Oh Xilent…it’s been too long.
If 2012 was the pinnacle of the EDM bubble and the apex of the electro and dubstep revitalization , then what followed in 2013 and 2014 can be considered an inevitable flourishing and steady slowdown of those getting into EDM for the first time. While some may argue exactly when that bubble got too big, it doesn’t take too much digging to see the influence electro house and dubstep were having on producers old and new to the industry. Big names like Skrillex, Zedd, and Porter Robinson had become the Sasha, Corsten, and BT of their times. And so, hundreds if not thousands of bedroom producers began to enter the arena all trying their hand at the wubs and the chippy tunes and grungy bass pads. It’s easy to see how labels were flooded with submissions when looking at labels such as Monstercat, Big Fish Recordings, Tasty Records, and more. When comparing these labels to the bubble days to today, there’s a clear distinction in focus and regular release. Some of these labels have stood the test of time with continued regular submissions and keeping aware of altering trends towards different genres. Some slowed down and faded into nothingness. Similar things can be observed regarding producers from this era as well.
But the substantial sudden growth this movement had shouldn’t be dismissed. Even big names saw it as an opportunity to get involved. Observing the compilations and release output from the heavily curated Anjunabeats label across the years 2010 to 2013 showcased the label moving from playful progressive house clashed with big and fast trance tracks, ala Anjunabeats 8 and 9, into an area almost entirely dominated by chirpy chord progressions and 128-jumpers. Anjunabeats 10 is the biggest offender in this realm, with Above & Beyond using it to reveal the release of the absolutely grungy electro-house club remix of their dark melodic trance masterpiece “Black Room Boy”. And if one wanted to just point fingers at the trio who were never really that crazy about traditionalism in trance to begin with to counter my point, I then suggest the insane electro-house banger on Big Fish Recordings from 2013 called “Salt Shaker”, produced by Sean Tyas & Hirshee. Yes. Sean Tyas. Electro house. Banger. It doesn’t get more “everyone wants to try it” than that if you ask me.
None of this should be taken as a complaint so much as an observation of the fact that this was most definitely a trend that smart artists in the electronic space capitalized on while maintaining their core vision as creators. They had fun in those days and eventually continued their interests or altered them to pull this type of music into their fold. Others, however, names that really did fade away and become irrelevant, did so likely upon realizing just making some “video gamey sounds” and mixing it with wubs might be a bit more limiting on an artistic spectrum than originally thought. The reality is that there’s just a lot of people who were jumping on the wagon at the time, not everyone was going to have what it takes, nor willing to push hard enough to make themselves different. Some artists though have absolutely maintained interest in this little chunk of electronic music and continued on it for the past five years since the bubble burst. Au5 just released his debut album on his own label. Monstercat has found new regulars and new genres to focus on over the years while still maintaining that more chirpy-electro focus. Seven Lions kinda partnered up with Jason Ross and started his own label, Ophelia (not that Seven Lions hasn’t been chasing whatever he likes to do for the past forever). And Xilent…well, Xilent has done similar things across the past five years as well. But I think his story is one worth talking about today.
The Polish producer was right there through all of the aforementioned bubbling. His big breakthrough was the Choose Me EP in 2012, a melodic dubstep banger that shifted gears during choruses to trip up, break part, and come back together between measures. But he was making influences with crazy breakbeat drumstep pieces as early back as 2010 with the Pure EP. And when the movement started to taper as people got a little tired of too much of the same thing, it was almost as if Xilent seemingly realized that there wasn’t much being explored with this music so much as it was either being innovated or capitalized on. So he “disappeared” into his studio, and well into the slowdown for all things electro in 2015, Xilent released his debut album “We Are Virtual”. The album still stands as one of the most fantastic mix albums of its kind. Where most electro and dubstep music focuses towards video game styles in the range of Savant or the grunge of Skrillex, We Are Virtual instead felt like the natural conclusion of taking Xilent’s unique spin on the genres and giving them a dystopic computer-generated backdrop to paint a world. It was like everything was painted as the blue Matrix. And dialed all the way up. Xilent’s musical denseness allowed the hour long album to exchange all sorts of moments across 12 main tracks (and three transitionary bursts) while maintaining listener engagement. My internal comparison at the time was the next 4x4=12 because I had nothing else to really stack against it. But whereas deadmau5 works in buildings layers, Xilent already has things layered, squished together, and spaces ideas one right after another in rapid fire. If anyone wanted to prove that the forms of electro-house, dubstep, drumstep / breaks, “complextro” (I still don’t really like that name) weren’t just a means to an end and could be some sort of larger or grandoise artistic expression in album format, they’d point to Porter Robinson’s Worlds, and Xilent’s We Are Virtual.
But that was 2015, four years have passed, and now Xilent’s back to share an exploration of musical ideas again. And I’m pleased to say Xilent is firmly aware of what it means to take his music that feels like technology is bleeding out of your speakers and continue to keep it “modern”. What one might wonder, then, is exactly how to continue exploring these genres that are now in a realm of kinda steady existence while also becoming a bit more integrated with other genres out there. Well, Xilent’s first step is to destroy the fantasy he created.
The more “pure to form” creations present in We Are Virtual have been (mostly) left behind. And the dystopia is now revealed to definitely be an illusion, while the world outside that illusion is long gone and ruins. That’s the setup for We Are Dust, a sophomore effort album that comes through where it counts if not getting a little caught up in monotony here and there. Either way it’s great to have another Xilent album hot off the presses right as the summer starts and I think most are going to enjoy this one. But let’s talk about that setting some more first.
The album opens on what sounds like a recorded monologue setting up not the place so much as the feeling that one experiences upon realizing their existence is a bunch of pixels and dust. Heavily placed light percussions and building bass and mids move from this opener “From Dust” into the big anthemic album opener that mirrors We Are Virtual’s “Revolution”, it’s called “You Rise” and it’s great. It starts on a bit of a hip-hop pattern but doesn’t waste too much time getting into wild buildups and dubstep breakdowns that illuminate what will make up a lot of the first half of the album. Fitting right inside drops that resemble compressed music moreso than total silence are distorted vocal samples stating You. Rise. Hello. Darkness. “You Rise” features an outro almost occupying 30% of the track, and so by five minutes into the entire album experience you’re already roped.
It’s just a little irritating that the album’s weakest point is demonstrated shortly after this fantastic opener. Tracks 3 through 5, “Blue Shadows”, “The Darkness”, and “Code Blood” all feature a variance of the same type of chorus structure that compresses every half-beat and it gets old just enough in the short span of 12 minutes that you want to be shown something new. It’s not all bad though, “Blue Shadows” and “The Darkness” feature great vocal works with “Blue Shadows” in particular bringing a sort of melancholy element not quite present in a Xilent work before. It’s just a shame these vocals fit to precede the happy-hardcore-dubstep ramp-up in the chorus instead of maybe layered over the second chorus or with added depth in a second verse. “The Darkness” follows similar styles while removing the happy-hardcore element, it’ll pull one’s memories back to We Are Virtual’s “Shadow of You” with its blistering chorus pads. And while Xilent is clearly giving those pads and the bass more room to breathe from one beat to the next on “The Darkness”, next track “Code Blood” just doubles down on the offense from “Blue Shadows”. One of the tricks Xilent presented in We Are Virtual was utilizing a repetitive sample voice as a part of the verse, chorus, music, all of it, with track “Infinite”. This happens a few times on We Are Dust, with a pretty good one occurring throughout “Code Blood” delivering instructions to “Let it run through your blood. Stream through your veins. Feed to your soul.” all to buildup a chorus filled with insanely detailed sounds that can only be described as the remnant screams of a Computer Ghost in an I.T. Technologist Horror Movie. But it’s just so hard to get all caught up in the music when 50% of every beat is squished away after such fantastic Xilent-esque buildups. This is dubstep at 150, not trance, so our mental focus is on halving the BPM and enjoying things at a rhythm similar to 2/4 instead of 4/4. And yet it’s hard to engage with that 2/4 when 50% of it is squished down.
Luckily Xilent’s an incredibly original creator anytime he pleases to be. “Interluden” gives the album a melodic beat-less tranisition for about two minutes before turning into a relentless stacking drum setup with exactly the amount of noise you wanted in the back half of those beats from the past three songs all put into this one. It’s nuts, and it’s the standout moments on this album like this that supremely outweigh any complaints I make about it. Next track “Human Error” technically repeats the same mistakes as earlier, and yet the foreboding movie-trailer-bad-guy reveal sounds at play with stings and a muted mid pad that almost reminds you of a monster marching and breathing at the same time work in tandem to make the silences less frustrating. The loose story at play in the album is given a villain here, and at the end of the song, a computer voice says, “Body discarded” and you hear a really disturbing thud.
This leads straight into “Discarded”, a track that I certainly don’t mind as it plays similar chorus styles as earlier, and it even plays around with increasing the time signature in the second chorus to make it feel more intense the way “Hysteria” did so well on the album before. But the vocal works and the pad work in the buildups that make you feel like you’re about to get some actual rock or grunge dubstep got me a little excited for something else ala Muzzy’s “In the Night” with Sullivan King. Oh well. I can dream, can’t I?
Up to this point, We Are Dust really feels like an album in which Xilent had a clear and concise picture on what he wanted to paint and decided to challenge himself by putting some limits on hired songwriters and restricting himself only to certain genre conventions. The album mostly takes place at 150 and implements ongoing interests from Future Bass, Trap, Hip Hop, and Happy Hardcore-influences that wound up influencing dubstep in the past couple years. As the album reaches its closing three pieces though, Xilent seemingly removes those limits and the album becomes wildly stronger. I’m someone who very much caters to the mindset that producers these days have too many options and available tools to make their jobs easier, but I also believe that that puts a massive restraint on creativity for many creators as they suddenly realize it’s all doable and they have to carve out their own sound from the vast galaxy of available tools to them. It would make sense to me that to be creative and inventive, placing limitations or restrictions on yourself would be helpful. But with We Are Dust, Xilent seems to mainly prove that restricting himself for several tracks across an album leads to his other tracks being incredible while the ones built on one genre or one BPM focus are…just good enough.
The last three tracks of the album are case in point for this argument. “Only Now” is playing to the strength of establishing the music around the Drum & Bass-level speed of the vocal sample at the start of the track stating “There is no past. There is no future. Only now.” It all builds up and leads into an intense grungy bassline for the chorus, still giving listeners focus on half measures instead of the full 4/4, but at 88 BPM this is much more refreshing and gives Xilent room to play around with both ends of the track apexes. Crazy, wild breakdowns in the chorus. Intense, playful buildups. It’s great! My favorite track on the album, which mirrors opening track in name, “To Dust”, is something I never thought I’d get out of Xilent, a percussion-light liquid dubstep piece that features more lights and clean progressive pads than some old school Anjunadeep tracks. A reverb-ed, reversed piano melody adds dimension to the piece and I’m seriously considering “To Dust” proof of concept for Xilent to do an entire album of downtempo stuff. It’s that inspiring. There’s even a compressor flying around the room on this track that feels like it’s attacking different pieces of the music based on a steady pan variable. And then album closer “Particles” carries away the album on a floating and rotating melody worthy of comparison to Porter’s “Goodbye to a World”. Album opener “You Rise” may have said it, but “Particles” actively achieves the sensation of rising from the darkness into the light. It’s something that only makes you wonder where Xilent wants to go next wheras We Are Virtual’s ending only made you want to start it all over again.
We Are Dust is shorter than its predecessor, with less flow in between the tracks. I chalk up the shorter length to the album’s more focused pieces and the sometimes new direction Xilent put himself on with some tracks. It certainly feels worthy of the (assumed) four years of work he’s put into it. Tracks feel like singular chapters of a story instead of places you pass on a ride. But that’s not all so bad for an album that really feels like it’s trying to tell a story instead of paint one picture.
We Are Dust is another piece of my library showcasing the potential for electro-based genres I’m happy I nabbed. At about 45 minutes long, it’s certainly worth a listen and a purchase if you can spare it. At two albums in his career, Xilent is already starting to show some much needed dimension in genres that lacks it.