Here’s a riddle for you:
Q: What do you call the lame duck of contemporary electronic dance music?
A: His name is Skrillex. So it goes.
Don’t get me wrong, the 2012 EP Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites changed the way I understood music. As a blissfully innocent middle-schooler, his brand of dubstep was unlike anything I had heard before.
That is, I wasn’t fascinated with the music’s aesthetic, but with its explosion of aesthetic. In the ears of many — perky-nosed acoustic apologists in particular — this so-called “brostep” fad was not music, let alone anything to be celebrated.
By the time of his unexpected Grammy victory, however, the itinerant emo retiree Sonny Moore had wholly transformed contemporary electronic dance music, revitalizing the scene and transplanting a kitschy, overbearing and chaotic sound to the palate — and palette — of the mainstream.
Unfortunately for the Romans, no golden age is forever. What remains of Skrillex today is the semblance of an innovator gilded in the veneer of former glories: New tracks are either surplus reproductions of exhausted concepts or ephemeral false alarms of a renewed artistic vision.
A lame duck indeed; a household name, hollowed out.
The metaphor is not perfect, for the fatigued producer has no clear successor. One thing is certain, however: The throne belongs to he or she who can go where Skrillex has been too cautious to tread.
I nominate Impossible Nothing.
Stuck somewhere between electronic dance music, instrumental hip-hop and plunderphonics, the anonymous producer’s latest record, Lexemenomicon, puts the “non-” in “music” — it’s sound collage on overdrive, a colossal curio that is about as indecipherable as its title.
Notice, first, the project’s scope. Like Phonemenomicon before it, the record consists of twenty-six tracks. Each corresponds to a letter of the alphabet and runs for a round ten minutes, for a grand total of four (!) hours (!) and (!) twenty (!) minutes of uninterrupted… sound?
Not that such album lengths are unheard of. But this is not a collection of hour-long drone pieces or a massive collection of greatest hits. Rather, Lexemenomicon is an ambitious mashup of low-fidelity samples from sources as diverse as decontextualized hip-hop braggadocio, theatrical religious proselytizing, obscure SoundCloud content, James Baldwin sound bites and even a track by Skrillex himself. In length, this is Since I Left You times four and then some. Sonically, as one commenter put it, it’s “J Dilla on steroids.”
But what is most surprising is that it works. On each track, Impossible Nothing sketches an aural concept using a diverse sonic palette, setting mismatched sounds against each other like pyrotechnics and watching them burst with the starry-eyed wonder of a particularly bombastic Mythbusters episode. At every turn, however, the concept is reworked into something new; in this way, each track is like a mixtape of its own — or perhaps like a kaleidoscope, producing unique fractals of colorful sound using a limited set of salvaged rhinestones.
The most challenging music straddles the boundary between “art with a capital A” and the basest trash. In other words, it plays with our definitions of music itself.
It would be too generous to call Skrillex a true revolutionary, but he did revolutionize electronic dance music. Today, while dubstep purists still castigate his apostasy, aspiring producers channel him for guidance. Virtuosity or vulgarity? You decide.
On the other hand, Impossible Nothing is not merely an innovative project, but a skillfully-executed, revolutionary concept — the artist’s penchant for secrecy notwithstanding. The boisterous maximalism of Lexemenomicon surpasses that of Skrillex’s most aggressive cuts at every turn, yet never sacrifices its pop-conscious accessibility.
True to its name, Impossible Nothing demonstrates the unlimited, malleable boundaries of experimental sound. More daring than dubstep yet equally more jiving, it is everything that Skrillex has failed to be.
More forward-looking than most other records in recent memory, Lexemenomicon is, if nothing else, an anthology of 22nd-century bangers, brought to you today.