Wen: Signals
Keysound Recordings

Appearing almost a year after the release of his Commotion EP on Keysound, Wen's debut album Signals exemplifies such a preternatural degree of refinement and sophistication that calling the twenty-two-year-old a production prodigy doesn't seem all that hyperbolic. The UK producer is one of those modern-day sponges who's absorbed a plethora of styles—dub, grime, dubstep, garage, et al.—and responded creatively to that process with a sound that reveals ties to those styles without suggesting allegiance to only one. Yet while that's generally the case, as the bass-heavy album advances it becomes clear that grime is the one that rears its head as a reference point more than any other. Such a characterization is reinforced by the sample of Wiley that surfaces on the intro to “Nightcrawler (Devils Mix)” and the full vocal Riko contributes to the closing cut “Play Your Corner.”

In keeping with the album concept, “Intro (Family)” sets the mood with a brooding dubstep-inflected overture that's equally atmospheric and punchy, after which “Galactic” relocates the Wen sound to a woozy wasteland of bass squelches, voice snippets, and string stabs. Though an industrial-dystopic vibe colours “Lunar” (which features Keysound label head Blackdown), the tune is elevated by a light-footed beat bounce. With the advent of the fourth track, “You Know,” an album trajectory starts to come into focus, with Wen ramping up the intensity and rhythmic drive step-by-step as the fifty-one-minute set unfolds. “Persian” finds him extending his sound into exotic territory by wedding Middle Eastern sonorities to a lithe, bass-pulsing swing.

Things take a bold turn with the mid-album arrival of “Swingin',” an arresting blend of garage-styled bounce and vocal swizzle, with the the male speaker's “Your neck should be swingin,' brother” shredded into a stutter-funk barrage of “Brother, your neck … sister, your neck …. brother … sister … swingin'.” Wen strips the groove down to its skeletal essence in “Vampin',” making it all the easier to zoom in on the sliced-up vocal treatments, while “Time,” co-produced by Parris, augments a similarly head-spinning beat design and ominous melodic punctuations with cryptic vocal lines (“Time ain't taking its toll / All it does is make me more cold”) and background ululations.

Wen's restlessly shape-shifting sound comes fully into fruition during “In,” where a high-wire swirl of clipped voice edits is strewn across a flickering, post-dubstep landscape, and the stunning “Signal,” a wild blend of military snares, grime vocal edits, and funky club swing. It's such tracks that show Wen at his most fearless and help make Signals such a consistently stimulating feast for the ears. Those looking for additional reference points might connect the lines from Wen to artists associated with Project Mooncircle and Livity Sound, even if the grime dimension is more pronounced in Wen's neck o' the woods.

March 2014