[CD + 12” singles, Ad Noiseam]
Although he already had an impressive back catalogue of 12 inch singles to his name, 2007’s The Later After was Noel Wessels debut album and his first release as DJ Hidden for acclaimed German label Ad Noiseam. After the reception his debut received, the label has supported his follow-up album, The Words Below, by issuing a series of three 12 inch singles entitled The Words Below Limited Edition Vinyl Series Parts 1-3. Containing slightly different versions of tracks from the album, the first two singles hold three tracks each while the third contains two exclusive new remixes; “The Narrators” remixed by Wessels’ Outside Agency cohort Frank Nitzinsky and ‘DJ Hidden’s Other Side Remix’ of “The Devil’s Instant” by Wessels himself.
Ever prolific and still regularly releasing singles on a wide array of labels, Wessels has a lot to live up to following the widespread critical acclaim his debut album attracted. Taking two years to produce the follow-up, Wessels offers his refined mix of dark ambience and sharp manic drum ‘n’ bass rhythms that brought his debut so much praise. Describing The Later After as representing a person’s fears and doubts for their future Wessels consciously composed The Words Below as a continuation of the story, this time relating how the central character accepts their fate and enters the nightmare world they had feared in the first release. The album’s artwork hints at a whole other world hidden beneath our own, a ladder leading into the ground inviting us to enter if we dare, the implication being that something worse lurks below.
Setting the scene is “Prologue”, a tensely atmospheric track that feels as if it is on the verge of erupting into a crazy torrent of immense rhythmic mayhem but never quite gets there. Instead, it opens the album almost like the theme music to a science fiction movie with stark soundscapes, movements echoing in the darkness and a clock ominously ticking as time slips away and fate moves ever closer. This edgy, anxious tension runs throughout the album, often lurking in the background and occasionally stepping out of the shadows for short periods of time to provide brief respite as the central character begins their descent deeper into the world of their visions and further into madness.
No sooner than “Prologue” ends the senses are jolted with a sharp steady break that transforms into a torrent of hardcore beats that frantically collide as synth textures ebb in the form of “The Traveller”. “Drawn In” which follows it is generally calmer with crisp breaks permeated with an uneasy shifting textures and atmospheric melodies that give a feeling that everything is not as it seems and something dark is lurking behind a carefully created exterior. “A Different Yesterday” rhythmically pounds the senses while musing how we are a different person to yesterday, signifying a seminal change has occurred. “The Dreamer” mixes passages of intense frantic hardcore beats with gentle almost ambient serenity as though longing to return to a calmer more peaceful state of mind. These calmer although still dark tones are carried through into “The Narrator” which combines hard jabbing rhythms with haunting backdrop that hints at spectral voices and your imagination playing tricks on you by making you think something lurks in the shadows – or is it just your imagination?
A track of two halves, the first half of “No Notice” is full of atmospheric melodies, dark swirling ambience and muted voices echoing from the distance while the second half is a relentless onslaught of bass and beats hammering inside your head to confuse and disorientate whilst battling the darker atmospheres that continue to lurk in the background. At first “Cover Up” doesn’t seem sure whether to continue the chaotic rhythms or increase the tension and anxiety with ethereal voices and uneasy tones; in the end it combines the two with a slower, steadier beat and a gentle female voice calling the distance. An uneasy calm sets in before the creeping tones of “Broken Seconds” are punctuated with an ominous heartbeat-like rhythm and the inevitable crash as drum ‘n’ bass rhythms kick in, still punctuated with unsettled spells of dark cinematic melody and a drifting tonal backing. “The Devil’s Instant” has the hardest stabbing beat of all the tracks on the album, feeling as though it is tapping on your skull and won’t stop. Resplendent with a recurring string loop and spacious ambience, it briefly offers freedom as if floating freely in space before delivering a reminder of the dark reality being confronted towards it close. The ‘hidden’ track, “Epilogue”, closes the album in the same way it opened by returning to truly cinematic form with orchestral strings and horns providing thematic pointers enhanced with atmospheric piano and some synth tones for added presence. The inclusion of “Prologue” and “Epilogue” bookend The Words Below nicely being used almost like title music, the titles of the tracks themselves indicating that the story Wessels is telling is part of a bigger tale of which this is just another chapter.
The differences between the album tracks and the 12” versions for the first two singles are generally very subtle; “The Dreamers” has an edgier less minimal start with a more pronounced engine-like throb and a missing ‘can I dream’ sample while “The Traveller” has a long minimal introduction, building up to the immediate jolting break that opens the album version. The remaining four tracks on the first two singles appear to be the same as their album counterparts. Nitzinsky’s mix of “The Narrators” does away with the subtle ambient aspects of the track, replacing them with a metronome thudding beat and distorted drum ‘n’ bass rhythms backed with retro sci-fi laser sounds and an undulating synth tone. Wessels replaces the spacious ambience of the album version of “The Devil’s Instant” with a stark minimal backdrop and focuses on the hardest of drum ‘n’ bass beats executed with clinical precision, adding more samples and an indescribable squeaking sound expanding on the track’s theme. Of the two remixes, Wessel’s own rework is by far the more creative and interesting prospect.
Alternating between spells of anxious dark ambience and pounding drum ‘n’ bass and hardcore beats, The Words Below resembles the psychotic episodes of a spiral into madness; the punishing beats relentlessly pounding inside the main character’s head punctuated by brief spells of ominous unsettled calm fearfully waiting for the beat to return again and again. Add to that select samples that speak of changing forever from “A Different Yesterday” or the repeated phrase ‘it feels wrong’ from the track of the same name and everything is pointing towards a nightmarish underworld that our hero (or heroine) has been inevitably drawn into, probably against their will. But still, despite all this darkness and torment, there is some calm and some hope shining through in the quieter sections of music, buried somewhere there is still a desire to pull out of the shadows and into the light of normality and the world above once more. We’ll have to wait for Wessels to produce his next album to find out what happens next!
Published by Igloo Magazine [February 3rd 2010]