Son Raw saw the signs.
Before we talk about Wen, let’s talk about Keysound, a label that’s officially having its moment in the sun. Born of the same mid aughts explosion that gave us Hyperdub, Tectonic, and Deep Medi, Keysound’s early records weren’t just left of center – they were left of everything. While future superstars like Skream and Benga were (perhaps justifiably) cashing in on Dubstep’s rise, label founders Dusk & Blackdown were self-releasing “Margins Music,” chronicling an intensely personal vision of multicultural London. Even when they started putting out other people’s records, the results were never predictable – who else would take a gamble on pressing a concept single about a local bus line?
Since late 2012 however, the label has found a new sense of purpose thanks to an ever expanding community of young, creative producers left out in the cold by Dubstep’s collapse and London’s fascination with uniform tech house. Of these, Wen might be the closest thing to a poster child for the label: a spry 22 year old fascinated with the history of UK dance music but unafraid to twist it into new shapes. Crucially, perhaps because of his youth, he’s also unafraid to be direct and go for the jugular – his first release for the label, Commotion, crossed over to Grime proper, becoming freestyle food for an all-star cadre of emcees. Now, with Signals he expands his vision across a full album – one of the label’s best.
Inverting dance music’s ascent to euphoria, Signals is all about a plunge into darkness. After a brief intro shouting out family, track titles like Galactic and Lunar place us in the cosmos. These first tunes come closest to pure Dubstep, and while you won’t find the “D Word” anywhere near the album’s press release, it’s hard not to be reminded of Skream’s early work – or at least his most deep minded. For all of the Grime references here, this music is mostly dark and unsettling rather than hard hitting and roughneck, and the vocal interjections that have become Wen’s trademark act as a crafty way to inject well-placed aggression into the proceedings without relying on the riffy heavy metal aesthetics that sink so many contemporary beatmakers.
From there, we hit street level, alternating between swinging Garage in the El-B lineage (You Know, Swingin’) to post-DMZ jams sampling Britain’s various diasporas (Persian, Time) to increasingly hectic Grime (In, Signal). Wen handles all of the styles with a personal touch, drawing for various drum patterns but keeping the moods dark and consistent, a rarity among dance music LPs. It all culminates in a psychedelic “devil’s mix” of the previously released Nightcrawler – a delirious nod to Wiley’s beatless DJ tools, re-imagined as a paranoid soundclash in a schizophrenic mind. Better yet, finale Play Your Corner featuring Riko Dan, the album’s sole proper vocal track, is a fiery first-rate banger, and a tantalizing hint at what Wen’s capable of when working with the emcees he’s so far been sampling.
Granted this is the work of a young producer – those expecting the deconstructed experiments of Logos’ Cold Mission or the precious meanderings of a Four Tet might be a little put off by Wen’s adherence to DJ-friendly formats or his insistence on keeping things pirate-ready. But there will be time for maturity later – right now Signals is a great debut by a young talent, capitalizing on an opportunity with a slew of banging club tracks for a scene still in its nascent stages. It’s also a feather in Keysound’s cap – fuck left field, this record lands dead on target.