a shot was next to impossible throughout most of the show and, with the dodging of laser beams and trying to time my shots between the flashes and the moments that Skrillex was even visible, it was like hopping into spinning double dutch ropes made of electric currents and relied on the same skill set that it takes when trying to crack the pattern/code to the boss level of some video game for the first time.
I’m sure that this all sounds pretty cool–don’t get me wrong, it was for a moment–but this shit played itself out rather quickly. Yeah, the screens were massive and the lights were everywhere, but while there may have been a lot of equipment, nothing about the stuff being used or the manner in which it was being utilized really seemed all that revolutionary. Granted, I had just witnessed what is arguably the most mind-blowing and groundbreaking state-of-the-art live electronic setup in Amon Tobin‘s ISAM 2.0 tour, 2 nights before, so that didn’t help my interpretation of this Skrillex set much either. One thing about ISAM is that it’s incredibly well thought out and tastefully done; it operates on levels that transcend gimmicks. For this show, however, it was almost as if they had intercepted a fleet of trucks that were supposed to deliver all of the DJ/dance club/disco party equipment that they sell in the back of Spencer’s Gifts stores at Westfield shopping centers and then just plugged all of that shit in at once, letting it go haywire and fight with itself. It wasn’t necessarily very innovative, but there sure was a fuck-ton of it.
I have an image in my head of Sonny Moore planning a Super Sweet 16 birthday party and approaching his parents with his demands…
“We have to have everything! I want lights, lasers, smoke, strobes, as many giant projection screens that we can flippin’ fit up there and I know that we can fit more up there than these guys are telling us, mom. And… flames! Yeah, we need to get pyrotechnical flames, too! It’s gonna be sooo sick and I’m gonna DJ and everyone’s gonna be looking at me up there and it’s gotta be the biggest party ever and everyone’s gonna want to be invited and some people won’t be–not those bitches that had talked shit on me–but it’s gonna to be so flippin’ crazy! We’re gonna need some–Dad! Just SHUT UP! IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW MUCH IT COSTS! GAWD! You always do this! It doesn’t matter, don’t ruin this for me! The Zimmerman’s got Joel an LED helmet and I have to throw a better party than him. It’s got to be the biggest party at our school ever! I WANNA GOLDEN GOOSE NOW!“
Actually, from what I’ve gathered, Moore genuinely seems like an incredibly nice guy, so I’m fairly positive that this bratty interpretation of him as a shitty entitled teenage heiress is completely unwarranted, but it’s his taste level that isn’t that far off. I mean, I get that over-the-top lighting rigs have become standard for the latest wave of “EDM” stars–Dead Mau5 has his trademark mouse helmet and elaborate cubic LED console, Pretty Lights has a stylized electric city skyline, etc–but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of editing or any discernible focus involved in Skrillex‘s production; everything is just thrown into the mix arbitrarily.
The crazy red stage show that was in effect when we entered the Key Arena looked pretty awesome, with the type of large flaming spurts that singed the shit out of James Hetfield back in the day. Later on, however, the backdrop shifted to everything from video game footage to random marsh-like nature imagery. The more abstract designs may have been safer/simpler, classic live electronic visuals, but they were probably still a better direction to take things most of the time. There were throw-back moments of dated technology, in which the screens took on antiquated computer graphics, ala Nintendo‘s failed Virtual Boy unit or generic, white, sub-Lawnmower Man quality, crash test dummy-looking robots marching across the screens. Just to keep it hokey as fuck, he even made sure to wallpaper the entire backdrop into an American flag, at one point. Hardcore fans will undoubtedly read this and attempt to explain to me how “wrong” I am and how amazing his shows are, and I’ll admit that I’ve seen video footage with him in a spacecraft or with a robot image puppeting his movements via a live-capture setup (which is also really just another corny gimmick that actually still looked incredibly worthless, because this dude isn’t doing much for the avatar to emulate), but this show was operating with a different structure, regardless of what you’ve witnessed, live or otherwise in the past. The disconnect from one image to the next, and often from the music itself, was confusing because of how boring and pointless it was, not because it was “freaking my mind,” as it should have been. There was random live action video mixed in that I couldn’t always clearly distinguish, but sometimes it felt like gently subliminal corporate advertisements might have been piped in for products like Nike athletic gear and Gillette razors, evoking the same mood and emotions as that of commercial advertisements on the jumbo tron mid-sporting event. But for me, the piss frosting of this shit layer cake came when this goon actually started running images from Youtube memes.
By Any Memes Necessary
The initial, yet short-lived, wave of hype that hit me when I first entered, was something that I easily stepped out of, but it’s a persistent, yet shallow, undertow that appears to keep a tight grip on the ankles of die-hard Skrillex fans to the end. There are some definitely cool elements in what this guy is bringing to the table, but there are also quite a few undeniably cheesy aspects that tend to weaken his overall appeal for me. Being a bit of a film nerd, I’d equate it to how I’m a storyline guy, while a lot of people just want the special effects. I’m into character development and would eagerly watch an incredibly depressing film–read subtitles, even–if it’s well made, over a light-hearted romantic comedy or Jason Statham revenge film any day. That being said, it all depends on what you expect from your entertainment, music included; if you’re talking about hardcore pornography, for instance, you’re gonna have a much more difficult time finding anybody that actually gives a shit about the storyline. So, I wasn’t connecting to a lot of what Moore was putting out and, being a person who has difficulty disconnecting the incredibly weak components from the other select moments/aspects that I might have, otherwise, found some merit in, it put a fairly milquetoast spin on the entire performance for me. But I’m a bit of a music nerd too, and I quickly realized that this wasn’t a stage show or artist that is targeted towards aficionados of music or even those of performance/cinema; this was clearly a show for internet/video game culture nerds and, what my security staff friend earlier referred to as “children.”
Skrillex first lost me not long after we moved forward. The crazy sonic onslaught of hydraulics, explosions, and machinery had mellowed out into something that sounded a lot more like the generic, upbeat (both in a “happy go lucky”/cheery sense, as well as a musical one) techno that I had avoided in the 90s like it was infested with e-coli. Right as I began to speculate that this was likely the type of shit that some shut-in video game nerd with an X-Box live headset strapped to his dome would probably listen to in a pitch black room, while customized (“mashup”) action figures adorn his 65-inch plasma, the screens literally transitioned into gameplay footage of a first person shooter. Because, as everyone knows, there’s nothing more exciting than watching somebody else play a video game. [It appeared to be war related, but I have absolutely no frame of reference whatsoever, for what this game could have possibly been.] Yikes… this was getting bad, but there was still an opportunity to pull back on the controls and ascend out of this tailspin. “NOW IS THE TIME TO DROP THE BASS! NOW IS THE TIME, SKRILLEX! Do something intense instead of playing something this mundane and uninteresting! Turn off the shitty techno, mutate the beat, mix in some laser blasts, and display some footage of a raccoon high on bath salts, ripping an elderly woman’s face off!“ This was his chance, but what actually came next? Can you guess? [Hint: it got worse.] Each of the multiple screens across the stage shifted into an animated gif of that fucking Nyan Cat. Yep, he actually summoned up the imagery of an outdated meme that consists of 8-bit feline with a pop-tart body. “YES! REFERENCE POINT! Indiscriminating, Worldwide ‘inside’ joke!”
This bullshit was beyond corny and when the entire stage turned “demonic” again–complete with flames and images of satanic pentagrams on everything–it had kind of lost its effect. I didn’t expect The Shining or Audition, but if you’re going to go in that direction where you imply doom or intensity, something along the level of Hellraiser would have at least been something. If the bass drop is supposed to shake you to your core and the visuals are supposed to force your eyes back into your head and make smoke shoot out of your ears, this felt a lot more like a guy with powdery blood capsule drool dripping onto his shirt through plastic vampire teeth while he pushed the buttons on an 8-sound keychain amplified through computer speakers. Imagine watching 28 Days Later and, moments before a zombie attack comes, it switches into footage of Mario Cart and then photos of a Hello Kitty/Sanrio giftshop. Good luck getting your audience back. But that’s a poor analogy to make, because this is much more like I had come in late to what I expected to be a legitimate horror film, only to discover that everyone was just watching a Goosebumps special. I felt like the guy who had pushed me earlier (see part 1), “My bad. Sorry. My mistake. I apologize.“ It was my fault for coming into this with any of my own expectations. Maybe this was my cue to exit, but I was going to give it a little while longer, even if it was just to try and see if I could get any photographs.
One thing to understand about Skrillex is that there is definitely a rather large meme element integrated into the music itself and, especially, in the catch phrases associated with it. His entire look is even begging to be stylized into a meme of it’s own and, without even googling this, I’m going to assume that someone has already created a tumblr page where they take various people and photoshop the patented Skrillex hair-don’t onto their skulls. [Well... at least here's something similar]. During the FPS video game segment, I thought that I heard a sample to the effect of, “You’re gonna die!” or “You’re gonna fucking die!” and all that I could think about was how non-threatening it sounded. I mean, if you’re high as fuck on hallucinogens at an intense show with heavy in-your-face beats, or even somewhere with swirling psychedelics like a Phish concert, hearing a claim like that should flush all of the blood from your face, make your heart pound out of your chest, and frighten you to no end. Everything would go quiet, as your brain and soul exchanged muffled screams. You’d be convinced that the end was nigh. But this show was feeling a bit juvenile and less intense than the Disney haunted mansion. After researching further, however, I’m fairly positive that what we were listening to was the track “Fucking Die” and what that sample was actually screaming was, “You can eat shit and fucking die!” which Moore had extracted from a hilarious youtube video where a “crazy lady” in a robe is losing her shit over a barking dog and then comes after the people video taping her, flipping them off, pounding on their screen door, and cussing them out before slipping and falling on their lawn. Right after the audio clip is played, the bass drop is triggered in the song. The demand, “Call 9-11 now!” which is screamed out during the track “First of the Year (Equinox)” is taken from a video titled “Angry Woman Versus Skaters” and the infamous “Yes! Oh my gosh!” from the track “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” was originally the reaction of a tween Asian girl who had just successfully completed some cup stacking routine in her house. Each of these samples came from Youtube videos and each of them are used as cues that he is about to… DROP THE BASSSSSSS!!! Why he didn’t just VJ and scratch the video of those ridiculous women screaming their heads off live, I don’t know. Maybe he isn’t equipped with that skill. Maybe he just thought it would be a lot more enthralling for everyone if we could see an animated gif of a pixelated pastry cat. The unfortunate part is that some of these original videos that he’s sampling are actually a lot more entertaining than the tracks that he’s creating from them.
Speaking of the bass drop, I completely understand why people enjoy that bit, because it sounds fucking ridiculous (the first couple of times, anyway). In my research, I turned on a track today and my 1 year old baby threw both fists up, while sitting in his high chair, and started rocking back and forth to the wub-wub-wub-wub-wub (I’m serious and I had mixed feelings about it). I’m sure that plenty of fans would become defensive at the suggestion that there is nothing more to Skrillex than the drop, but it’s definitely the focus of nearly every goddamn track. In fact, on the songs where one of those clever phrases that have been siphoned from Youtube clips aren’t used before the drop, much more direct samples are utilized as tip-offs to signal that the wub-wub-wubba-wub-zooms are coming. In the track “Ruffneck (Full Flex)” a voice rhetorically asks if you’re ready for the “ruffneck bass” and then proceeds to deliver what I can only assume is said bass, without even waiting for a reply. The song “Bangarang” is slightly more direct, only speaking the word “bass” before the bottom drops out. So, the bass drop isn’t only the most emphasized portion of the tracks simply because it’s the most compelling–Moore actually places a giant metaphorical cursor right toward its introduction each and every time. Then there is always the point to be made that the bass drops are all composed of what are generally the exact same elements, with only minor variations, or the fact that it’s called a “bass” drop, when a good portion of it is really just a bunch of phasers, chiptune samples, whirling drills, and high-pitched squealing sirens. It seems that Skrillex tends to employ everything in his limited arsenal and blow his entire load over and over again, dropping everything into each an every drop in each and every song.
Unfortunately, when the bass isn’t dropping, the rest of the music usually ranges from extremely unfortunate to incredibly disappointing. Another claim is that his music is all about the tension and the build up until the bass drop kicks in for the climax, but what is really so surprising about the bass drop when it’s on every fucking track and you’re clearly signaling that it’s coming? I guess that in the live setting there may have been more of a “build up,” and maybe it’s just that you have to hook me first before you can reel me in, but I wasn’t really following much of a lead up, just the drop, and it felt expected and none too exciting. If you look at his actual recorded material, there often doesn’t seem to be much more than a fairly simple verse-chorus-verse structure with the drop operating as the chorus. Some tracks have short bridges into the drops, but for the most part, they are just 2 pieces glued together–a basic melody and the wub-wub breakdown. This is another point that people will be sure to argue, but as someone who has listened to plenty of electronic music that actually builds up gradually, incorporating new instrumentation and even tempos, shifting throughout the track and mixing in interesting new accents along the way, Skrillex joints honestly feel like fairly static productions overall.
When I told my girlfriend, Kim that the electronic producer released an EP called Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites, not to mention a follow up called More Monsters & Sprites, she wanted to clarify that I wasn’t confused and actually referring to a Brian Froud book. The thing is that portions from some of this music do sound like they could actually find themselves at home on the soundtracks to 2012 remakes of The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth. These album titles themselves sound as if they were thought up by a 7yr old in a Hogwarts T-shirt, holding a unicorn lunchbox. You may have guessed that the title track from his Bangarang EP is a reference to the 1991 Robin Williams family film HOOK. The title track to Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites sounds like the cheesy inspirational music played during the ending credits of an anime cartoon. The song Summit, which features Moore‘s real life girlfriend, Ellie Goulding, sounds like some Final Fantasy soundtrack bullshit and should probably only be played if you’re recharging your spirit energy at some magical brook, while being circled by twinkling pixies. Brostep? I don’t know about that label anymore, because this shit sounded a hell of a lot more like Brony-step to me and it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that their cartoon pony fetish ranks are heavily represented in the Skrillex scene. I knew even less about Skrillex than I had originally thought and I wasn’t really expecting this result, but the realization of my experience was that this show felt a whole lot less Richard D. James than I had hoped for and a hell of a lot more Lisa Frank.
(featuring sexy teens, crack smoke, and dance crying)