Special Request – Offworld Review

Dance music artists and labels nowadays often indulge in verbose press releases that make Bandcamp pages look like art galleries. And then there is Paul Woolford aka Special Request. The press release for his latest effort, Offworld, simply states “Offworld started off with the question: What if Jam & Lewis signed to Metroplex?”.

Part three of an epic four-album-saga to be released over just one year via Houndstooth, Offworld offers us the chance to familiarize with an overlooked shade of Special Request’s music. High speed jungle breaks and fierce techno give way to a mellow hybrid of ’80s soul/r&b and Detroit electro, accentuating the transition toward a smoother and more melodic sound palette already undertaken with the passage from Vortex to Bedroom Tapes.

This is an album of delicious Detroit-tinged electro, heavily infused with a ‘pop’ sensibility, mostly traceable to the continuous foregrounding of melodies. It has that familiar sci-fi vibe, but the Metroplex-esque cosmic atmosphere is enriched and warmed with a penchant for emotional, almost baroque, melodies and pads. They are extremely catchy without falling in the trap of cheesiness, thus retaining an aura of mystery. If it’s true that Special Request’s offworld is a world where melodies reign, it’s also true that a sinister tone is hidden below the glittering surface (both metaphorical and physical, check the record sleeve).

For as epic as these tracks may sound, I can’t help but perceive a submerged sense of melancholia lurking behind the corner, as if the very act of reshaping the past brought with it a vague feeling of nostalgia for a time that can’t be recovered or perhaps that never truly existed.

Offworld is a fitting title, sketching the producer’s personal world where history and imagination coalesce in the name of a timeless sonic palette. The opener “237.000 miles” is an ode to ‘80s electro built around a vocal sample. “Shepperton moon landing” features all the tropes: warm bassline, looped melody, minimalist beat, sci-fi pads and diva vocals. “Offworld memory 3” sounds like the remembered euphoria of a rave on the moon, while “Front screen projection” and “Morning ritual” are contenders for catchiest melody of the year.

Two slight detours find their place in “Arse end of the moon” and in the final track. The former starts off with yet another memorable melody and turns into a warmer, groovier midtempo breakbeat instead of the expected algid electro pattern.

Unpredictably, the album closer is a remix of Floatation by The Grid, a 1990 balearic track with trademark breakbeat, hypnotic lyrics and an uplifting flute solo. Almost 30 years after Andy Weatherall, Woolford steps up to remix it and delivers a stunning 13-minutes take. For the first six minutes he builds the tension with spare keyboards stabs (half “Twin Peaks”, half “Born Slippy NUXX”), extracts of comm dialogues, snare hits, and vocal sample; then he lets the tension flow out in the second half, saying goodbye at a daydreaming 100 BPM tempo.

Blending Detroit cosmic yearning, rave tragic euphoria, and pop immediacy, Offworld is a fascinating album both for those who went through the 80s and 90s, so they can relive certain sounds and atmospheres; and for those who weren’t there, so they can fantasize about the Golden Age they didn’t experience.

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