- With Special Request, Paul Woolford brings an edge to big-room dance music. The B-word is often a dirty one, but let's not kid ourselves: Woolford makes arena-worthy tracks, he's just clever about it. Recent hits like "Untitled" have crossed over in a big way, bringing the kind of exposure that Woolford experienced after "Erotic Discourse" in the mid-2000s. The difference now is that it's on his own terms.
The Special Request project, which has delivered a handful of 12-inches and a stellar album that looked back to the halcyon days of pirate radio, exemplifies Woolford's no-holds-barred approach. It allows him to focus his energies differently than he would under his own name, by indulging his love of late '80s and early '90s rave. And it still slams as hard as anything else. With the triple-EP package Modern Warfare, Special Request returns with a bigger label (a joint release between XL Recordings and Houndstooth, his regular outpost) and a broader outlook. You'll notice as much two tracks in, when Woolford's typical onslaught of breaks and basslines melts away to reveal a springy piano riff not unlike the one that sent "Untitled" into the stratosphere. Woolford isn't using Special Request as a vehicle for personal nostalgia anymore—he's using it to make the hardest bangers he can muster.
Modern Warfare appropriates specific devices from rave, hardcore and jungle, rather than remaining true to their original blueprints. Most of the tracks motor along at house tempos, offering subtle variations on old-school dance music. This results in jock jams-style riffs bolstering the likes of "Reset It" and "Take Me," whose most boisterous moments sound strangely like C&C Music Factory. We also get rippling hardcore chords on "Simulation," which shows why Modern Warfare succeeds. Instead of sticking to pastiche, it's sleek and hard-hitting, starting with a firm techno beat before loosening up a bit. It feels like a classic, but it's built for modern club play.
Woolford uses the third EP to feel out the limits of the Special Request project, from the sci-fi touches of "Tractor Beam" to torch song "Elegy," a clear standout. This one is built on a ruddy chassis of clacking drums, while the growling Reese basslines gently fizzle out instead of revving up. Woolford throws in a tender vocal and some swooping Hollywood strings, gussying up his grotty warehouse in lace and velvet.
"Elegy" reminds me of when Woolford sampled Lana Del Rey on one of his earliest Special Request tracks, a choice that felt anachronistic set against vintage breaks. On "Elegy," however, the smoky mood sounds natural, in part because Woolford fully gives in to the melodramatic shebang. It shows how far the Special Request project has come, proving versatility and fresh ideas are essential even when your sights are facing backwards. The hint's in the name: Modern Warfare might use the tools of the past, but that's just part of what makes it so definitively 2015.
01. Modern Warfare
03. Reset It
05. Take Me
07. Peak Dub
08. Tractor Beam