Sunday, November 17, 2013

A review of the Gypsyhook EP by Sonny Moore (Skrillex)

Like a lot of other people, I learned about Skrillex when he started to gain serious popularity for his dubstep tracks. I've always been a big fan of electronic music in general (as anyone who's ever listened to my own output can probably tell), and I'm an even bigger fan of music that surprises or captivates me. Dubstep (or “brostep”), with its jarring shifts and aggressive instrumentation, does exactly that. So, you can probably guess that I like Skrillex. Granted, his sound can get a bit repetitive if you're listening to an entire album - but he has a nice spot on my iPod.

A week or so ago, I decided I wanted to delve a bit deeper into his discography. It's something I try to do for every artist I take a liking to (but often neglect due to time constraints and my own terrible memory). I'm a big fan of seeing progress in an artist, and the fact that there are several EPs worth of music from before Sonny adopted his current moniker got me excited. I was curious if I'd hear elements of the familiar Skrillex sound in his older work. I wanted to find out if I'd even like his older stuff.

That long, drawn-out introduction brings me to Gypsyhook – an EP Sonny released in 2009, and the subject of this review.

The Gypsyhook EP contains three original tracks, plus a slew of remixes of those same tracks. It's album-length if you look at the track count and overall time, but the fact that there are only three unique songs makes it an EP. Almost a triple single, if people were still doing that sort of thing. I'm going to run through each of the songs in order (I'll touch briefly on the remixes, too).

01 – Gypsyhook. Going into the EP, I honestly had no idea what to expect. My only experience with Sonny's work were his Skrillex tracks (I've never heard a thing by From First To Last, the emo band he was in prior to going solo). The title track on any album has a lot riding on it – but this one delivers. The song kicks off with a brief synth pad and some syncopated drums. Then, jittery synth chords and – BAM – the vocals. Sonny has a high, breathy voice that reminds me a bit of Michael Jackson (if he had sung in a rock band). I initially thought the chorus was sung by someone else – a woman, perhaps (it's higher than the chorus to The Jackson 5's I Want You Back in pitch) – but it's all Sonny. Strangely, the voice was familiar to me (I now know where all the uncredited hooks and vocal bits in Skrillex's songs come from). A quick read of the few reviews available online tells me that a lot of people hate this song – but I actually really like it. The singing is punchy and almost rap-like during the verses, the chorus is huge, and the beat never stops moving. I must have looped it a dozen times before I moved on to the rest of the album – it stuck in my head that strongly.

02 – Mora. The next track on the album starts with a distorted drum loop that practically blows out the speakers. Then, things shift into the verse. Sonny sings clearly over a sparse beat and what is either an incredibly dirty synth or heavily processed electric guitar. The chorus is a bit forgettable, but it does have a nice high synth line that wobbles and wails around like the ones you hear on quite a few Skrillex tracks. The best part of the song, in my opinion, is the break that immediately follows the chorus. Chopped chords and an off-kilter beat bounce around distorted screeches and samples (including the “you can eat shit and die” one that you'll probably recognize immediately). For me, the most interesting part of listening to Mora was comparing it to the earlier demos that are floating around on YouTube and in other places. The production has improved significantly, and the arrangement has changed a bit, but the song is largely the same. It's a decent song, but not one that really grabs me. Fortunately, the third song is another story.

03 – Copaface2. The final original song on the EP starts off with the chorus vocals and synths, the drums largely absent. Then, we get a stuttering instrumental take on the verse riff, with breaks and chopped samples cutting in here and there. When the verse proper begins, the instrumentation strips down to the bare minimum. The thing that instantly grabbed me was how much energy is crammed into the verse. There are pitched up harmonies, stuttering vocal samples, chopped fuzzy synths, and carefully placed screeches and blips that draw your ear to one channel before immediately pulling it back to the other side with a new sound. I found myself waiting for the verse, and even tensing up a little in anticipation of the synth hits I knew were coming. No single part of the song lasts long enough for you to really get sick of it. It's energetic, full of life, and seriously hooky. Also, as an aside, this song has quite a history. The original Copaface was a slow ballad with hushed vocals and a chorus that only sort of resembles the version on this album. But it was really another song entirely. The version that appears on Gypsyhook is the second “part” of the track, and there are several demo mixes of it floating around. The album version is a serious improvement over them in every way. You can especially notice the changes that were made to the first verse. In the initial demos, it was straight-ahead electronica without the irregular bits that really make the album version jump out.

The remixes: Honestly, the remainder of the album was a disappointment to me; none of the remixes had the unpredictable energy of the three original songs. Gypsyhook vs. DMNDAYS sounds like an attempt at copping Daft Punk that ultimately feels flat and predictable. Mora vs. The Toxic Avenger washes the entire track in droning delay and a monotonous synth that turned the dynamics of an already straightforward song to mush. Mora vs. LAZRtag is probably the best of the set, with a pumping bass synth and some nice stuttered top end (although the drum samples are a bit stale). Copaface2 vs. Dan Sena is a strange mess, thanks to a slow rising synth patch that sucks the melody and groove out of the entire song (and kind of sounds like a vacuum cleaner). Finally, Kai Sui isn't a remix, but rather a version of Mora with Japanese vocals. It's no worse than the original, but it basically amounts to an inferior copy for anyone who doesn't understand the language. Still, as someone who listened to a lot of JPop and JRock in the past, it's an interesting addition.

Verdict: If you can't already tell, I really enjoyed this album. Sure, there are only three original songs on it – but they're good songs. The production is top-notch (particularly with headphones, which really reveal all the fun stereo bouncing and chopping in the mixes); the vocals are tight (although I can understand why some people might not be a fan of Sonny's voice), and the arrangements are dynamic. I've listened to each track dozens of times, and they haven't gotten old yet.

Final Thoughts:

There are two things that really surprised me when I started trying to read up on this EP:

  1. How few people are talking about it (seriously – the YouTube videos are a ghost town, and the reviews are nearly nonexistent), and
  2. How strongly some people hate these songs (read the few official reviews that do exist if you don't believe me).
It almost feels like there are two halves to Sonny Moore's career: his work with From First To Last, and his work as Skrillex. This EP falls in the middle: after he had gone solo, but before he had gained mass appeal. My only guess is that most of the people who liked him in FFTL really were not fans of the genre shift, and most of the people who only know him as Skrillex just aren't aware of his earlier work. It's a shame; this is a seriously catchy EP, and one that should have been enough to put him on the map at the time.



Monday, March 21, 2011

Out of nowhere, a rogue song appears!

I have a pretty big stack of demos and unfinished bits (mostly without vocals) sitting around waiting to be finished. A lot of them will probably make it onto the new album. But I've been waiting for the magic track that kick-starts everything. The one that gives me the motivation and framing to tie everything together and make the next disc.

Saturday night, that song happened. Only I didn't know it at the time. I mean, I put in a couple of hours laying down rhythm guitar and a drum beat, but when I came back to it the next day everything sounded cluttered and basic. Nothing like what I'd heard the night before. Still, I figured I'd play with it. Why waste a half-way decent track?

I ended up spending most of Sunday working on that track. I added verse vocals, more guitar, and a solo. I tightened the mix, exported it, and then tightened some more. Come Monday morning, I'd already listened to that song a few dozen times on repeat. I worked on it before work. I returned to it after work. Now, it's time to give it a little rest.

The song is called Ascertain This. It's definitely going to be on the new album.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Revised version of Crystal Clear

Earlier, I recorded a song for a contest, called "Crystal Clear." Well, I did some playing with it after the contest was over, and decided to upload the revised version to Bandcamp. If you're looking for something to listen to, check it out. This track will probably end up on the new album in one form or another.

New album title

Well, I think I've finally settled on a title for the new album:

The Man Forgotten

I'm shooting for 15 tracks on this one. I want it to be huge.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Back after a little break

I've been wrapped up in freelance work (graphic design) lately, so I haven't had as much time to focus on my music or writing about my music. But I'm coming up for air a little, and I figured now was as good a time as any to chime in.

Today, I grabbed a new domain: www.ianmarquismusic.com. I've got my Bandcamp page pointing there now (though you can still go to ianmarquis.bandcamp.com and see the same site - it's a mirror), and as you may have noticed, this blog is now residing at blog.ianmarquismusic.com. It makes it easier for people to find me, and also gives me a little more control over my web presence. I like both of those things.

In other news, I've got a ton of demo songs in the hopper, and a lot of them are sounding very good. A little dance, a little industrial, and a whole lot of rock.

Stay tuned - I'll keep you posted.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The State of the Album

I've been doing a lot of work on tracks for the new album lately. No secure title for the disc yet, but I'm toying around with calling it "The Bastard" to go along with the naming convention of the first two.

Here's what I've got so far:

Shatter - This is a heavy, straight-ahead rock song with huge guitars. The arrangement is basically done, save for the bridge.

Killing Time - A 70s rock style song, with drums that depart from my usual 80s "big sound." The arrangement is close to finished, and I'm starting to work on vocal ideas. I need to add a few more elements to the mix.

She Plays - A lower-key rock song with throbbing feedback and synths in the background. I've got a verse and chorus, but no bridge or outro.

Take 30 - An off-kilter song from my recording sessions for The Solomon Project. It needs some work, but I'm liking it so far.

Sick Like Me - The verse and chorus instrumentals are done on this track, which I recorded before I started doing The Shivers. It's very dense.

Waiting For The Rain - An instrumental bit I arranged a few years back. I really like it, despite its simplicity, and I think it might sneak onto the disc as a bonus track.

Only In Your Dreams - This instrumental was recorded for The Solomon Project, but I never really finished it. I'm thinking of writing some new changes and fixing it up.

Halo Black - This one started with lyrics, and I have a rough arrangement, but nothing final yet.

Friends Like These - I wrote the riff for this song in an afternoon. I like it, but I'm not sure it will ever see the light of day. But maybe...it's a really cool riff. More melodic than my usual.

Serial - I have been meaning to finish this song since it was part of the original lineup for The Solomon Project. It sounds like a kick in the face, and I think it's time to record a bridge and outro and write some new lyrics.

...and beyond that, there are a dozen or more demos lying around that might suddenly explode into finished tracks. Plus the songs I haven't written yet.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

I guess I do things a little differently

I was talking with a fellow musician last summer when he said something that gave me pause. I'd never really thought about it before, and I guess I'd just assumed I created music in the usual way - nothing really out of the ordinary.

"What's the first thing you do when you get ready to mix-down?" He asked.

My answer? "I don't mix-down." He seemed confused, and went into a description of how he prepares a recording session for his final mix: stripping everything down to the bare bones and building it back up again. This guy went to school for audio engineering, so I know his method is sound. It's mine that's "incorrect."

But anyway, I don't mix-down. I build up.

When I get a song idea - usually a guitar riff - I open my DAW and lay out a click track. Usually it's just a kick and hat beat, 4/4, at whatever tempo feels right to me. I record a couple of rhythm guitar tracks, clean them up, and import them. Immediately, I start working on production ideas. Before I've ever written the chorus, or the vocals, I'm playing with textures and effects. I build the song up until it's as big as I can get it. Then, I add other elements. Maybe I need to pull back on the guitars once I add the vocals. Maybe the drums need some pumping up once I add a proper bass line. But I always build up - never strip down.

And I cannibalize. A lot. I'll slice bits and pieces from my guitar lines and use them in other parts of the song as texture. I'll grab snippets of feedback and noise, flip them around, and use them as transitions. Sometimes, I'll cobble together a whole new riff from previously distant lines. I did that in Girl's Got Altitude: the verse you hear is a combination of the original verse riff and the muted "flicks" from the chorus guitars. Then, on the second pass of the verse, I let the original riff play out as recorded. Sometimes I like to edit parts together in a way I can't really play. I did that in Break, to fill in some empty spaces between riffs. You'll probably never catch it, though - it's subtle.

I guess my point is that I do things differently. Mostly because I was never taught the correct way. I treat audio files the same way I do design (my day job): objects to be sliced, arranged, and cobbled together into a perfect whole.

And sometimes, I don't even know what that will be until I'm hitting "export."