In the midst of a conflict between his mainstream ambitions and his established style, Boys Noize creates a hybrid album that actually kind of works.
Alexander Ridha has, to this point, remained admirably resistant to the surge of mainstream EDM and the influence of its broader appeal, at least in the sense that he had been crafting more-or-less the same brash, aggressive, uncomplicated dance music that he hit gold with all the way back in 2007 with Boys Noize’s debut Oi Oi Oi.
Of course, quite a bit has changed (for Ridha, who’s begun appearing alongside superstar DJs at the world’s biggest music festivals, and for electronic music as a whole) since Boys Noize’s last record in 2012, and his latest, Mayday, may signal a turning point for that long-standing consistency. The record reflects the many changes of the last few years, but it is done in a surprisingly dynamic way, (mostly) uncharacteristic of the stock commercial formulas and focus-group-tested sentiment of today’s blockbuster EDM. The album draws heavily from that realm that just a few years ago Ridha had partitioned off from his own music, but it also manages to retain some of the savage intensity of Boys Noize’s essential essence, all while quoting a buffet of classic influences in a way he’s never done before. The result is a hybrid album that shockingly kind of works.
For old fans, “Revolt” and “Los Niños” carry Ridha’s familiar burden of grimy, distorted digital instruments and relentless beats while “Would You Listen” capitalizes on leftover goodwill from Oi Oi Oi with a classic vocoder vocal loop and Ridha’s dirtiest house beat since “& Down”, but none are quite like the Boys Noize of old. Still, even album opener “Overthrow”, though it lands closer to mainstream convention than classic Ridha, is sufficiently manic for old listeners and one of the set’s major highlights, tanking the track’s requisite house drop with another beat shift into hardcore hip-hop funk in perhaps one of the most inspired moves on the album. Despite its strokes of mass appeal, Mayday offers not only a taste of the quintessential Boys Noize sound, but also some fresh novelty that devotees can easily appreciate.
Other exhibitions into the cold calculation of corporatized dance music don’t fare quite as well, but they do range from ephemerally offbeat to bearably uninspired. “Mayday”, while too toneless to be a standout track, has the caustic build-ups and metallic noise of Ridha’s best while “Midnight” and “Dynamite” are coarse approximations of mainstage EDM, locking standard electro synths behind repetitive vocal loops and, in the latter’s case, a bland drop that abandons everything but the bare essentials of the track. In these moments, Mayday resembles a pared down recreation of the more colorful tunes on Oi Oi Oi, adapted for broader audiences who have abandoned the post-Daft-Punk electronic wave of the 2000s for the spastic dubstep and glowing pop-house of modern dance music.
But the story of Mayday isn’t quite as simple as the conflict between Ridha’s mainstream ambitions and Boys Noize’s established style; it also finds Ridha looking backward, drawing on the music of his past, particularly the hip-hop and R&B sounds we get hints of in “Overthrow”. It’s most notable on “Rock the Bells”, which gets its namesake from an early LL Cool J hit and reboots the iconic beat from Run DMC’s “Peter Piper” (itself a Bob James sample used in other rap classics from N.W.A and the Beastie Boys) as a hyped-up electro groove, but it’s also present in Remy Banks’ minor turn on “Euphoria”, which, combined with Ridha’s minimalist ‘80s techno beat, comes amusingly close to a lost Bell Biv DeVoe demo. Ridha’s intention with this record seems to be to reach toward commercial popularity without sacrificing his sonic signature, so by making specific callbacks to his lifelong influences, perhaps he feels he can still ground himself in a familiar space, even as he evolves away from it. It’s his way of making a nostalgia record that’s simultaneously entrenched in the sensibilities of modern EDM.
If this seems like a lot of space to cover for a minimalist electro album, that’s because it kind of is. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, the gritty, percussive rhythms of “Hardkotzen” going over very well at Spring Awakening or Coachella’s dance tent, but then it’s followed by Hudson Mohawke’s neon melodies on album closer “Birthday”, which also features the kind of life-affirming, party hard sentiment that those very same crowds crave voraciously (specifically in the repeated vocal phrase, “Every day I wake up, it feel like my fucking birthday,” sampled from Spank Rock’s “Birfday”) and it all starts to mingle in an unusual, but admittedly electrifying, way. Mayday could very well be Ridha hedging his bets in a number of ways, but whether he’s harkening back to his roots or pushing toward some fringe of EDM stardom, it can’t be said that he ever goes half way.