From First To Last & Skrillex: On emo revivalism and new nostalgia
On January 16, 2017, Sonny Moore turned 29. For those who’ve followed his career since the beginning, the man now known best as popular EDM DJ Skrillex has had a complicated relationship with aging—it was only a decade ago when he was posting sentimental MySpace blog posts about not wanting to turn 19—and it seems like he’s found a cure for his past Peter Pan complex: doing something big, something that would shake the very foundation of fandom for those of us who called ourselves From First to Last diehards not so long ago. He and his previous post-hardcore/screamo band released “Make War,” the first new music made by Moore and his FFTL colleagues in over 10 years.
At the risk of hasty generalizations, Moore’s music career has truly been unlike any other. He left From First to Last in 2007 after joining the band in 2004. In that short time, Moore helped place the band on the map—both for his ineffable melodic tenor, but also his well established position in the scene. At the time, he enjoyed real celebrity on MySpace as well as off of it—he was, in a word, a heartthrob. That’s enough to instill confidence in anyone, and gave Moore the opportunity to pursue a solo career. It began in 2008 with a few Final Fantasy-meets-Bjork-meets-Aphex Twin recordings (some of his first live endeavors with the new sound were on the AP Tour that year) and eventually, Skrillex was born, shed of his teen dream status, but soon to become a major mainstream music icon. Emo has always been considered a genre with a real glass ceiling, and by exploring EDM and becoming a mogul within it, Moore shattered whatever limitations were thrusted on him. Returning to the stuff, now, feels symbolic. It’s surprising for Moore because he’s enjoyed huge successes far outside his Warped Tour origins. Returning to them doesn’t benefit him financially—it’s a move out of love.
The phrase “emo revival” gets thrown around a lot, referring to a new enclave of young musicians inspired by the mall pop-punk/emo that defined the ‘00s—if you’re an avid reader of AP, you know the genre never went away. It’s just enjoying newfound fame in acts such as Modern Baseball and State Champs, but also the new successes of long-standing projects such as Panic! At the Disco scoring their first No. 1 record, ever, in 2016. From First To Last with Sonny Moore operate in some sort of space between the two. The band continued on without Moore when he departed, but became a different entity. Moore returning to the project is indicative of something new—this writer would deem it “new nostalgia”; something that feels familiar because it is familiar, but is entirely different.
One distinction is found in the motives behind the existence of “Make War.” As one precarious Tweeter noted, Moore’s biggest hit as Skrillex (Justin Bieber’s “Where Are U Now”) has ranked in about 147 times more streams than his biggest hit with From First to Last (“Emily”). There are certain elements that extend beyond this simplistic reading—the popularity of streaming in 2004 versus the necessity of it in 2017, among others—but it drives one crucial point home: Skrillex is the money-maker here. Moore has no real financial or professional gain in returning to From First To Last for a one-off song, new record or whatever “Make War” is going to become. He did it because he wanted to collaborate with his bros again.
The song feels like a hybrid of the two FFTL records Sonny Moore contributed to—2004’s Heathers-channeling Dear Diary, My Teen Angst Has A Body Count and 2006’s Heroine (the latter peaking at the No. 25 spot on the Billboard 200, an impressive feat for any heavy band in the scene). The first half of the song plays to the sort of metalcore melodicism of Heroine—Moore dominates vocally with guitars placed high in the mix, directly underneath his harmonies. The song then shapeshifts into Dear Diary territory, guitarist Travis Richter’s distinctive guttural roar taking over (it’s in that transition where the drum cadence seems to dominate the direction of the track, a technique that carries throughout much of John “Feldy” Feldmann’s work, who produced the track.) It’s a dense single, one that, sonically, would feel as true in the mid-aughts as it does in 2017. It’s not so much formulaic as it is indicative of a band of boys who are experts in this unique breed of cathartic, borderline cock-rock.
The song’s message is what will probably date it—there’s a specific social media reference that confirms its position in the modern era, but the modern era we currently reside (any pop culture critic will tell you, using jargon or verbiage of a certain time, whether it’s hip to the exact moment of creation, solidifies its expiration date: one day these words will be obsolete). But beyond that is the context in which the reference exists, Moore singing, “Who was that inside you that made me feel so cock strong? / I wish the truth could do to you what your Snapchat put me through.”
"From First To Last are discovering that it’s possible to return to your roots, modernize them, and surprise your fans in a personal and unexpected fashion."
There are other moments of inherent bravado: “But with you I come hard / Happy anniversary from the bottom of my credit card,” and in the critical lyric, “I don’t dig up the living corpses of scene whore kids / I just court them,” where Moore’s not resurrecting the scene he once lived in, but he’s catering to the tastes of that past because he knows it works. In “Make War,” it’s proceeded by “Nobody else can risk fuckin’ with their name,” which acts as sort of salvation for the song—it’s a head nod to the Sonny/Skrillex transformation, the musician acknowledging his career trajectory and the dangers—and in his case, successes—of reinvention. In many ways, that line, in eight words, gives closure and understanding to Moore’s move to EDM, but is presented in a quote-unquote emo song. It’s an incredibly powerful move.
In that sense, it’s something really beautiful—here, From First To Last and Moore offer closure in the space of something new, for the sake of creation and creation alone. Far too often does it feel like bands enter the reunion circuit to sell tickets, to do something cheap and temporary. While “Make War” might be the latter (again, the Snapchat reference, man...) it’s definitely not cheap. It’ll be exciting to see where this goes, but for now, it’s a blessing in not that much of a disguise. From First To Last are discovering that it’s possible to return to your roots, modernize them, and surprise your fans in a personal and unexpected fashion.