Review: Wen – Signals LP [LDN044]

As if out of nowhere, Wen appeared and proceeded to re-contextualize the long-thought dead genre of grime into something that was once again exciting. The formula was simple enough take the negative space and dread-infused atmospherics of early dubstep, the rhythmic/vocal DNA of grime, and slow it down to fit the more ‘housier’ climates that UK music had shifted towards. What was created was something that not only payed homage to what Simon Reynolds called “the hardcore continuum” but indeed showed that there still room for evolution. This rootedness to a specifically UK sound sets Wen apart from many other producers. If anything, the capital I Internet has made dance music flat, by which I mean that no longer is the aesthetic data of genres necessarily associated with a specific geographic place. To make my argument more concise and to provide an example, there is not longer a genre called ‘Detroit Techno’ – granted there maybe techno that happens to be produced in Detroit, but no longer limited to geography, those mass-hallucinated lines in the sand, one can find ‘Detroit Techno’ made from around the world and consumed with a click of a mouse. Ideological underpinnings aside, what makes Wen’s ‘Signals’ so refreshing is that it shows that there are still ways to experiment and push things forward without reverting to simple mimicry (at least within the hardcore continuum). Additionally, the sense that ‘Signals’ is a deeply geographic album permeates throughout with nods towards Britain’s pirate radio culture and its rhythmic focus/blending of grime, UKF, and 2-step runs counter-clockwise to the ‘anything goes’ nature of mixing these days. Along with both Wen’s affinity for the UK’s rhythmic templates, Wen shows signs of expanding/tweaking his formula – easing up on the dread atmospherics, hints towards more ambient territory and dare I say an acceptance of more ‘busy’ or rather danceable riddims. All in all, ‘Signals’ is a hell of an album and probably the most important one to come from the Keysound camp thus far. ‘Signals’ not only proves that Wen is an extremely gifted producer but indeed a reminder that in order to move FWD, one must be conscious of the “history within the soil”.

‘Signals’ opens beautifully with ‘Intro (Family)’. Icy pads that make you think you can see your breath float your mind along as snippets of MC chatter and mic feedback are collaged into a statement of purpose that big ups Wen’s family and reaffirms Wen’s connection to UK dance music. The vocal samples lack Wen’s typical shenanigans of morphing and warping vocals into zombified versions of themselves, not needing to hide behind the tension that they create suggests an implicit earnestness to the words spoken. A spartan, skeletal 2-step rhythm appears, cushioning itself around the fragile atmosphere created by those zero gravity pads. The ghosts decided a rewind is in order. “Big up my family” the spectral MC utters as the pads swirl to a close. ‘Galactic’ is a lean and efficient DJ tool reliant on tried and true grime staples from the orchestral stabs to Pulse-X indebted bass quakes. It’s all about that iced-out melody though! In uncharacteristic form, Wen doesn’t include any radio pirate chatter or bars here, just pure riddim for any MC to ride atop, which a welcome change from all the ghosts of grime past spitting bars left and right over his tracks. A perfect set opener or to blend with an acapella if you’re a more adventurous jock. ‘Lunar’ sees Wen team up with Keysound boss Blackdown. An almost Deepchord-esque fractal of slo-mo sound design unfurls and slithers underneath. That skippy garage percussion bubbles as an eski-like b-line contorts. Eerie film-noir keyboards conjures knife-fights between crack-heads in a dimly lit parking garage. Begging us down the flight of stairs, the sub draws its shiv. You can smell the briny tension, all the noxious, nostril burning tension. We’ve passed and moved forward now. Specks of blue and white starlight shimmer and burn the oil sky, or what can be thought of as sky. Relentless the earth moving sub toys with us, shifting to more melodic grounds as a rich vista of tones flowers. At a point it climbs reaching an apex, only to filter to back to the earth – a siren silenced.

It’s been pitch black until now as ‘You Know’ brings a some slink and feminine pressure in the equation. Anchored again on a 2-step chassis, its all dry and snappy hats and snares while the sub gets its hips way down there. A lost diva banshee moans “you know” in the pocket while a searching sonar arcs across the soundfield. Unfortunately, ‘You Know’ is the second to shortest tune on ‘Signals’ and suffers because of its sketch-like nature. It’s on the cusp of being too short to be a DJ tool. Given the rather sparse elements at play, this writer feels ‘You Know’ could have been more developed and improved upon to become a more much important piece of the overall narrative of the album. It had promise to really blossom into a very sexy 2-step anthem inna Wen style. Luckily, this is the only snag within the album and doesn’t detract too much from ‘Signals’. If ‘You Know’ didn’t bring enough feminine pressure, ‘Persian’ fits the bill and adds a dash of menace into the mix. Taking the raw elements of the short-lived ‘sino-grime’ sub-genre, Wen inverts the troupes, and instead looks towards the Middle East as a source of dread. Maybe it was the failing of some states revolutions/civil wars/sectarian conflicts and the millenarian promise of the Middle East of achieving democracy, or maybe I’m digging too deep. Atop a grime framework ambient washes trade blows with sensual snippets of Middle Eastern strings as bass detonations lively up the place. Additionally, ‘Persian’ finds itself with more empty space, as Wen elides over his characteristic use of LDN vocal samples. Like ‘Galactic’ before it, ‘Persian’ is another grime DJ to add to your arsenal which adds a touch of color to his bleak industrial blue and grey sound palate.

“You’re neck should be swinging, bruvva” commands Sgt. Pokes amid splashes of rhodes organ. And when it’s Sgt. Pokes you follow orders. ‘Swingin’ (LDN mix)’ is anthem biz. A ferocious 2-step riddim bucks and buries all the soundbwoys without the obligatory wubs that have been grafted on it in recent years and is all the better for it. Wen does some sonic alchemy with Pokes voice, until it becomes a mantra while the bass surges back and forth. A brief respite of cool down rhodes chords that adds some lavender and silk to the rwd-worthy riddim. Not forgetting the ladies, Pokes/Wen performs more arcane vocal conjuring the soundgyals to the floor. ‘Vampin’ a tricky beast, as what you think it is just another 2-step rhythm with some Wen vocal magick, but ‘Vampin’ quickly shifts towards a UKF-indebted that swings in all the right places. Dry percussion is cocooned around midnight blue pads. The bass on this one swaggers about with its rhythmic pivots that should be deadly on a proper system. The vocal hook nags about ‘vampin’ in ‘the city every night’ sounds awfully close to what a vampire does. Makes the mind wander to images of inner city London with roving gangs of vampires have grime battles in dark alleys while puffing on spliffs before they go out to hunt.

Hypnotic, oscillating soundwaves cushion another 2-step garage beat as Wen goes head to head with grime wunderkind Parris. ‘Time’ possesses a lot of negative space in which the b-line plays and cavorts inna 130 style of the DMZ tradition. Imagine if Coki’s wobbles were less ‘over the top’ – that’s the vibe that Wen/Parris are mining here. Tasteful Pulse-X styled booms are placed through out, as a far and distant (and possibly Indian) vocal is dubbed to maximum effect. This one is sure to make the steppas go bonkers! The overall narrative, or rather sonic arc to ‘Signals’ has been a tempering of the light and dark elements within Wen’s beats. The first couple beats were encased in darkness but as ‘Signals’ gets more comfortable with itself, playful and feminine sonics came into play with ‘You Know’ and ‘Swingin’. But with ‘In’ Wen shifts the aural color palate back to industrial blues and grays. ‘In’ is aimed straight for the floor and plays off of Wen’s first love, grime. Hard as nails kicks cave in your chest and eardrums, as Wen does what he does best, and digs some gnarly pirate radio samples, seemingly concerning what happens after the rewind. Using that crucial moment where the track already is too good to simply be played once, the ghosts of pirate radio compel us to go “In” and brock out. Cyber strings are deployed in an elegant, if menacing effect over a shoulder samba inducing grime framework that’ll make you work harder than any workout class at the gym.

‘Signal’ is another floor-directed banger that plays with UKF rhythmic skeletons but anchored with system leveling subs that’ll have the dance eating out of the palm of your hand. It’s all rooted in pirate radio fossils and a dial tone melody that is simply narcotic. ‘Nightcrawler’ finds Wen splicing Eski-Boy’s bars across snippets of ‘Commotion VIP’ from DJ Barely Legal’s 1Xtra set, the rewind is called by the spectral studio crew. It all dissolves into the aether of ambience by way of grime, until bass pulses shatter the sky with barely there percussion trying to keep time. Snatches of MC chatter emerge through hazy dubspace. A brief respite from the head-wrecking sub, but just a quickly you were to catch your breath, the beat comes back with a vengeance with a sensual voice repeating “Roses are red, Diamonds are blue”. I’m not sure if its a grime MC or not (if anyone can tell me, much obliged). Just as quickly as the beat forms, it collapses in on itself as more studio chatter supplants all grime x ambient leanings of ‘Nightcrawler’. It’s an interesting and darker piece of grime ambience that has been explored in Logos’s ‘Cold Mission’ LP. Wen saves the best for last, going full on grime-mode with the badman like Riko spraying bars like an AK on ‘Play Your Corner’. Anchored by a dutty string led beat, Riko Dan blasts Babylon, the youth that haven’t paid their dues, gun-talk, and any MC’s stupid enough to challenge Riko. It’s proper grime from a producer more known for his penchant to deconstruct grime and it’s all the more refreshing because of the classicist angle.

In closing, ‘Signals’ is a deeply British album that reflects not only its long history of dance music, but inverts, deconstructs, and pays homage to the early 2000’s in a way that honours those genres but pushes the boundaries forward in a way that isn’t pretentious or simply a rehashing old ideas with contemporary production values. It’s ‘Signals’ (and Wen’s) passion for grime, 2-step garage, and UKF that runs counter to the blended and collaged nature of contemporary dance music that makes ‘Signals’ so appealing. Wen not only sticks to his guns, but indeed, expands his arsenal by crafting tunes branch his sound in directions hinted by the larger conversation happening within grime and the whole ‘bass music’ continuum. It’s Wen’s (possible) rejection of ‘bass music’ that makes ‘Signals’ so singular in the hyper-modern and always future orientated ideology of dance music that allows the listener to stop, pay attention and think as to why these genres are important and seminal in the larger context of global dance music and how these genres can continue to inform, as well as, play a part in the conversation that is the ‘hardcore continuum’.

Signals is released March 17th and is available to purchase from Redeye, Rewind Forward, Bleep and Juno Download.

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