Special Request: Belief System

There's so much music in Belief System, the latest Special Request collection from Paul Woolford, it takes two CDs to handle it all. First things first, however: the dominant jungle focus of 2013's Soul Music is gone, in its place tracks rooted in ambient, ‘90s rave, garage, and classic Warp. Perhaps the release's stylistic sprawl can be explained in part by two things, Woolford's recent work in sound design for film and the fact that the tracks were recorded during the past three years using sounds from the UK producer's archives, dating back to 1993.

On production grounds, the material impresses. Woolford's considerable skills as an arranger and sound sculptor are in abundant supply, and the listener is awed by his production command and sensitivity to sound design. That said, the release is overlong; the realization slowly dawns that Belief System might have been better served by a shorter track-list (for starters, the ambient-styled overture “Chrysalis” and minute-long “Cheyne Stoking” could be excluded at no great cost) and many of them shortened by a minute or so. In a reduced form, the album would hit harder and by the end leave the listener well-sated but not exhausted.

Like some mutant spawn of Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down and Plaid's Not For Threes, “Adel Crag Microdot” blends dive-bombing and bleepy synth figures with driving drum machine beats, the cut head-spinning in the best sense of the word. Similar to “Adel Crag Microdot,” “Tiresias” plays like some imaginary collaboration, this one suggesting a showdown between Autechre (cira Tri Repetae) and Burial. Up next, “Sanctuary” perpetuates the garage style of “Tiresias,” the Burial dimension even more evident in the inclusion of a muffled soul vocal riff. “Scrambled in LS1” plays like some modern-day riff on Kraftwerk's “Numbers,” while “Replicant (Nexus 7 VIP)” could pass in certain moments for a Richard D. James homage, its Aphex-styled title included.

The boombastic raver “Make It Real,” its rumbling swing nicely punctuated by its “I know I'm rushing just a little bit too fast” vocal sample and a chorus that'll have Sepalcure fans salivating, leaves a lasting impression. There's also an acidy brain-addler, “Curtain Twitcher,” that one could imagine booming out of some warehouse, while a soul vocal sample and acoustic piano nudge “Brainstorm” in a classic house direction. Jungle and drum'n'bass aren't completely absent on the release, but nods in their direction are either cursory or seem half-hearted (“Leviathan”), Woolford's interests clearly elsewhere.

The CD presentation makes clear that a two-part design is in play, with the first disc's fourteen cuts largely dedicated to punchy, beat-powered material and the nine-track second brooding cinematic ambient settings such as “Carex Vesicaria,” “Witness,” and “Five Lane Ends.” It's during this second part that the kind of material he's produced for film projects becomes the focus of concentration. It also turns out that splitting Belief System's tracks into distinct CD sets makes it a whole lot more palatable. Interestingly, the four-LP version of the release features the first fourteen tracks only (though a download card for the complete release comes with the vinyl purchase), which could be interpreted as a tacit admission that for this release the first CD's content is the more critical of the two.

December 2017