Abel Tesfaye is no stranger to the consciousness of most R&B or hip-hop listeners. Though he may still be fresh to pop fans who tuned in once “Can’t Feel My Face” took off running, he really established his unique fusion of electronic dissonance and smooth vocals in his Trilogy series. The distinct sound really hasn’t been replicated much by many well-known artists, prompting the question: what happened to that signature noise now that The Weeknd himself has even shifted away from it?
To understand who’s still using that sound, we have to identify just what the Trilogy sound was. The production lends a feeling of isolation and high-energy angst; heavy drums and Inception-like BWAHHHHHs couple with wailing choruses like on “High For This”. Listen below to get a sense:
While you’re welcome to listen to the rest of the 30-track masterpiece that is Trilogy, you can also save some time and get a pretty good understanding of the style from the above track, “The Zone,” “Knowing,” and “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls.”
The concepts are fairly simple and perhaps less unique, as Trilogy focuses largely on feeling lonely and the impact of unhealthy relationships.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an album or artist with mainstream appeal that has mimicked that style since. The album doesn’t have any well-known successors; instead, inspiration has split along a central line, with some artists opting to imitate the electronic isolation and others opting for the explosive vocals with a more subdued electronic influence.
In its shadow, though, sits the perfect candidate for The Weeknd’s successors, the best ambassador among a field of candidates: Crywolf. EDM by nature tends to sit further on the public’s periphery than something like Starboy’s pop sound, and so Crywolf (known away from the stage as Justin Taylor Phillips) certainly isn’t a name tossed around in most conversations. He cuts a recognizable figure on stage, with long, wavy, red hair and a lip piercing. He looks every bit a musician, but his outfit is equal parts punk rock, art pop, and EDM. At first glance, you’d be hard-pressed to come to a definitive conclusion about his genre. Still, compare his song “Anachronism” to some of the Weeknd tracks listed above.
The similarities pick up especially around 1:10; the same “Inception” sounds start to permeate the previously-relaxed noise. The drums, the falsetto, the aggression — it could all be ripped straight from Tesfaye’s unreleased demos and we’d never know for sure. “Slow Burn” is another great song to check out. As he repeats “I can’t escape from you” on layered vocals, the same theme of corruption in lovers shines through, but Phillips’ lyrics seem less raw and exposed than some of Tesfaye’s most honest songs. This could be an effect of genre conformity; EDM tends to journey less frequently into specific instances of soul-baring and more into broad emotions, as the shift in focus from lyricism to sound means that it’s less about the particulars of the story and more about the energy behind storytelling. Phillips, a Hong Kong-born US citizen, spent a month and a half alone in Iceland trying to capture a lonely and explosive sound, visited only occasionally by his brother and girlfriend. You can feel a Kaleo-esque rock sound — the open-air electric guitar and the pounding drums being the most obvious links.
But don’t confuse this fusion of the Weeknd’s sound as shameless imitation. Phillips uses his voice differently than Tesfaye; where the latter punches at higher registers, Crywolf tends to float his falsetto and let the drums or synth do the heavy lifting. In addition, while the two tend to occupy similar emotional real estate, there are noticeable stylistic differences. Trilogy opted for a static-heavy mic, allowing the crackling distortion to create an audio-generated distance from his listeners. Crywolf’s vocals on Cataclasm have their own levels of distortion but the edge of clarity is always present. Instead, his alterations follow the typical EDM patterns of electronic meddling that usually takes the form of autotune.
Crywolf as a performer is also fascinating. I had the fortune of watching him at a small venue in St. Louis this fall, and once he started, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. He plays his own guitar and drums (which are arranged in a standing set-up) and it’s raw entertainment. You can feel a lot of emotion pouring through the whole set and Phillips goes all in for 90 minutes. Watching him whale away at those drums, it was as if he was alerting a medieval guard to a siege. If you find yourself inclined and with the opportunity, I strongly recommend it.
I sat on this article for a while, and with the release of Tesfaye’s new EP My Dear Melancholy, I felt compelled to revisit this piece. The Weeknd has started to reach back to his roots a little. If he never makes it all the way, though, Phillips has certainly proven capable of holding down the fort.