It is nine years since Sonny Moore – AKA Skrillex – last released an album. His 2014 debut, Recess, opened with a track called All Is Fair in Love and Brostep – a knowing nod to the derogatory term for the dubstep-derived sound that made him famous. More importantly the track featured a guest appearance from the Ragga Twins, east London authors of the early 90s singles Spliffhead, Hooligan 69 and Wipe the Needle – much-prized examples of their fellow Hackney natives Shut Up and Dance’s idiosyncratic, copyright-busting approach to old-school hardcore rave. The combination of title and collaborators was clearly aimed at Skrillex’s detractors, who viewed him as the godfather of a subtlety-free, Las Vegas-friendly, confetti-cannon-heavy subgenre that finally broke dance music to a mainstream US audience and seemed to bear as much of a relationship to house music as hair metal did to the blues. It felt designed to send a message regarding his bona fides: Don’t confuse me with my cake-throwing, trumpet-playing EDM peers – I know more than you think I do.
In the near-decade since Recess’s release, said message seems to have been taken on board. Skrillex is unique among big EDM names. His services as a producer have been courted not only by mainstream stars – Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran included – but by hip pop figures renowned for their epicurean tastes in collaborators, such as Beyoncé, the Weeknd, PinkPantheress and FKA twigs.
Fittingly, Quest for Fire’s guest list ticks every box in terms of big-name dance album collaborators. There are rappers, including Missy Elliott and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee. There are pop vocalists, among them Aluna Francis, of British duo AlunaGeorge. There are exponents of global music, such as Palestinian singer Nai Barghouti, who sings in Arabic on Xena, and figures from the world of alt-rock, including angsty singer-songwriter Siiickbrain and Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, the latter admittedly only appearing in a clip from a joint TV interview with Skrillex taped backstage at a festival. But Quest for Fire also boasts appearances by stridently independent electronic auteur Four Tet and Flowdan, the grime MC/producer best known for his work with the Bug. Both are avatars of no-commercial-considerations underground cool; neither, you suspect, would be in any great hurry to collaborate with Deadmau5 or Timmy Trumpet.
But if Skrillex has managed to shift perceptions of himself, Quest for Fire still seems less interested in underlining his dancefloor bona fides than acting as a shopfront for his skills as a pop producer. Almost everything on it comes at you in two-to-three-minute bursts: its 15 tracks are done and dusted in three-quarters of an hour. The music is marked by a fidgety impatience, its author’s restlessness expressed not just in the array of styles on offer – you get a bit of everything, from house and dubstep to two-step garage and Chicago juke – but in the tracks’ attention-deficit construction. Atmospheric passages suddenly erupt into brief bursts of pounding four-to-the-floor beats, as on Tears, which then throws the kind of epic icy synth stabs found on Faithless’s 90s pop-house hits into the mix. Tracks are interrupted by jarring samples of MCs imploring crowds to make some noise, robot voices announcing the producer’s name, the sound of guns reloading and cries of “smoke ’em!”.
With a singer onboard, he’s seldom able to resist the temptation to break out the Auto-Tune, speed them to helium squeakiness or apply the old Fatboy Slim trick of chopping their vocals into an insistent loop over a hands-in-the-air drum roll. You do find yourself wishing he’d calm down a bit and stop pressing buttons every time the urge takes him, not least because when he does, the results are really good: the relatively streamlined Flowdan collab Rumble builds up an impressive air of menace, and if big-room pop-house is your thing then Leave Me Like This is a very accomplished example.
Skrillex’s desire to apply a pop sheen to everything yields mixed dividends. Authentically grabby hooks and sharp melodies on the drum’n’bass-influenced Good Space and A Street I Know vie for space with tracks such as Ratatata, on which the melding of a sample from Missy Elliott’s Work It and a needling synth stumbles along the line that separates insistent from annoying. It’s fascinating to hear Four Tet’s twinkling aesthetic shifted into more obviously commercial waters on Butterflies. But the attempt on Too Bizarre to turn Chicago juke into something chart-bound flounders: somehow its conjugation of warp-speed beats and neon-hued melodies ends up recalling early-90s Eurohouse, which can’t have been the aim.
You’re left with something that feels more like a crammed mood-board than an album; an eclectic grab-bag of ideas that achieve varying degrees of success. When it hits the mark, you can understand why pop stars and left-field figures alike have been drawn into Skrillex’s orbit. But taken in one dose, it’s alternately exhilarating, frustrating and a little exhausting.
This week Alexis listened to
Kelela – On the Run
Inventive but sultry: a highlight from the R&B singer’s welcome comeback album Raven.