It is becoming less and less easy to define genres and put music into distinct categories. To us, that is a good thing. Fans of rap, R&B, and pop are being exposed to more and more electronic music, whether it’s HudMo producing on a Pusha T album, Kelela working with Fade to Mind, or Kanye calling on Evian Christ and Arca. The undercurrent is always there, pulling everything along and influencing what lies closer to the surface, but remaining unseen by the majority.
This is our way of shining a light on some facet of underground electronic music that you might not otherwise be aware of. Here, we take a look at British producer Wen, who released his excellent debut album ‘Signals’ in March.
I chose the scenic route. Driving from Los Angeles to Oakland for the first time in my life, I opted for adventure, no matter how slight. The 101 to Highway 1: the end of America.
Earlier in the week, Constant Gardner had sent me a heads-up about Wen’s Signals–an email with a simple subject: “masterful LP.” A tall billing. Further conversation added fuel to the fire; Constant told me, “Wen is like Burial obsessed with grime rather than early dubstep and the darker end of garage.”
I am a Burial obsessive. Untrue is one of my 5-10 favorite albums ever depending on the day. The enigmatic Will Bevan’s music has gotten me through more lows than nearly any other artist. Comparisons to him must be carefully played and typically aesthetic–the meaning of his music is inimitable for me.
It was a hectic week, spent largely on the phone, scouring Soundcloud, and trying to put together the pieces of a still-recent move to Los Angeles. I had Wen on my must-listen list (CG very rarely sends those sorts of emails, so when he does, I pay attention), but I hadn’t found the time to really dig in and go straight through as I preferred to with Burial’s music.
A drive to Oakland. Alone. The scenic way. That would be my Wen time. About two hours out from Los Angeles, just past Hearst castle, I threw on Signals.
When I listen to music I know nothing about and I like it, my default position is googling some combination of words that will bring me deeper into the artist’s world. Trapped in the car, mountains all around me (I’d passed a stretch of ocean when I started up the album, and spent much of my listening time surrounded by green mountains), I could only listen, unable to dig or discover context. With an album like Signals–dense with samples and seeded with the influence of various subgenres–this sort of information paralysis is particularly aggravating.
I let it wash over me as I took in my surroundings, as I felt the press of being alone, the comfort close to fear that accompanies pure isolation. My voice silent for almost an hour, I let the icy, heavy sounds bombard me. I let Wen speak and invade my brain. My time with Signals became less about knowledge and more about sense and experience, the way I imagine many musicians still wish for their creations to be consumed: viscerally, divorced of the internet’s clogged arteries.
The album created a sense-memory of a place I never experienced, a transport to a dingy London club I’ve yet to actually visit.
I have not listened to Signals in the two weeks since my trip–not until sitting down to write this piece. I am listening to it front-to-back once more, realizing that while none of the individual songs stuck with me in the preceding weeks, the feel remains. The album created a sense-memory of a place I never experienced, a transport to a dingy London club I’ve yet to actually visit. Isolation from information facilitated a wandering mind rather than one looking for answers. I experienced the music purely, able to imagine a world rather than having one fed to me–reading the book vs. watching the movie.—Jon Tanners
Can Wen be the Burial of grime?
“It’s real, it’s real. It’s UK, it’s real.”
This is one of the earliest of the many vocal samples that you hear scattered across Wen’s fantastic debut full-length, Signals, and an early warning that this album will be steeped in the history of the UK underground.
I’m incredibly proud of Britain’s musical heritage, not so much looking back at classic bands like The Beatles or Led Zeppelin, but more at artists and sounds that have affected me personally. The music that has blossomed in my lifetime—genres that I have been able to follow and see evolve and alter, moments that I have experienced personally—is the music that means the most to me. Growing up near London and then living in Bristol as dubstep blew up, grime continued to bubble (but mostly away from the harsh glare of mainstream popularity), and house and techno were pulled and twisted in all sorts of different directions, the music that has excited me most in my lifetime has often been dance music.
My latest obsession is Wen, yet another new artist pushing things forward. He is helping keep electronic music in the UK vibrant and exciting under the watchful eyes of Dusk and Blackdown, Rinse FM regulars, producers, and the men behind the label Keysound Recordings. Keysound has been a bastion of forward-thinking electronic music since 2005, and just last year released a brilliant album by Logos, Cold Mission, as well as a label compilation called This Is How We Roll, a great introduction to an exciting strain of dark, grimey dance music coming out of the UK right now.
Bringing it back to Wen’s album, most noticeable from the tensely atmospheric “Intro (Family) onwards, are the vocals—samples of the voices of grime MCs, generally taken from radio freestyles around 2007/2008. As Wen told Elijah in Thump’s grime column:
The voices and phrases I sample are pretty much my favourite or most memorable moments of the sets. The bits I really connected with usually happened at a pause or intro, or after a rewind. The MC’s are still full of energy, and carry on their bars or just say something quite styled out – which I always imagined would be perfect to reinterpret my own way.
These sampled vocals play a key role in over half of the album’s tracks, acting as a guide for the listener, and, even in their disembodied, often chopped-up forms, providing engaging moments of human energy and interaction amidst the oppressive lurch of dark bass and icy cold melodies.
Wen is more than just a master sampler of vocals, and his music—just like Burial’s—defies easy categorization. Signals is not an album of straight grime instrumentals, for a start, grime is traditionally 140bpm whereas Wen’s productions are slower, around 130bpm. Sure, the vocal samples are all from grime artists, but in the appreciation of the importance of space, those small moments of silence between beats, and the overwhelming darkness, there is the clear influence of early dubstep. The specter of garage also reaches across the album, most obviously on “You Know,” which uses a female vocal to haunting effect, creating a sort of drowned and distorted form of R&B.
Any comparisons to Burial may be seen in some parts as akin to sacrilege, and of course it would be a rash overstatement to put the two on the same level. Wen’s first ever release was last year’s Commotion EP and he only just released his debut album, whereas Burial is two albums, seven EPs and nearly ten years deep in the game. What they share however, beyond the obvious fact that they both use vocal samples with fantastic results, is the ability to make something unique, new, and recognizably their own out of the building blocks of the UK’s not-too-distant musical past.
Maybe Wen’s Signals can encourage an exploration of grime in the same way Burial’s music created a wider interest in dubstep.
What I also hope they share (which Jon’s experience with Wen’s album suggests they might) is the capacity to connect with people whose musical and experiential reference points are wholly divorced from the world of London’s clubs and pirate radio. Maybe Wen’s Signals can encourage an exploration of grime in the same way Burial’s music created a wider interest in dubstep. Hopefully in ten years we can be looking back at multiple Wen albums and EPs, and considering how he has influenced a new wave of producers.—Constant Gardner
Listen to the whole album on Spotify here.