The Only Good Songs on Skrillex’s House Compilation Aren’t House Tracks

Curated by Chris Lake and Skrillex, 'HOWSLA' tries to push the genre into the future, and it succeeds—sometimes.

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May 8 2017, 7:52pm

Photo courtesy of OWSLA.

When OWSLA signee Mija took the stage at last year's Movement Festival in Detroit, the crowd seemed to be anticipating chaos. So far, Skrillex's label's showcase had been a weird outlier in the fest's programming. The event's bookings are often pretty traditionalist, which is part of the appeal. How often do you get to see techno legends and their musical offspring play side-by-side in the birthplace of the genre?

But OWSLA started the day by gleefully bucking that convention. REZZ kicked off the stage takeover with gnarled bass explorations, and just before Mija took the stage, the post-EDM prankster Josh Pan played a downtempo set largely consisting of kick drum firebombs and ear-bleeding synth squeals. The assembled masses of tank-topped teens guzzling $10 tall boys at 3 PM were ready to rage.

Mija, however, had something different in mind. Though she shreds festival sets with her own super-saccharine takes on trap and club music, she opened with the midtempo acid of the nostalgist British duo Paranoid London's "Lovin U (Ahh Shit)." The crowd seemed puzzled at first, but slowly settled into a rhythm as it became clear that her set was going to be a little strange. She played tracks from scuzzy underground producers (Anthony Naples) and house legends (Frankie Knuckles), in addition to sneaking in tracks from Outkast and even a late-period Jay Z song for good measure. She said later that the set was intended as a tribute to the city of Detroit, which inspired her earliest forays into DJing; but it also demonstrated how forward-thinking labels like OWSLA can bring house and techno into their colorful, genre-hopping world.

Mija isn't on HOWSLA, the label's new compilation, but sets like hers anticipate the mindset of the project at hand. As its title implies, it's an homage to house music, a formative genre for Skrillex and Chris Lake, who curated the comp. It pulls together 12 tracks from artists in the extended OWSLA orbit—like Wiwek and JOYRYDE—with the stated goal of pushing the genre into the future. "No looking back, completely looking forward," Lake said of the songs they chose in a Billboard interview.

The attempt to put a fresh face on an established genre that's largely settled into patterns of nostalgia several decades from its release is noble enough. But much of the music that makes up HOWSLA feels strangely conservative. Most tracks here keep the basic structure of house tracks—four-on-the-floor beats and detailed emotive instrumentation—but throw out the genre's traditional sounds (there's nary a Fender Rhodes or retro-soul sample in sight). But in attempting to push the genre forward, they don't end up with much that feels all that new. Ultimately, their brand of futuristic house sounds more akin to the sort caffeine-addled bottle service bangers that producers have been churning out over the last half decade than anything else.

The warped vocal sampling and body-heaving kick drums of the London bass contortionists Born Dirty's "Daddy," for example, mostly just feel reminiscent of the barbeque-ready jams of the Dirtybird stable (for whom Born Dirty has also released). Lake's own two breezy bangers feel as expensive and destructive as a trip to Ibiza, where this sort of stuff has filled out late-night Jamie Jones sets for accounts managers on holiday since time immemorial. It largely fails to reach the same heights of that Mija set—and several of Skrillex's own mixes that similarly pay tribute to house and techno. Because of steers clear of the past, it ends up feeling strangely rudderless, a cacophonous parade of unrelenting kick drums that feel unaware of their parentage. These tracks' machinic drive is functional, certainly, but that's just about all it is.

There are a few moments, though. when the compilation veers into unplotted territory. Habstrakt and Skrillex's "Chicken Soup," one of the compilation's standouts, starts with a piston-like kick drum part, but then chucks it into a paper shredder. A stuttering build—replete with police sirens—gives way to some of Skrillex's spin-art synth lines, spraying neon melodies over the blank canvas of its 4/4 rhythms. Elsewhere, New York producer Tony Quattro offers a polyglot take on the style on "Fuerza," enlisting Staten Island rapper Nani Castle for a three-and-a-half minute stomp as indebted to bass music, reggaeton, and 90s rap as it is to house. These tracks lie outside the confines of what you'd traditionally consider house music—but that turns out to be a good thing on a compilation comprised largely of homogenous bass-drum showcases.

These moments bring specificity and personality to otherwise straightforward tracks, showing the ways in which the label was exciting in the first place—its willingness to dialogue with other genres, or toss all ideas of genre out of the window in favor of sonic destruction. But by and large, HOWSLA doesn't do that, instead mostly clinging to the dancefloor life raft of a consistent kick drum. There's an oft-sampled Aaron Carl a cappella that says that "house music is freedom," which is ultimately what feels so disappointing about HOWSLA. A label like this could have taken the genre anywhere, but with a few exceptions, they don't stray beyond its most basic elements.