When it comes to music, rules are most certainly made to be broken. From artists like Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman who revolutionised jazz music note by note, to rowdy upstarts like Elvis Presley and The Beatles, who turned pop music conventions on their head, there is an illustrious history of rebellious and inventive musical genius. Still more daring are the smaller numbers of musicians who have pushed further and sought stranger outcomes, not only breaking rules but decimating them in favour of drastic reinvention. From electronic speedcore to death metal, brostep, and everything in between, this article is an introduction to the artists who dared to live by the wise words of street artist Banksy: “Think outside the box, collapse the box, and take a fucking sharp knife to it.”
When brostep, identified most strongly with controversial American producer Skrillex (born Sonny Moore), broke into the mainstream circa 2010, a strange thing happened: a type of music that previously would have seemed absolutely immune to commercial radio play crossed over - and not just a little bit. Skrillex videos racked up views in the hundreds of millions, and he brought hoards of similar producers to the top with him. There was a swarm of disruptive artists competing for who could make the most schizoid, extreme, cacophonous song possible. Little trace of hook, structure, or sense made it through that process; most every song resembled the results of an angry chimp set loose in a room full of drumsynths and over-tweaked VSTs. Still, the more memorable tunes served as absurd, enjoyable, bizarre party music to overwhelm the senses and push the boundaries of stiff-upper-lip EDM sensibilities.
But the advent of brostep wasn’t simply a flash in the pan, it was a bonafide movement in electronic music, and under Moore’s direction brostep was a tidal wave to rival the Prodigy-led big beat scene that took over electronic music in the late ’90s. In fact, brostep further mirrored big beat in the way it found itself absorbed into the idioms of pop music years after its emergence. These days, Moore has diversified his sound and mostly produces heavily watered-down EDM hits for Justin Bieber and the like, yet his career started with the runaway success of perhaps the most unlikely and extreme music to ever gain upper-echelon mainstream popularity. How, then, did it come to pass that such utterly bizarre music held such popularity for so long?
Perhaps the answer lies with the angry young men of the world. As per its slightly-derogatory name, brostep is traditionally associated with steroid-fuelled frat boys and overly-enthusiastic teenagers. For decades, various forms of music have broadly appealed to those young men whose taste during their youth tends towards the violent, the extreme, or the attention-grabbing. Punk rock in its standard form was cooked up by Malcolm McLaren and marketed directly to disaffected youths, while Metallica’s brand of all-American metal and N.W.A.’s defiant politicism had a similar purpose at different times and in different markets. Indeed, Sonny Moore knew a thing or two about marketing his music to angsty youths before he became Skrillex, as he first gained fame during a three-year singing gig with the post hardcore band From First to Last.
In fact, one can learn a lot about the audience for a given band by looking at the musicians themselves. There is a sort of two-sided imitation at play in the various similarities between the average Slipknot fan, say, and the actual band members (when their masks are off). Obviously, the devoted fans will mimic the haircuts and dress sense of their heroes, as devoted audiences have done since time immemorial. More subtle, though, is the flip side of the equation, in which the band markets itself to a specific type of individual with specific ideals, ideas, and opinions. But the phenomenon is by no means confined only to heavy metal; rappers, rockers, and pop stars all partake in the imitation/marketing paradox. Most every artist with a sizeable and devoted fanbase will work hard to maintain a core look, sound, and personality type. Still more artists won’t ever realise the whole paradox is taking place.
As a result, it usually happens that the band members and the audience all look like members of the same high school clique. Their similarities build an environment in which everybody belongs; no doubt most Vampire Weekend fans would feel wrong footed if they wandered into a Swans gig by mistake, and vice versa. There’s beauty in being amongst like-minded people. Perhaps extreme music simply exists to cater for those people who like things better the more intense, the more impassioned, the more visceral they get. Each diverse genre creates an environment in which those who are a little odd for the mainstream Wall Mart world can truly belong.
As technology has advanced, it makes sense that much music has exponentially grown in its inventiveness, its daring. There are music makers and fans who don’t so much fit a clique as they do a shared appreciation for technologically jaw-dropping sonic wizardry and - quite possibly - anal-retentive perfectionism. Oddballs like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Venetian Snares make music that is almost incomprehensibly dense, packed with rapid fire bleeps, bloops, and sonic explosions that couldn’t have been dreamt of twenty or thirty years ago. After all, where analogue bands - even extreme technical powerhouses like Meshuggah or Between the Buried and Me - must meet certain limitations in speed and accuracy, technology can push sound to its absolute limits. Studio magicians like Aphex Twin obsessively tweak every element of their bizarre compositions until they resemble nothing short of alien insanity, the sort of thing Kang and Kodos might have on their iPods.
It's interesting to note that the residents of certain regions of the world show a higher-than-usual preference for extreme music. Scandinavians, Germans, and the Japanese are all arbiters of out-there sound, giving birth to - and continuing to support - movements like black metal, speedcore, and modern noise music. In fact, though Japanese speedcore producers such as m1dy and DJ Sharpnel may only ever appeal to relatively small audiences, they can lay claim to to creation of what may be the world’s most extreme conceivable type of music. Representing what is perhaps the closest music can get before it becomes pure, unadulterated aural chaos, speedcore is made by musicians who push electronic instruments to their outermost limits of volume, abrasiveness, and tempo, striving constantly to create the most intense and overwhelming compositions possible. The BPM employed is typically in the 300 plus range, and often climbs high enough that individual beats become relatively indistinguishable; a constant, distorted, rush of sound is all that is left.
Noise music is a different kettle of fish, often more about arty statement-making and self-expression than skilful performance or re-playability. Early pioneers of free jazz like Ornette Coleman explored atonality and chaotic sound before many people had conceptualised such a thing, much less considered whether basic noise could ever be considered music in its own right. Following in jazz's footsteps, none other than The Beatles pioneered early noise composition with Revolution 9 in 1968, before Lou Reed defined the modern noise music template with his insanely controversial 1975 LP Metal Machine Music. In the decades since, everyone from German industrial experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten to Japanese psychedelic pioneers Boredoms have put their own stamp on noise, pushing further this genre that haunts the outer edges of sound, the lunatic fringe of music. Such is the popularity of such music in Japan that there is a genre named just for the country’s foremost experimental musicians called Japanoise, which encompasses an entire subculture of the nation’s most daring sonic explorers.
Sonically, all-out static accompanied by screams and shouts is about as full-on as it can get. Lyrically, the outmost extremes of all music can perhaps be found in the lyrics of certain death metal artists and in the lyrics of most every horrorcore rapper. Oddly enough, the two genres share a large number of fans and a similar stylistic approach. Much of these lyrics aren’t especially palatable for research or quotation, what with the vocalists' plentiful references to rape, torture, murder, and general debauchery. Suffice to say that the comparatively-saintly hitmaker Eminem barely scratched extreme rap music’s lyrical surface (as explored by artists like Geto Boys, Gravediggaz, and Necro) in his infamous song Kim (named for his ex-wife) when he said: “Does this look like a big joke?/ There’s a four year old boy lying dead with a slit throat.” And with Cannibal Corpse song titles like Hammer Smashed Face and Meat Hook Sodomy (those are some of the tamer ones), I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about what their lyrics are like.
When it all comes together, we’re left with thriving, popular, cult-following sub-genres and movements that simply couldn’t have been conceived of in the days when Elvis and The Beatles were considered dangerous troublemakers. If we were able to travel back to the ’50s in a time machine and give a rebellious Elvis fan a m1dy, Geto Boys, or Cannibal Corpse record (on vinyl of course), we’d need an ambulance on standby for when the more-than-likely heart attack arrived. It’s impossible to imagine just how shocking all this rage and noise once would have been; nowadays, we’ve acclimated to films like The Human Centipede and musical acts such as those mentioned here. The youngest generations have been procedurally desensitised, as still many more musicians attempt to find some higher plane of extreme, some as-yet-unreached level of “what the hell is that?” or “he said what?”
At the end of the day, when we talk about genres as diverse as brostep, death metal, speedcore, noise rock, or hardcore gangsta rap, there is frequently at least one overarching similarity: music made by angry young men, for angry young men. To say this is not to exclude women to any extent; there is simply no denying that the vast majority of the fanbase for such types of music is typically comprised of testosterone-addled men. They come out in force to the shows, where most metal gigs in particular typically involve the mass-violence and riot-like turmoil known as mosh or circle pits; fists flailing, punches landing, people falling and onlookers quickly hauling them to their sweaty feet. There develops an odd sort of camaraderie in these environments, and upon reflection, perhaps the reason for all this extremity in sound and life is simpler than at first it seems. Perhaps, it’s as simple as acknowledging that the guys playing instruments on stage, the people in the thronging crowd around you, and the stranger who just sort-of-punched you in the face all share a passion for the wildest, the loudest, the most extreme forms of music. Perhaps it simply feels as though you and all the wild-eyed people around you belong here, together, where life and art are at their edge.
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