After winning a Grammy for their remix collaboration with Skrillex on “Promises,” vocal-driven dubstep trio Nero returns with their second artist album, Between II Worlds. Now over a decade into their career, Nero’s message on this album is clear: They’re more than a bass-powered dance act now, and they’re attempting to prove themselves capable of being chart-quaking pop stars. For what producers Daniel Stephens and Joe Ray can do in a studio, Alana Watson proves more than able to equal behind a microphone. If looking for an album showcasing depth and surprising breadth of musical skills, this is a must-listen. Feeling like the first official chapter in a story whose ending is sure to eclipse its already impressive start, this album successfully proves that awfully impressive pop sounds exist beyond dubstep.
Between II Worlds leads off with “Circles,” a sumptuous, mainstream dance-pop single. The searing synths and undulating bassline punctuated by a metronomic beat do very little to hide the real star of this track, Watson’s topline vocal. The way it’s allowed to weave into the production itself makes it a far more melodic tool. And the builds here are constructed to open more space for bigger vocal runs, underlining a pair of producers who understand the intricacies of properly working with a vocalist.
Impressively enough, Nero’s figured out how to work dub-reggae swing into pop dubstep. It’s one of their signature skills, and it’s what made the aforementioned “Promises” so great. This feels like a conscious attempt at making a redux of that hit, as every production trick—from the bassline dropping out for the hook to the subtly hidden kicks in the mix rising up over everything—gives the dubstep feel of the track overwhelming heft. For those looking for “Promises” 2.0—and there’s a wide population that certainly is—look no further.
“It Comes and It Goes”
The magic of “It Comes and It Goes” is in just how well the track never comes down. The bassline is introduced after a 90-second build, but it’s not titanic. Rather, the kicks are just there to chop up the pacing, to give the production a subtle sense of movement as it desperately yearns, like Watson, for the ability to find itself and to find love. In somehow conveying a sense of height and length, the studio mastery of Stephens and Ray is on full display here.
Songwriting is pushed to the forefront here as the piano house vibe makes this one the possible winner for the album’s most danceable earworm. This is what happens when Swedish House Mafia’s progressive house is blended with Disclosure’s UK garage in ideal measure. With Stephens and Ray at the controls, the key to these songs is that they’re often surgical in precision and direct in inspiration, too. As smart as it is funky, and with Watson’s magical lead vocal, it’s a tune worthy of hit-single status.
“What Does Love Mean”
Wow. When the slide whistle sneaks into this one a bar before Watson starts singing, the track goes from a meandering open to immediate intrigue. Watson’s lyrics—“We met on a platform at midnight”—gives the idea that this is high-concept, Krautrock-inspired, sort of a modern take on ABBA’s last-ever hit single, 1981’s taciturn “The Day Before You Came.” This is both gargantuan and beautiful; there’s a likely excellence in creating Tommy-style “rock operas” out of their more far-reaching musical leaps.
“Between II Worlds”
At seven minutes and 20 seconds long, this is another concept piece. Over a section in the middle of the track, a male voice describes the thoughts and visions he felt when exposed to Nero’s conceptual vision of their music, which appropriately exists “between two worlds.” The banging drums in the bottom end in this section provide a guttural rumble that gives the sense of the second before an eruptive birth. If we’re two albums and a Grammy win into Nero’s career and they only now have a sense of where this is headed, then let’s strap in tight.
“Into the Night”
The perfect follow-up to “Between II Worlds,” “Into the Night” features Watson and a male lead exchanging vocal duties and discussing leaving something “all behind.” Whether seen as a song about heading into the wilderness of new love or about something far more conceptual in definition, this is definitely an orchestral ballad and a departure from much of the rest of the album. Again, Watson shines here, and it bears noting that she’s as important to the overall success of Nero as the producers. The trio is a phenomenal ensemble unit, which is repeatedly showcased on this album.
Maybe the best thing about “Satisfy” is that what makes it sexy is not what Watson is saying, but rather how the bassline and melody do nothing more than massage her vocal. It’s as if she’s cooing and the chords are frothing against her voice as if she’s Venus being birthed from the half-shell. The track devolves into more dance-ready interplay between razor-like synths and a four-on-the-floor beat, but that feels more like an orgasmic release than the truly magnificent work that opens the track.
Grime-laden dubstep is delivered here as booming trap-style breaks dominate this track. The rap sample guiding the feel of the song whets your appetite for the Skepta anthem that isn’t delivered. Somehow, there needs to be someone out there willing to take the a cappella of “Shutdown” into this. Skepta’s Konnichiwa album is hotly anticipated and still coming down the bend, so maybe we’ll see a Nero remix by then. This one fascinates and leaves fans hopeful for something more.
“Into the Past (Reboot)”
Ambient breaks underneath soaring synths provide a dark and desolate feel, and Watson’s vocal isn’t so much brassy and powerful as it is entirely disconsolate. This one is sparse on the production, but the vocal shines through here as expected. What makes Nero work as a unit is that sometimes they can strip back the production to allow a vocal performance from Watson, which can do more for the track than any melody Stephens and Ray could ever provide.
Stabbing orchestral synths, bruising breaks, and a filtered vocal combine for the band’s successful attempt at aping something of what Hudson Mohawke brings to pop-aimed trap. This one is glistening and tough, the skittering 808s a highlight not so much of the track as how they’re deployed under stentorian and bombing synth chords. This track is huge and is easily the album’s most EDM festival-relevant production. Instead of mirroring trends, they try to find their own unique section to occupy in a well-established lane.
Possibly borrowing production concepts from Phil Collins’ 1985 soundtrack ballad winner “Against All Odds,” Nero’s synth soul may not be in favor in dance-aimed pop at present. But when you’re as skilled as Nero are in the studio and you have Watson’s vocal gift ready to employ, making heartbroken tracks like this just feels like it is aching to be done. For an album that dips and dives into and out of every manner of euphoric bass track possible, Between II Worlds closing out with “Wasted” feels apropos, as it’s literally the only feeling left to explore.
Between II Worlds from Nero is available now.
Marcus K. Dowling is not from this world. Follow him on Twitter.