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Special RequestSoul Music

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  • published
    8 Oct 2013
  • words by
    Angus Finlayson
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    Special Request
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Available on: Houndstooth LP

Lo! The jungle bandwagon approacheth! Or perhaps it’s already here. A swathe of UK producers have been dusting off their Amens this year, from Etch’s 130bpm hardcore reboots and Demdike Stare’s noxious Test Pressings series to the rave-ready bangers of Tessela. Even Four Tet is getting involved , which – with the best of intentions - is usually a sign that The Fonz will shortly be assuming the squatting position, thighs quivering with tensity.

This most frenetic of soundsystem musics has, of course, long been a ghostly presence in British dance music – its influence on dubstep, for example, is well documented. But what sets apart this current wave is a willingness not just to artfully tease out a few trace elements of the form, but to appropriate it wholesale. In this regard no-one has been bolder or, arguably, more successful than Paul Woolford. Woolford, a house and techno veteran, has been going through something of a purple patch recently: Hotflush single ‘Untitled’, recently picked up by a Sony subsidiary, looks set to be his biggest hit since 2006’s ‘Erotic Discourse’ (the contrast between the rubberised futurism of that track and its kinda-throwback piano house successor probably says something about music in 2013, but that’s a debate for another time). But it’s Special Request – his love letter to pirate radio culture – that seems to have had the biggest impact on Woolford’s peers.

A string of self-released singles last year presented a trans-genre vision for the project: here was a place where breakbeat-happy Lana Del Rey bootlegs could rub up against ruffneck house and steelier warehouse techno, all of it unified only by its “illicit” quality. Soul Music, released through Fabric label Houndstooth, continues that trend to an extent – particularly in its opening half. ‘Forbidden’’s stop-start percussion and bright-eyed chords are a pleasure; the brilliant ‘Cold Blooded’ inverts jungle’s topdown rhythmic hierarchy, leaving a measured pulse to stake out the midrange while motile, sculpted bass textures swerve and judder down below. It’s tempting to hear the influence of Hessle Audio here – Woolford has long been a fan – while ‘Body Armour’, with its cross-rhythmic kick/bass tattoos, seems indebted to the stiff drum machine funk of Swamp81.

Elsewhere, though, Woolford tackles jungle head-on. His approach to the form is distinctive and often imaginative – there’s something of techno about its surgical contours and neat modular structures. But he rarely strays too far from golden era norms, except on occasion to slow things to vaguely techno-friendly tempos, with mixed success (‘Undead’ and ‘Lockjaw’ are solid; a VIP of that ‘Ride’ bootleg, sans Lana, feels lacking). Woolford has described his handling of jungle as part of a “Trojan horse” strategy, allowing him to play on and subvert shared cultural memory. And it’s true that the album is laced with hauntological flourishes: breakbeats that drift out of phase as if heard via a dodgy FM transmitter, moments of Burial-esque ambience. Several tracks sink into a dull sea of radio static, as if to remind us, at the close, of their obsolescence.

But this is only really a sidenote. In the album’s latter half things get increasingly delirious, and while tracks like ‘Black Ops’ are thrilling, they seem to represent a closing of the gap between Woolford and his source material – and perhaps a leeching of the conceptual strength and aesthetic diversity of the Special Request project. Yes, it’s possible to read Soul Music as some kind of commentary on, or deconstruction of, jungle. More people will probably interpret it as a collection of straightforward, canon-savvy bangers. That’s fine, of course, but it’s difficult to shake the sense that Special Request could have been something more.

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