[sxsw2012] Mushroom clouds of sound: Skrillex and Dinosaur Jr drop bombs and melt minds

BBBBZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT. Oh sorry, that’s just what’s left of the functionality of my poor eardrums. It’s 4am and my entire equilibrium and state of being has been altered by SKRILLEX -- I guess you could say I’m living a post-Skrill existence at this point.

Okay, okay, some hyperbole, true. But let’s back up a bit. On Wednesday, I was at a panel (they actually have those here, and it’s where all the sober gentlemen and ladies of the music and technology biz go to justify being flown down and put up in fair Austin for a week...) that was discussing extreme metal, and where it can possibly go. The panel and the audience seemed to agree that metal was at a loggerheads, having taken everything to the point where nothing was shocking or astonishing anymore -- and then someone on the panel went there, uttering “I dunno, man, I guess in a way someone like Skrillex is way more harsh and extreme and... metal than most metal nowadays.”

Skrillex is more metal than metal: bold words, but are they true? Well, let me put it this way: Skrillex’s bass drop signature sound is indeed the sonic phenomenon of the last few years. I’m not sure if that qualifies as extreme or even metal, but it is definitely something that BBBBRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPTTTTTTTTTTTT.

Oh sorry about that, just having phantom drops. My bad. Oh right, the show. So the lead up to Skrill was a packed line-up of mostly old school hip hop heads: EL-P, DAS RACIST, COOL KIDS, SPANK ROCK, HOLLYWOOD HOLT, ARAABMUZIK. The show was held in what appeared to be a massive dilapidated barn, and for everyone on the undercard of this bill, it was a large empty space that was three-quarters empty as boastful brags and snappy beats echoed eternally throughout the space. AraabMUZIK went on last before Skrillex, laying down a post-traumatic-stress-disorder brand of beatmaking cacaphony that felt like being inside a mortar shell war, in the best possible sense.

But it was all prelude: suddenly the lights went out, the man with the asymmetrical hairdo stepped into the building, and voila, the place was mysteriously instantly packed, and with just as many women as men. Most people in attendance somehow were holding glowsticks, where did those come from?, and even weirder is they were all some sort of branded fancy Beats By Dre glowsticks that changes colors in a sophisticated and amazingly trippy manner. Skrillex, with no light show, no projector, no elaborate stage presence, told everyone to put their phones down for two seconds, and then proceeded to BLLLEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHH.

Okay, let’s talk about the bass drop. It’s basically like everyone has been listening to music with beats in 2-D, and suddenly Skrillex came along and said “Hey guys, you are aware that there’s this other dimension, right?” Meaning that the musical phenomenon of Skrillex is the new Magic Eye: for those people that get it, that can see the extra dimension, it’s incredible, like I-never-knew-music-could-sound-like-this amazeballs. And then everyone else is left standing around going “I dunno, I don’t see it.” I have to say that after having seen Skrillex live, I get it, even more than I did hearing the records. Mostly it had to do with seeing the effect his music has on a large audience: more than, say, deadmau5 or Daft Punk or whomever you hold up as an exemplar of electronic music as a mass medium, Skrillex is able to take moments of his set and just drop a mushroom cloud on everyone in the room. When he takes his massive distorted sound-scythe and scrapes it across the cerebral cortex of those in attendance, it’s one of those “holy shit” moments you are always kind of waiting for when you go to see live music. If I was much younger and more impressionable, I’d probably say something hyperbolic like “This music has changed my life.”

The funny thing was, as I emerged from the show, worn and disoriented and deaf, I thought “Wow, I wonder if I’ll ever hear ‘normal’ music that will fry my mind like that again?” As it turned out, it only took wandering a few blocks until I was able to slink into a show, tucked into a normally-quiet residential neighborhood, and see a band that was able to open the sonic portal into oblivion just as effectively, if not more so, than Skrillex, and without all of his fancy-pants mixing table computer whosiwhatsis. I’m of course referring to J Mascis and DINOSAUR JR: I managed to catch them just as they lurched into their set-closer, the epic punk/metal clusterfuck that is “Sludgefeast”. Mascis, laconically obliterating ears and heads with the sonic fury of his three-full-stack Marshall assault, has a guitar tone that is so beautiful, so rad, so balls-to-the-wall badass that it jumps out as three-dimensional as Skrill’s walloping bass drops. With the overtime manic whump of Murph’s tupthumping and Lou Barlow’s trademark melodic bass crunch, the band took the song and stretched it into a ever-widening chasm of sheer audio freefall. The effect on this audience, who were probably far less inebriated and drug-addled than the Skrillex mob, was just as overwhelming and intoxicating.

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