Headbanger's Rave: Why Electronic Artists Like Rezz, Marshmello & Kayzo Are Making Rock-Influenced EDM

Once hired guns relegated to behind-the-scenes roles in rock music, producers are now leading the sound and scene.

Rezz is lost in the moment, grooving to the dark, slow-burning beats she’s unloading over a sea of neon-lit ravers. It’s 2:00 AM on night two of EDC Las Vegas 2019 in May, and thousands of festivalgoers are losing their minds to her seismic bass drops.

About 20 minutes into her set, Rezz, the breakout Canadian electronic producer and Billboard 2019 Dance Issue cover star, jumps on the mic. “Vegas, I’m gonna play something brand-new for you guys. I’ve actually never played this before,” she announces from the festival’s massive Circuitgrounds stage.

As the crowd erupts in cheers, Aaron Gillespie, drummer and vocalist of metalcore band Underoath, emerges from behind the stage and begins to sing-scream the vocals to “Falling,” the newly debuted track, as he stands atop the towering DJ deck stand. The scene looks like a headbangers ball ripped straight out of Blade Runner: trippy lights, flailing bodies, flashing totems and a wild bunch of neck-breaking rail riders at the front of the stage.

The track’s brutal beat — ghostly yells, ominous piano chords, filtered drums— slowly builds, as does the energy from the crowd. And once the drop hits, Gillespie goes into full headbanger mode, whipping his long, wild red hair like a madman. The crowd explodes in equal measure, thrashing on a tightly packed dance floor.  

“Falling,” a collaboration with Underoath from Rezz's Beyond the Senses EP, is a raw, brooding bass bomb that fuses the worlds of rock and EDM: metal meets midtempo bass, with a thick wall of intense synths reverberating with the might of a Marshall full stack. At its essence, it’s an electrified take on the metal genre. The track is also part of a larger sonic trend sweeping mainstream EDM: rock-fueled dance music made for the dance floor, yet noisy enough to incite mosh pits at the rave, and spearheaded by a wave of electronic producers now successful enough to work with their rock idols.

In April, Martin Garrix released “Summer Days,” a funky cut featuring rapper Macklemore and Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy; he followed up in August with “Home,” a track featuring regular collaborator Bonn that’s laced with grunge-era guitars and recalls ‘90s alternative rock à la Nirvana and Pearl Jam. In June, Marshmello teamed up with Floridian metalcore/pop punk band A Day to Remember on the effervescent “Rescue Me,” the lead single from the masked producer’s Joytime III album released this summer. 

The trend is the latest development in a long relationship between the two genres dating back to the roots of the electronic rock scene of the late ‘60s, when bands like The Doors, Pink Floyd and Yes began incorporating synthesizers into their analog output. (Please recall Jim Morrison famously predicting the rise of electronic music during a 1969 interview.) Early ‘70s bands like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Yellow Magic Orchestra would fuse the worlds closer together, albeit with a more dance-friendly approach. Later, groups like Depeche Mode and New Order took the dance-rock sound to the mainstream, paving the way for breakout dance music acts like The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Moby, who all used rock elements in their music throughout the ‘90s.

In the modern EDM era, rock and electronic have produced several proper cross-genre releases. Some of them have been led by rock artists: Korn’s 2011 album, The Path of Totality, produced by a cast of bass artists including Skrillex, Excision, 12th Planet and several others, fused the band’s throttling metal sound with dubstep and drum & bass. Fellow alternative metal artist Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave fame, followed a similar approach on his 2018 solo album The Atlas Underground, which featured appearances from Knife Party, Bassnectar, Whethan, Steve Aoki and other electronic artists.

Today, the tides have turned. The current wave of rock and EDM crossovers posits electronic artists in control. Once hired guns relegated to a behind-the-scenes producer role, DJs are now piloting the sound and scene.

“Those projects... it almost seemed like the [electronic producers] were producing a record for the band,” says Los Angeles-based producer/DJ Kayzo of earlier rock-EDM projects. “Now it's more of a collaboration between the two worlds: It's a Marshmello song featuring A Day to Remember, it's Rezz featuring Underoath. Electronic artists now hold more influence and more power to what is considered the culture of music. I think that's [the] major difference between then and now. What we do means a lot to what people listen to and what people consider in.”

Kayzo, née Hayden Capuozzo, is at the forefront of the rock-dance trend. In August he released his second album, Unleashed, on which he worked with bands from across the post-hardcore, emo and pop-punk worlds, including Our Last Night, Alex Gaskarth of All Time Low and Underoath, among others.

For the album, Kayzo — who grew up listening to rock, pop-punk and metal bands like Bring Me the Horizon and Sum 41 — took a hands-on studio approach.

“[With Unleashed,] we finally got to get in with [the bands in the studio] and sit down and work with them and let them see under the hood of how I work,” he told Billboard Dance in an interview this past August. “That was a really exciting and important piece to this album—making it feel like I was actually working in a studio with the bands, like a band jam. We got to work together and make our decisions in real time.”

This collaborative approach is bridging rock and EDM in a more organic way, with bands and singers working directly with dance music producers rather than toplining over prefabricated beats, as was common in many previous cross-genre collabs.

The collective production method — bands jamming with electronic producers in the studio — continues from techniques pioneered by major artists in the EDM sphere. Skrillex’s 2011 Bangarang EP included “Breakn’ a Sweat,” a collaboration featuring the surviving members of The Doors. (The in-studio creative process was chronicled in the 2012 RE:GENERATION documentary.) On his 2012 track “Professional Griefers,” deadmau5 tapped My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way.

Elsewhere, the Bloody Beetroots, the electronic project of lifelong punk Sir Bob Cornelius Rifo, enlisted rock icons and alternative artists like Paul McCartney, Peter Frampton, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and others for his 2013 sophomore album, Hide. His 2017 album, The Great Electronic Swindle, continued the rock-electronic theme via collaborations with Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, Australian rock band Jet and more.

Still, where those releases skewed toward dance floor bangers and festival anthems, today’s sonic trend is markedly harder and heavier.

“I think people in the past were thinking [of] bringing electronic into the rock format, where this is the opposite,” says Los Angeles producer/multi-instrumentalist Sullivan King. (A headbanger-cum-raver, King is spearheading the metal-bass hybrid trend on his recently released debut album, Show Some Teeth.) “It’s DJ-able metal and is geared to the dance floor, which is a completely new frontier."

Today’s harsher, bass-centric iteration of the rock-electronic trend is no coincidence. On a technical level, the similarities between heavier electronic music, dubstep and metal are almost identical.

“If you break down a sawtooth sine wave, which is the ‘wub wub’ you get in dubstep, it's like the same thing as a guitar,” Underoath’s Gillespie explains. “If you look at the waveform from a distorted heavy guitar and then a side-chain-compressed synthesizer — the sound you hear in dubstep music — they're the same instrument, essentially. They're both abrasive. They're both mid-range. It's different enough that it's different, but it's also close enough that it's essentially the same instrument in a lot of different ways.”

Rezz echoes the sentiment: “I think people started to realize that heavier electronic music and rock and metal match up on an energy level. I don’t think it’s necessarily about one person that started doing it, but it was inevitable as both genres [are] very heavy.”

On top of a noticeably harder sound, the current wave of rock-EDM crossovers taps into the 2000s nostalgia trend and exploding emo revival. Where previous collaborations focused on legacy acts and hard rock artists, today’s producers enlist bands that mainstreamed emo, post-hardcore and pop-punk in the early aughts -- the same groups who soundtracked the teenage years of DJs like Kayzo, Rezz and Sullivan King.

“We’re all between, like, 23 and 28 [years old] and grew up during the Warped Tour, Hot Topic, MySpace heyday, and there was something really special about that era,” King says. “Musicians were really invested in their sounds and community, and I want to keep that idea alive.”

While nostalgia is an underlying element in the music, Kayzo says that these collaborations present an opportunity for producers to explore new sonic territories and experiment across an even broader spectrum of genres.

“I think being able to experience a little bit of nostalgia is good sometimes,” he says. “But with that comes a lot of responsibility from people like myself, or [artists like] Marshmello and Rezz. We need to push the sound forward and not let it be like a gimmick.”

While the rock-EDM seed was planted decades ago, the sound continues evolving along with technology. Gesaffelstein's latest EP, Novo Sonic System, puts the French producer's darkly industrial treatment on a punk rock-oriented sound. After popularizing genres like future bass and melodic bass, breakout Dutch producer/DJ San Holo is at the vanguard of dance music’s move into indie rock, a bubbling scene he’s dubbing “post-EDM,” named after the post-rock movement of the ‘80s. (His 2018 debut album, Album1 and new single, “Lost Lately,” best capture the sound.)

Similarly, rising producer Unlike Pluto, a San Holo affiliate, pivoted towards an alternative-rock-leaning electronic sound in 2017 and continues experimenting on his ongoing Pluto Tapes series. Elsewhere, NYC duo 8 Graves is pioneering a sound they’re calling “future grunge,” which mixes elements of grunge and future bass.

This seemingly endless pool of cross-genre opportunities, according to Kayzo, is the future of music. “I think everyone's taking notice that there are no rules anymore...There are genres that categorized us on iTunes or Spotify, and you got to be put in a certain playlist because you make a certain sound. I think those days are coming to an end, quite honestly.