The British master DJ spins moody house and techno like it's 1988 and 2005 at the same time.
It's no small task to make a dance mix "inspired by" a Chinese metropolis of 20 million people. Bristol, England's Warren is up to it, though, and he has a bit of a trick up his sleeve. Shanghai's liner notes tout the album's internationalism, but its most striking aspect is how it takes full advantage of the current '80s revival. Despite contributions from artists of more than a dozen different nationalities, this two-disc, 23-track set almost sounds like a Chicago nightclub circa 1988.
No, you won't find any Frankie Knuckles or Front 242 tracks here. Shanghai is not retro in that sense. Actually, many of the tracks are exclusives that were especially commissioned by Warren. But almost the entire proceeding draws on the moody, pulsing, treble-heavy sounds of vintage house, techno, and New Beat. Warren does a masterful job of sculpting and modulating the mix to create a singular, shimmering atmosphere. You won't find any hardcore, trance, or drum & bass here -- not a lot of "big names", either. Pretty much everything is 4/4, but not of the earth-shaking THUMP, THUMP, THUMP variety. Imagine more traditional analog synth-pop drum machine patterns, only sped up. Imagine a time before digital synthesizers allowed for bland, interchangeable trance anthems. Aaaah, you could dance all night.
Shanghai was indeed recorded live at a club in its namesake, and you can feel Warren working the crowd. DJ-ing is all about predicting, staying one step ahead of the people on the dancefloor -- giving them just what they need to keep going, but not enough so that they'll stop wanting more. On Shanghai, Warren is a master of this give-and-take. He starts out with some very pretty (but not new age pretty), whooshing deep house. By track three, Alex Stealthy's "Once", themes of pulsing bass, punchy rhythms, and minor chords have been established. From there, the synths get gradually louder -- more "industrial" -- and the bass lines meaner. With the flanging guitars, mournful synth strokes, and heavy phasing, most tracks recall an all instrumental Depeche Mode, New Order, or Cabaret Voltaire. BCML's powerful, surging "Mr. Horowitz" is the highlight of the first disc. Only Starecase's "Vapour Trails", sporting a cheesy, whirring synth sound, feels like a misstep. Lustral's "Solace", an urgent, full-fledged house track, sets the stage for the second disc.
It's on that second disc where Warren really shows off his talent, throwing stuff at you until you think the intensity has peaked, then upping the heat even more. New Order/Cure style guitars make their way into Morozov's "Fly Guitar" and Holden and Thompson's "Come to Me", one of the few vocal tracks. Blendbrank's "Synthetic Symphony" could be yet another remix of New Order's "Blue Monday", picking up the tempo and stripping away emotion, giving way to Shanghai's one true retro moment, Hardfloor's "Acperience". After that nine-minute acid workout, Warren wisely gets more abstract and psychedelic, taking advantage of your already-spinning head but never losing his own focus. He winds the mix down nicely with Derek Howell's dreamy "Your Touch", reminiscent of Orbital's classic early techno staple "Belfast".
Warren doesn't fool around with drop-ins and blow-ups as much as others might, but that's just another indication of the height of his craft, and the era from which he gets most of his inspiration. So the '80s revival has made its way onto the decks and crossfaders. With Warren, it's in good hands.