If Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is disco, and hip hop is punk rock (an increasingly relevant historical parallel), it seems as if we’re just about to approach the end of the decade. As the 1970s reached conclusion, both disco and punk began bloating to extremes, relying so heavily on over-the-top antics that they seemed to emulate the virtuosity that they ostensibly hated. At the end of the ’70s, punk rocker Wendy O. Williams of The Plasmatics cut her guitar in half with a chainsaw whilst donning a whipped cream bra on TV. In 2015, rapper Kanye West, accompanied by a swath of black-clothed men, tormented the 2015 BRIT Awards with a flamethrower. Near the end of the peak of disco, Studio 54’s reputation as a hedonistic palace of debauchery reached its height, with stories of hundreds of pounds of glitter thrown onto dancers and outfits that were hardly a step away from the birthday suit. Today, EDM festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival cater to that kind of sweaty, sexy, drug-fueled fun on a much larger and commercialized scale, complete with enormous pyrotechnics and stage set-ups. The Las Vegas festival saw record attendance last year — 400,000 people over three days.
In line with that swelling, bigger-is-better mantra, Skin, the sophomore album of Australian producer Flume, is much larger — it’s a grand-staged vision of his self-titled debut, far more feature packed, louder and longer. Where his first venture aimed to move, this one aims to shake and entrance, which is certainly the goal in a genre that tries to compete for the most earth-shattering live performances. You’re not at an EDM performance to slowly sway and nod, that’s for sure.
Even as his culture inevitably pushes his musical tendencies towards pop hooks and rather homogenous female guest vocalists, Flume deserves credit for maintaining his voice, generally refraining from falling into usual EDM tropes. The most typical EDM features — an eight-to-twelve bar crescendo-and-beat-drop, an obligatory Justin Bieber feature, liberal use of the Pryda snare — are avoided. “Say It,” perhaps the most structurally traditional EDM track on the album and a clear attempt to meet the radio halfway, is still a few lanes left of the kind of formulaic work you’ll hear from headliners of the field, such as Steve Aoki, Tiesto and Zedd.
Flume is at his best when he builds a hit on his own territory. “Never Be Like You,” sung by Kai, a frequent EDM collaborator, exemplifies that. It’s an infectious blend of glitter, twirls and starts-and-stops. If Skin is the grand version of debut-album Flume, “Never Be Like You” is the larger-than-life rework of the producer’s popular single “Sleepless.” It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s enjoyable.
Still, on Skin, Flume makes notable strides in the experimental realm. “Wall Fuck” and “Pika” are two of the most free-form pieces Flume has ever created, lacking the tight, rhythmic song structure that Flume has polished throughout his career. They can feel unrealized at points, but this is forgivable for a first-time foray into generally unexplored territory for the producer.
Peddling back to the punk-disco parallel, Skin also makes a clear attempt at creating bridges between the worlds of EDM and hip hop. Four rappers are featured on the album — Vic Mensa, Vince Staples, Allan Kingdom and Raekwon. “You Know,” featuring both Kingdom and former Wu-Tang member Raekwon, is one of the better Wu-Tang-meets-electronic collaborations, recalling stylistically the James Blake track “Take a Fall For Me” featuring fellow Wu-Tang member RZA (though its more successful here). The Vince Staples feature, “Smoke & Retribution,” is a strong point, though Vince’s cadence can’t tackle the industrial, relentless beat as satisfyingly as, say, Danny Brown on “Handstand.”
If it seems like Skin is pulling from broad, and occasionally opposing, musical styles, it’s because it is. Just as Raekwon is featured, so is alternative singer-songwriter Beck. At times the release can feel like it’s stretching beyond its “skin.” The growing pains put a spotlight on weakness once easier to ignore in Flume’s work. The sequencing — a small issue on his self-titled debut — can be almost jarring here, particularly during the first half of the album, where the juggling of influences can be too much to sustain. But it’s where Flume can whirl together all of these influences when Skin truly excels, and nowhere is this clearer than opener “Helix.” Flutes signal synths, fluttering wings give way to techno, techno introduces industrial and industrial opens up to a mind-bogglingly hypnotic conclusion that seems as at home at an enormous outdoor festival as it would a clandestine 1990s rave. Past meets present, and present meets past.
For its ambition, Skin loses some of the nuance afforded by Flume’s debut, but in its place is a shinier, expansive body of work that refuses to cede to redundancy. It signals both promising and welcoming new directions for the young producer, and, one might hope, a change in EDM’s old guard.