Skrillex: Quest for Fire review – restless dance-pop swings between frustration and innovation

Alexis Petridis’ album of the week

The connoisseur’s EDM artist packs all the production tricks in the book onto his second LP: guest-loaded eclecticism that shifts the line between catchy and annoying

Friday 17 February 2023 at 00:01 GMT

It’s been nine years since Sonny Moore – also known as Skrillex – last released an album. His 2014 debut Recess began 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, authors of the early ’90s East London singles Spliffhead, Hooligan 69 and Wipe the Needle – cherished examples of the idiosyncratic, copyright-violating approach of their Hackney compatriots, Shut Up and Old school dance hardcore rave. The combination of title and collaborators was clearly aimed at Skrillex’s critics, who saw him as the godfather of a subtle, Las Vegas-friendly, confetti-gun-heavy subgenre that was finally bringing dance music to a mainstream US audience and seems to be as closely related to house music as hair metal is to blues. It felt like it wanted to send a message about its credibility: Don’t get me confused with my cake-throwing, trumpet-playing EDM peers – I know more than you think.

Quest for Fire artwork

In the nearly ten years since Recess’s release, that message seems to have been picked up. Skrillex is unique among the big EDM names. His services as a producer have not only been courted by mainstream stars – including Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran – but also by hottest pop figures known for their epicurean taste in collaborators like Beyoncé, The Weeknd, PinkPantheress and FKA Twigs.

Fittingly, Quest for Fire’s guest list ticks all the boxes in terms of notable dance album collaborators. There are rappers including Missy Elliott and Swae Lee from Rae Sremmurd. There are pop singers, including Aluna Francis from the British duo AlunaGeorge. There are exponents of global music, like Palestinian singer Nai Barghouti, who sings in Arabic on Xena, and figures from the alt-rock world, including timid singer-songwriter Siiickbrain and Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy, the latter admittedly only an excerpt from a joint television interview with Skrillex appears, which was recorded backstage at a festival. But Quest for Fire also boasts appearances from vocally independent electronics writer Four Tet and Flowdan, the grime MC/producer best known for his work with the bug. Both are avatars of non-commercial underground cool; They suspect no one would be in a hurry to work with Deadmau5 or Timmy Trumpet.

But even as Skrillex has managed to change perceptions of himself, Quest for Fire still seems less interested in emphasizing his honesty on the dance floor than serving as a showcase for his pop producing skills. Almost everything on it comes at you in two- to three-minute bursts: its 15 tracks are ready and dusted off in forty-five minutes. The music is characterized by a fidgety impatience, the restlessness of its author is expressed not only in the variety of styles offered – from house and dubstep to Two-Step-Garage and Chicago Juke there is something of everything – but in the attention of the tracks. deficit building. Atmospheric passages suddenly erupt into short bursts of pounding four-to-the-floor beats, like on Tears, which then throw the kind of epic, icy synth stabs into the mix that’s on Faithless’ pop-house hits of the 90s can be found. The tracks are punctuated by shrill samples of MCs begging the crowd to make some noise, robotic voices announcing the producer’s name, the sound of guns being reloaded and shouts of “smoke it!”.

With a vocalist on board, he can rarely resist the temptation to bust out the auto-tune, speed them up to helium squeaks, or use the old Fatboy Slim trick of looping their vocals into a persistent loop over a hands-in-the-air drum to chop roll. You wish he’d calm down a bit and stop, every time the urge to push buttons takes hold of him, not least because the results are really good when he does: the relatively streamlined Flowdan collaboration Rumble builds one impressive atmosphere of menace, and if big room pop house is your thing then Leave Me Like This is a very fine example.

Skrillex’s desire to add a pop of glamor to everything yields mixed dividends. Authentically gripping hooks and sharp melodies on the drum ‘n’ bass influenced Good Space and A Street I Know vie for space with tracks like Ratatata, on which the fusion of a sample from Missy Elliott’s Work It and a needle-punching synthesizer stumbles along the line that separates intrusive from annoying. It’s fascinating to hear how Four Tet’s sparkling aesthetic shifts into obviously more commercial waters on Butterflies. But Too Bizarre’s attempt to turn Chicago Juke into something chart-bound fails: somehow its conjugation of warp-speed beats and neon-hued melodies is reminiscent of early ’90s Eurohouse, which can’t have been the goal.

What’s left is what feels more like a jam-packed mood board than an album; an eclectic collection of ideas that achieve varying degrees of success. If it hits the mark, you can understand why pop stars and left-wingers alike have been drawn into Skrillex orbit. But taken in one dose, it’s alternately exhilarating, frustrating, and a little exhausting.

This week Alexis was listening

Kelela – On the run
Imaginative but sultry: a highlight from the R&B singer’s welcome comeback album Raven.


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