- It would be fair to say that Ali Wells' career has been building towards an album. Needing an album, even. Since his debut in the early '00s, the British artist has slowly amassed a collection of singles and increased his output each successive year. Relatively early on these came to the attention of Drumcode boss Adam Beyer. Wells later found favour with Chris Liebing and CLR, too. His own imprint—Perc Trax—has run alongside younger label Stroboscopic Artefacts and recently gained recognition as one of the best in the field. There was really only one direction left unexplored. With a full-length release, surpassing mere functionality would be an issue though. That, and the fact that some artists just aren't cut out for the format—even if they do manage to look beyond the dance floor.
Wicker & Steel manages to do both, keeping the dance floor in focus while simultaneously gazing further afield. It's evident that Wells was cautious of the aforementioned pitfalls. The first track, "Choice," samples Louise Wener—singer for '90s band Sleeper—discussing her early life and accompanying philosophy. Heavily reshuffling the grainy, VHS-sourced monologue, Wells makes a subtle statement about his own experiences in the drab suburbs of London. While Wicker & Steel might not reach the depths of Wener's opinionated manifesto, it's a beginning which foreshadows an album deeply concerned with its own coherency, continuity and diversity.
The first two aims are achieved as well as could be hoped for. Where artists like Burial imagine London as a worn down, greying city, Wells' vision is more aggressively dystopian. Setting aside Wener's heavily processed and magnificently textured soliloquy, there's precious little humanism contained in the harsh, ferrous confines of Wicker & Steel. In "Start Chopping"—the first of only four truly thumping tracks—alternating male and female grunts are probably the nearest equivalent. Even then, the result is hardly earthly, with a slow-rising tide of abrasive distortion eventually overwhelming everything else. It's like a product of the underworld; the soundtrack for some demonic uprising.
Theme firmly established, Wells picks it up and runs. Quelling the smashing fury of the first third, an eerie mid-section shows off horror film overtones akin to those found in last year's "Purple." However, this time there's more restraint, with beats even discarded altogether in "Pre-Steel." The shivering synths are all the more sinister, adroitly positioning the jugular for Wicker & Steel's largest beast to attack. Titled "London, We Have You Surrounded," the track is classic Perc; overdriven, hardcore-style kicks, metal-on-concrete percussion and a savage pace. It's a reminder of what the whole album could have been in the hands of a less conscientious producer. That is to say, a collection of hard-hitting singles. Thankfully, it's much more.
02. My Head Is Slowly Exploding
03. Start Chopping
04. You Saw Me
07. London, We Have You Surrounded
08. Snow Chain