Wednesday, 12 March 2014
There's a clutch of tunes here that will be familiar to many listeners already - the likes of 'Galactic', 'Persian' and, more recently, 'Play Your Corner' having been doing the rounds on radio shows and mixtapes - but for the most part, the album comprises of fresh material. This dialogue between new and old is, as much as the snipped vocal clips, the sort of constant which elevates the record's status from being merely a collection of songs, to a cohesive album; and that this is something so rarely achieved within electronic music needn't be played down.
In fact, one of the undoubted highlights of the LP has had its choppy vocals pressed to vinyl once already, but returns here reworked and churning a sweet nostalgia for the - pun no doubt intended - swinging days of dark garage experimentalism. Simultaneously paying homage to Keysound's own catalogue numbers, the 'LDN Mix' of 'Swingin'' is Wen imagining what El-B and Horsepower Productions might have done with the same source material; the result is as you'd expect, but that he manages to carry it off so convincingly is a testament to his production abilities.
And whilst some might argue that such nostalgia is often little more than repackaging for an unknowing audience, the dismantling of 'You Know' from an almost by-numbers steel drum-riff-plus-R&B-vocal-sample slice of anthem garage to an eery, piercing soundscape presents the LP's dialogue on a micro scale. That it tails off from here into the Random Trio-indebted drum shuffles of 'Persian' only makes the historical trawl more complete.
As well as the increasingly-imitated marriage of swollen bass hits and sharp synths that has come to typify Wen's sound, a common sonic theme throughout 'Signals' is his use of rewind and fast-forward effects - that is, shaping and tailing grooves using tape-stops and forward seeks. Though this sense of searching through tracks and albums may be all but lost on today's younger generation of listeners, for others (Wen himself no doubt included) who have grown up through the technological developments which have seen tape cassettes replaced on shelves by CDs, and then the shelves themselves replaced by the scroll wheel and the rise of online retail, these little become something of a leitmotif for the album's past-present-future dialogue. That cassettes, though admittedly not in any wide way, have been re-adopted more and more by small independent labels over the last few years fits nicely with this idea of back-and-forth.
The album concludes with a first, in the form of Wen's first officially vocalled tune to reach public ears. It's fractious, unsettled and raucous in all of the best ways, and Riko asserts himself as one of the most underrated MCs that the grime scene has produced. It's all in the combination here, though: simply put, Riko is one of the few MCs who can truly capture the feel of a radio set when laying down vocals on a tune and he's aided aptly by Wen in this, whose sonic aesthetic is heavily indebted to the crackle of the pirate radio dial.
Much of this, however, is what we could have expected from a Wen album. But that's fine: a debut album is an artist's opportunity to position themselves within the wider context of their influences and the scene surrounding them, and Wen does so here with a measured confidence.
There's a gentle irony to the cover's 'One way' signal: this is an album that is both knowingly and refreshingly dialogic in sound and aesthetic, and, looking to the future, one which will no doubt be cropping up regularly when it comes to end-of-year list season. The future is Wen. (You thought we'd make it through a tense-littered review without punning on "when"?)
01. Intro (Family)
03. Lunar (feat. Blackdown)
04. You Know
06. Swingin' (LDN mix)
08. Time (feat. Parris)
11. Nightcrawler (Devils Mix)
12. Play Your Corner (feat. Riko)
Wen - Signals [LDN044] will be released via Keysound Recordings on vinyl and digital formats on March 17th, and is available to pre-order from Boomkat now.
To listen to the album ahead of release date, click over to Resident Advisor for a full stream.