Paul Woolford certainly knows how to turn a record into an event. Many will know the Leeds DJ and producer from a series of sterling techno and house tracks, such as 2006's "Erotic Discourse" and "Untitled," re-released this year on Hot Flush. His credentials are well known. The fella is legit, and heads can sense immediately the depth of the sounds he puts together. Special Request is one of his noms de spin, the title under which he works out an obsession with the underground British music of the 1990s. Like other dominant figures in the UK scene, Woolford has a deep love of Jungle and Rave white label culture, its open platform and experimental ethic. His latest, Soul Music, is a full-on immersion in the sounds of the era, produced using genuine synth equipment and a localized radio loop to give his sounds the patina of the recent past.
I'm less credulous than others—hello, Pitchfork—about the conceptual nature of this experiment. I'm sure that a room full of plastic synths is a very exciting prospect to authenticity-hipsters. The fact that this is seen as an extreme commitment to nostalgia shows, perhaps, how low the bar to conceptualism has fallen.
There's no denying, though, that Soul Music is a great record. The opening track, "Forbidden," is a killer: beautifully crafted, propulsive, and built from a series of perfectly complementary reverberating chords. "Undead" follows a similar formula, but with its own charm, upping the frequency of spasmodic jungle breaks until they become the centroid of a continuous rhythm. It's a clever inversion, to say the least. After a brief lull, the album storms back with "Soundboy Killer," possibly the most hard-riding track I've heard in years (that wasn’t juke). The fact that it is built around a naff vocal couplet borrowed from The xx's "Shelter"—possibly the least roughneck reference imaginable—only makes all the grit more charming. "Ride VIP," a sort of re-remix of a Lana Del Rey track, is perhaps the most seductive thing on the album. This has less to do with the smoky vocals and more with a sped-up version of the irresistible baseline from Ghostface Killer's "Daytona 500."
I agree with Pitchfork, though, that an air of radicalism hangs over Soul Music. An interesting question is why. The standard critical line is that Woolford's project uses the tropes of jungle and rave in new ways, bending their conventions. A simpler explanation could be that the best examples of these genres still sound relevant, all these years later. In fact, this is not such a far-fetched possibility. Doesn't Photek's "Seven Samurai" still sound path breaking, with its salvos of rhythmic blast and heavy silence? Roni Size/ Reprazent's best work still feels elegant beyond expectation, and Goldie's "Kaiser Salsek" is as angular and scary as anything on Fuck Button's last record?
I'm willing to believe that there are subtle advances here that I'm not hearing. And there are some that I am. There is certainly a delicious heaviness to the beat structure, a crazed quality to the number and intensity of fills, which is Woolford's own contribution. The blend of techno and jungle is also something new, and quite different from what the Prodigy did in this space. But as good as this record is, I feel that I've heard much of it before.
And anyway, who cares? We hardly need to anoint Soul Music with the label of conceptualism in order to make it worthwhile. It's a great work by an artist who knows exactly how to put a high-quality track together, in jungle or in techno. We should be able to simply appreciate the craftsmanship. Why should just appreciate the artistry of an electronic master, even of a retired genre?
The anxiety that frames this album, the pressure to be original about being derivative, is a real problem. One of the best things about Soul Music is that it makes this effort seem totally unnecessary. We enjoy the music for what it is. Ironic, then, that the need to be clever sometimes leads Woolford into clichéd sentimentalism. In 2014, do we still need artists to open songs with sampled record crackles, and radio fuzz? No, we don't. As the late Lou Reed said, sometimes you just play the song and try not to fuck it up.
01. Special Request - Forbidden
02. Special Request - Undead
03. Special Request - Cold Blooded
04. Special Request - Body Armour
05. Special Request - Lockjaw
06. Special Request - Ride VIP
07. Special Request - Soundboy Killer
08. Special Request - Broken Dreams
09. Special Request - Black Ops
10. Special Request - Capsules
11. Special Request - Deranged
12. Special Request - Descent
01. Tessela - Hackney Parrot (Special Request VIP)
02. Lana Del Rey - Ride (Special Request Remix)
03. Special Request - Mindwash
04. Special Request - Alone
05. Special Request - Mindwash (Anthony Naples Aftermath Remix)
06. Special Request - Lolita (Warehouse Mix)
07. Special Request - Vapour
08. Special Request - Deflowered (Kassem Mosse & Mix Mup Remix)
09. Special Request - Mindwash (Anthony Shakir Remix)
10. Special Request - Capsules (Lee Gamble Full Length Remix)
11. Special Request - Deflowered (Hieroglyphic Being Remix)