This article was originally published on THUMP Canada.
Axl Rose is one of those dudes so impossible to parse that you just have to "trust the process." While placing faith in the Guns N' Roses frontman has resulted in stalemates like fans waiting fifteen years for an album, wretched live performances, and some downright treasonous cornrows, in 2016, we can trust him again. For starters, guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan are back in the classic lineup, and Rose's sounded great on the band's current "Not In This Lifetime" tour. They've had some fairly conventional supporting acts, including Alice in Chains and Lenny Kravitz, but few could have anticipated EDM godhead Skrillex opening the Houston date at NRG Stadium.
Was Axl behind this—is he secretly about PLUR? Or was this the group's management playing a cruel trick on the audience? What I can tell you is that not only did Skrillex crush it, but he reaffirmed my faith in rock by making me no longer afraid of EDM.
It's worth noting a precedent exists for this pairing. In 2012, SPIN published a list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all-time, making the subversive decision to include Sonny Moore in the #100 spot and not honoring people like Slash. In his blurb, writer Chris Weingarten stated "no contemporary musician has a more primal understanding of adrenaline-pumping, pulse-raising, chest-caving bulldozer riffs." Watching his set opening for one of the biggest tours of the year, those words finally became flesh.
Slash and Skrillex really do succeed at the same task—total rapture—although by completely different means. Guns N' Roses' set had a lot of extended guitar breaks, none of them unnecessary. Slash is such a fluid player, making the sleaze of New York Dolls and the Stooges feel as romantic as David Gilmour jamming with Thin Lizzy's Gary Moore. The fan in the "Where's Izzy" shirt might have not been happy that Richard Fortus proved to be an equally capable shredding partner; still, this was one for the guitar heroes. Only Slash makes "Sweet Child O' Mine" cry like it's supposed to, his fingerprints the only keys to unlock that orgasmic tone. He's also like Prince in that he can make a room go from zero to LIT just by walking in the door.
Skrillex hasn't been around for quite as long, but he tapped into the same addictive quality of metal by adapting it into EDM's never-ending quest for total sensory overload. His stage setup with his logo in front of camo netting barely covering his booth and replete with lasers, might have been scaled down compared to his headlining festival appearances, but his music was made for a stadium sound systems. Nothing about Guns N' Roses can or should be described as modest, from Axl's eight outfit changes to putting overblown, nine-minute piano ballad "Estranged" early in the set, which, perhaps, made Skrillex the most appropriate opening choice of all.
Metallica's "Seek and Destroy" and "For Whom The Bell Tolls" were both subjected to pitch shifts and huge bass drops, the artist's tools of choice, and they sounded as huge as if James Hetfield and Co. themselves showed up that night. The former From First To Last screamer was a child of nü metal much like me, and through his youthful remembrance he turned System of a Down's "Chop Suey" into a dubstep aficionado's delight.
Was it pandering? Absolutely. Was it beautiful? Even more so. He transitioned from hip-hop's biggest song of the year "Panda" into Motörhead classic "Ace of Spades," which was a daring but surprisingly logical combination. You might think Lemmy was rolling over in his grave, but I bet he summoned a bottle of Jack in Skrillex's dressing room at the end of the night in appreciation (besides, both Desiigner and the late English musician know a thing or two about broads in Atlanta). These are both songs designed for the turn up, for saying "You know what? Jager bombs are God's gift to Earth. Who am I to deny His bounty?" Even if the floor hadn't quite filled yet, everyone who was there felt the connection without realizing it, which means you can play "Panda" to a room of rockers without facing another Altamont.
More mind-blowing than that was the producer going from "Harder Better Faster Stronger" to Pantera's "Fucking Hostile," two very aggressive but different tunes. They're a natural pairing—a song about getting swole leading into a song about using your newfound swoleness to assert your power. Pantera fans might call Daft Punk obscenities we can't print, and Daft Punk fans might see Pantera as meatheads, but Skrillex knows their common ancestry—a need to rock. And that was the genius of his set: by remixing rock staples into contemporary forms, he made these tracks more vital than ever.
A tour of this magnitude means you can't just kiss the crowd goodnight. For Guns N' Roses, it meant unleashing the fireworks equivalent of a small country's arsenal while Slash soloed his way out of "Paradise City." Moore's equivalent was waving an American flag while playing "Bohemian Rhapsody," cell phone flashlights replacing lighters (though there were a few of those arcane things). Hearing some jackass in a dingy karaoke bar has probably killed that song for you, and I can't entirely blame you, but this made me remember why that song kicked ass in the first place. Skrillex claimed Queen for the US in a night, making the whole Revolutionary War seen quaint. It made me proud to be an American, because I remembered this is a country where one William Bruce Bailey from Indiana can move to LA and become Axl Rose. With a copy of Frooty Loops, Sonny Moore went from fronting a Warped Tour emo band to partying on a boat with Rick Ross and Jared Leto. That's the land of opportunity I want for everyone: where whether we make music by guitar or by computer, we won't settle for bloodless pap.
Andy O'Connor is on Twitter.