2011 has seen an escalation for Daniel Stevens and Joe Ray. The London-based duo had already cornered the market on remixes, but the real challenge was make it in their own right. The BBC has a lot to do with their present ubiquity – A-listing their singles, naming them as one of the Sounds of 2011, and even fixing them up with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for THAT once-in-a-lifetime collaboration. And the album, too, demonstrates Nero’s ability to step up to the plate and deliver.
The singles are what got everyone talking, and naturally they sparkle in the album setting. The falling chords and delicious harmonies of Guilt, the cloying neuroticism of Innocence and the racing euphoria of new record Promises delight, as always. And despite the (deserved) wall-to-wall-of-noise coverage of Me And You, it refuses to get old. The bouncing spiccatto strings whip up the anticipation before the cathartic bass drops in to cause mayhem. “Are you ready?” shouts Alana Watson provocatively. Yes, Alana. Yes we are.
But by themselves, the singles only told half the story. Welcome Reality is not just a disparate collection of standalone tracks – if the Symphony demonstrated anything, it’s that Stevens and Ray are skilled composers as well as musicians, and the structure of the record is carefully crafted accordingly. Smooth transitions are key – tracks flow into one another, more like a symphony running at an hour-and-a-bit than an album of five-minute chunks.
2808 opens on a quiet but suggestive note. Not just noise, this is very cleverly written, undulating noise, the haziness sharpening as it ratchets up the tension, though it maybe lasts a little too long before delivering the sucker punch.
That sucker punch is Doomsday. The deluxe edition of the album will feature a remix of Justice‘s Stress, but it is the influence of Genesis from that album which really stands out here. An incredible opening rhythm sets the pace like a giant breaking into a run, while the gargantuan orchestral grandeur is sliced by a deliciously debauched bassline so filthy it’s a wonder it got past the censors. Its breathtaking emergence from lower-key 2808 is echoed halfway through Scorpions, where the fuzzy warmth of guitar feedback snaps in a flash to prickly, menacing bass.
The worry with anything that carries the label ‘drum and bass’ is that it will lack sonic variety, and after the showy singles will slouch into a squelchy bass when it thinks its listeners are stoned enough not to care. Nero don’t fall into this trap at all, mixing it up at will. The frenetic beeping of Reaching Out, the suitably sweeping cinematic washes of string on Departure, the almost funkily seventies bass of Must Be The Feeling – Nero are comfortable dabbling with whatever tickles their fancy, and it is perhaps this self-effacing experimentalism which sets them apart. A particular highlight is the inclusion of the fan’s favourite – a wonderfully wacky cover of The Jets‘ Crush On You. Ever wondered what a singer sounds like while trying to be soulful at chipmunk-pitch? Well, here’s when you get to find out.
Sometimes, they are a little too out-of-this-world for their own good. My Eyes seems to be juggling too much at once. Watson’s Sarah McLachlanesque, clear-cut tones jostle for prominence with reggae-like rhythm, squelchy synths and dirty bass – individually great, but mix them all together at once and it’s difficult to settle into an understanding of what the track’s about. Meanwhile, the weirdness and angularity of In The Way is occasionally hard to follow.
Welcome Reality is not lyrically poor, but nor does anything stand out as particularly noteworthy. That said, we’re not looking for poetry here, just something we can belt out at the end of a heavy night – and on that score, Nero are more than fit for purpose.
As a title, Welcome Reality gets it half right – this is a decent debut which more than lives up to the hype, but is so mind-blowingly out-there that any suggestion that it resembles ‘reality’ ought to launch a Trading Standards investigation.