- Signals, Wen's excellent debut album, starts off with a sample that sounds like someone saying "the UK's reeling." The uneasy state of politics in the UK has been infecting its dance music lately—just ask Perc—and it manifests in Wen's music through black soundscapes and shivering rhythms. Owen Darby takes on grime, a genre founded in the anxieties of urban existence, strips it down to a percussive skeleton, choosing terse snippets of MCs over proper verses. It's danceable as hell, but also relentlessly dark. Signals finds Darby refining the sound of his older work, folding in early dubstep and garage influences while pushing beyond classicist rehash into truly singular territory.
Each rolling track on Signals works a different idea into Darby's template, from the Middle Eastern string motifs of "Persian" to the early Tempa pastiche "Lunar," an eerie highlight with assistance from Keysound boss Blackdown. "You Know" replaces gruff MCs with female vocals, approximating the short-lived rhythm'n'grime movement, while "Vampin" gussies itself up with shimmering pianos. These simple embellishments beef up the LP's gaunt frame, shining brilliantly against its stark backdrop.
Much like Logos' Cold Mission (the last album on Keysound), Signals' preoccupation with empty space makes every small sound ring out loudly. The devil mix of "Nightcrawler" is the most astounding—you feel every backwards sound and clipped sample twisting through in short jerks and bursts—while the "LDN Mix" of "Swingin" is straight-up unnerving. The cut-and-paste vocal bellows out "Your neck should be swinging, bruvva" into the darkness around it, totally alien and all the more brutal for it. "Swingin" lays the blueprint for Wen's compressed vision of grime, where what's left unsaid is nearly as important as the words themselves.
The best of Darby's tracks have slimmed down motormouth verses into trenchant catchphrases, but Riko Dan shows up to spit in full over "Play Your Corner." It seems almost self-evident that the skilled rapper would sound great over Wen's beats, but Darby can't leave the vocal alone, distorting it and playing with the levels. He shouts "Cross a line/ Now you've crossed a border/ You just turned the wrong corner" over Wen's backwards string bursts, theatrically painting a post-apocalyptic London where danger lurks at every bend. With Signals, Wen has nearly perfected the claustrophobic grime sound he started sketching in 2012.
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