Welcome Reality is subtle as a brick, but that’s where its charm lies. It is a big, dumb, loud bit of dubstep, the genre everyone seems to be ready to let die now that Britney Spears has had the audacity (the nerve!) to use it in one of her singles. The album has been out since August, and features singles that have been floating around since 2010, but it is just now attracting attention due to its highly successful execution of a full-on front-to-back original dubstep experience.
That is to say: If you spend most of your time listening to Welcome Reality waiting for it to get started, well, that’s the point. Dubstep can feel strange in that it always seems to be building up to something unless you realize that half-speed drums and wobbly, crashing synth work are the hallmarks of the genre. It’s as if the bridge of every one of these songs expanded and swallowed the verses and choruses; occasionally, you hear a hint of a dance beat or a repeated motif that could pass for a chorus in your average everyday pop song, but it’s more likely you’re hearing things that sound like prechoruses or wordless transitions repeated ad infinitum. It all sounds very big and epic and important, but rarely breaks loose into full-on euphoria.
This works best on Welcome Reality when vocals aren’t involved. The big, meaty, buzzy synths that Nero is so fond of are allowed to take center stage, and spoken-word samples add a portent of doom and gloom. It’s a very harsh, dark album when the vocals aren’t cutting through, and that mood seems to suit the style best while listening. The first two tracks “2808” and “Doomsday” sound like they could have been made by Skinny Puppy or Ministry (well, the Ministry of 25 years ago) just as easily as by the purveyors of the latest buzzgenre, and they shine for it. “Fugue State” is another example of the wordless wonder of Nero, just as dark as those two openers but actually throwing a dance beat or two in for good measure, almost as a palette-cleanser for further tension to come. These are wonderful pieces that hint at the apocalyptic potential that Nero possesses.
Unfortunately, these bits are not the path to chart success.
Nero will be releasing the seventh (seventh!) single from Welcome Reality in February. While it’s true that a few of those singles were released long before the prospect of an album was even being talked about for Nero, you don’t get to a seventh single by offering doom and gloom that you can’t sing along to. That’s where vocalist Alana Watson comes in. She spends much of her time belting things, so she’s not really here to soften things up, but she’s not screaming, either. Her voice is the sort of generic-but-pleasing, steady, unfailingly on-pitch vocalist that the best synth-pop bands in the ’80s wished they had, and it makes the buzzy doom of the chaos crashing behind her strangely palatable, and sometimes even catchy.
The best of Watson’s tracks is mid-album highlight “Me and You”, a glimpse of sunlight that directly follows the aforementioned doom-dancing of “Fugue State”. “Are you ready / do you know / I feel it too”, she sings as those buzzsaws behind her stop and start, and you feel a concert opening in the most explosive possible way. It is pyrotechnics, it is a mass singalong, it is barely contained adrenaline. “Scorpions” is just as effective, a highly stylized trudge in which every beat sucks the air out of the synths while Watson gasps for air underneath it all, while UK No. 1 “Promises”, the album’s penultimate track, fulfills all of the pop promise the rest of the album seems to be hinting at whenever Watson is singing.
Amidst all of this, unfortunately, is a three-song stretch late in the album that Nero spends appropriating ’80s songs into the dubstep style, and they’re the only tracks where the treatment gets tedious. By taking The Jets’ “Crush on You” (“Crush on You”), Carmen’s “Time to Move” (“Must Be the Feeling”), and Hall & Oates’ “Out of Touch” (“Reaching Out”) and turning them into dubstep anthems, Nero removes the drama that the rest of the album spends so much time building. It’s as if Nero’s Daniel Stephens and Joe Ray are deliberately trying to undercut Watson’s importance to their sound, which is terribly unfortunate given her voice meshes with this sound far more effectively than any one of the sampled superstars in these three tracks. (Predictably, and depressingly, these three tracks are singles five, six and seven.)
’80s synthpop pandering aside, Welcome Reality is a beautifully realized vision of an album whose pomp and bombast will appeal to those looking for pop that goes beyond dancing. It’s a big dumb ridiculous thing that almost eats itself and all of its grand intentions, but at least those grand intentions make it an interesting thing to hear.