Paul Woolford started Special Request as a way to channel his childhood love affair with pirate radio. Over time, the layers of nostalgia have fused with something more modern and stylish. That much was clear when I saw Woolford DJ as Special Request at this year’s Bass Coast festival, where he threw down bass-heavy music of all stripes, venturing outside the hardcore and jungle domain of the earliest Special Request records. His latest album, Belief System—a 24-track, nearly two hour-long epic—follows an exhilarating mix CD for Fabriclive, which also showcased a wide range of styles.
The album’s opening half dazzles. The array of sounds—electro (“Adel Crag Microdot”), broken beat (“Scrambled In LS1”), hardcore (“Brainstorm”)—feels distinctively 2017 even as it looks backwards. A large part of Belief System‘s appeal comes from Woolford’s ultra-polished production. The LP’s sterling synth work, carefully EQd drums and perfect mixdowns might give an amateur producer cause to quit in frustration.
Woolford knows how to make certain sounds stand out. He can turn rude basslines into a science, as on the soulful “Make It Real,” where the second drop has a remarkably heavy bassline. Other highlights include “Replicant (Nexus 7 VIP),” a futuristic IDM take on jungle, and the soulful 2-step of “Change.” The way the beat changes from the tougher garage of “Sanctuary” into the softer skip of “Change” is a moment to behold. It’s a particularly fine example of the LP’s careful sequencing, which makes the tracks—which often have no gaps between them, or begin with a spinback—hit that much harder.
Belief System falters when Woolford changes tack to explore ambient music. Inspired by his recent sound design work for film, these tracks are suitably cinematic, but more Hans Zimmer than Vangelis. The heavy strokes, hammy strings and big textures feel contrived in this context. It’s an easy misstep to forgive considering Belief System contains many of Woolford’s best dance tracks yet. But it also seems like a wasted opportunity, especially since the ambient tracks are bundled together in the album’s second half, an odd decision for an LP that otherwise feels carefully put together. It’s like two albums in one—faced with the choice of listening to one or the other, it’s easy to guess what most people would settle for.
What sinks Woolford’s ambient tracks is the absence of what makes Special Request music special: a bold and…