Nero are two young producers, remixers, DJs and dance artists from North West London who, in 2011, have taken the music world by storm. And “storm” is about right when it comes to describing the epic noise they make, with its thunderous dubstep bass, whirlwind drum’n’bass and hail of house rhythms, lightning flashes of rave synths, squall of orchestra, and occasional showers of guitar.
The storm broke in early 2011, when Dan Stephens and Joe Ray, as Nero, were one of the 12 newcomers in the BBC’s prestigious annual Sound of... list of names to watch, from a poll of critics and music industry tastemakers. Since then, success for the pair hasn’t been so much intermittent as a downpour: in January, their single Me & You peaked at number 15, the follow-up, Guilt, went top 10, reaching number 8 in April, and in June they headlined the WOW stage at Glastonbury and had their Dubstep Symphony performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
Not that they appeared out of nowhere at the start of the year. Born in 1984, Joe and Dan, who first met in 2000, do have a pre-history on the club scene and dance underground, veterans of the nightclub Fabric, where they rubbed shoulders with the drum’n’bass and dubstep elite. They have had their fair share of releases on all the right labels, won several awards and done remixes for the great and good, including The Streets, La Roux, deadmau5, N*E*R*D and Daft Punk. But their first official release, Innocence, didn’t come out till April 2010, when it climbed to number 16 and 11, respectively, on the Dance and Independent charts.
If their wealth of experience has served them well, so too have their musical upbringings. Dan’s dad, Nick, was a bassist in a group led by free jazz innovator John Stevens, and he inculcated in his son a love of Mingus, Monk and Miles. “I grew up with jazz,” recalls Dan, a multi-instrumentalist who played cello for 12 years. “But there was also a lot of classical music, and funk and soul, in our house.”
The epic, cinematic, widescreen quality to Nero’s grimy symphonies comes from their love of movie soundtracks: Joe, a trained classical guitarist, loves the stabbing strings and eerie atmospheres of Bernard Herrmann’s scores, as well as the baroque work of his favourite composers. He believes Nero offer a shorter, more compact and intense version of that classical sound in dance form.
“My dad's a big classical nut,” says Joe. “He was into Berlioz and Beethoven, although my mum was more into Barry Manilow. I think both somehow rubbed off on me.”
Berlioz, Beethoven, bebop... There are two more “B” types that have exerted an influence on the Nero boys: The Beatles - Dan’s aunt gave him a Beatles cassette when he was four, and that had a massive impact on his grasp of pop songcraft - and “boogie”, the term applied to early-80s postdisco and electro-funk.
“If I had to pick any era of music as my favourite, it would be the early-80s period of boogie and rare disco, when dance musicians started using more synthesizers, people like Change, The B.B.&Q. Band and D-Train. I also love that big 80s rock sound, all those big synths and drums you hear on Phil Collins and Prince records.”
Stadium rock, electro-funk, jazz and classical music, movie soundtracks, rave, the beats of drum’n’bass and the distorted subsonic basslines and production methods of dubstep... Factor in the freaktronic 90s releases of the Warp label (Aphex Twin, Squarepusher) and you’ve got the recipe for a superb album. A Nero album, in fact.
Welcome Reality is that album. A distillation of 30 years of dance, from disco to dubstep, with some rock thrown in. Fourteen tracks, and one hour, of melodic dance mayhem, it was recorded in the same South London studio used by Shy FX, Caspa and Nero's label bosses Chase & Status, featuring music written and produced by themselves, using equipment both new and “vintage”, with some of the iconic 80s synths - a Roland Jupiter 8 and Yamaha CS80 - that the likes of Madonna, Prince and Duran Duran used. The lyrics were also self-penned, with some help from their regular singer Alana Watson. The only outside assistance came from a guitarist friend called Bush, and a certain 80s megastar called Daryl Hall, who provided a cameo on the track Reaching Out.
“We were put in touch with him by a producer,” says Joe, who explains that, sadly, Nero and the blonde half of the biggest-selling US singles act of the 80s, Hall & Oates, never met. Despite this, he adds, his and especially Dan’s parents, who own a copy of H&O’s classic 1973 album Abandoned Luncheonette, “were really chuffed.”
So much for the transatlantic love-ins. Welcome Reality actually has more of a future-dread vibe. The artwork for the album was deliberately designed to resemble a poster for one of those 80s sci-fi movies set in some not-so-far-off dystopia, such as Blade Runner. That grim, dark, foreboding, apocalyptic-urban vision of tomorrow informs the whole mood of Welcome Reality.
“It’s definitely got that flavour to it,” agrees Dan. “It’s meant to be retro-futuristic, with that Aliens-style ‘dirty’, gritty vision of the future, as opposed to that shiny, clean idea of the future people had in the 50s and 60s.”
“There’s definitely a feeling of Doomsday on the album,” adds Joe. “The theme is sort of romance-in-the-ruins!”
The album opens with 2808 (the title taken from an anime series), all big, dramatic chords and strings. The second track, Doomsday, evinces a filmmaker’s grasp of dynamics, tension and release, with its quiet lulls and eruptive bursts. My Eyes is moody, evocative, Moroder-esque rock-disco with a vocal from Alana.
“We’ve known her since we were 16,” explains Dan. “She’s always been part of the Nero gang. She’s got a good A&R sensibility, and she’s been on all the singles. She helps give us a ‘band’ feel, a bit like Massive Attack.”
Track four is Guilt, which Dan and Joe never expected to do so well in the charts. They describe it as a “nightmare to make” but admit that it now gets the biggest reaction when they play it live. The other big hit single on the album, Me & You - the one where stadium rock meets dubstep - was the one whose success ramped up anticipation at the record company for the album.
“We’d been going since about 2004, then suddenly we had this number 15 hit,” recalls Joe. “Before that, we were expected to carry on being an underground, word-of-mouth thing. Suddenly we were being played on Radio 1 and everything changed.”
Fugue State has the dramatic feel of Walter Carlos’ score for A Clockwork Orange, propelled into the future. “It’s got a crusty analogue baroque sound” is how Joe describes it, “with a house tempo.”
Innocence is, say Joe and Dan, “trancey but not too cheesy... we hope!” Live, it is one of the most powerful tunes in Nero’s arsenal. “We’ve seen videos of Skream and Benga dropping it and crowd-surfing to it. It’s a staple of our DJ sets.”
In The Way, at the halfway mark, signals a change of mood and pace, with its spacious, dubby mix. Scorpions began as a cover of a song by the titular European 80s hair-metal band and features a reference to Vangelis's Blade Runner soundtrack and a startling “triplet rhythm”. Crush On You is futuristic pop based on a sample from an old 80s boogie/disco song by The Jets. Must Be The Feeling, too, pivots on an 80s sample, this time by a Detroit disco teen diva called Carmen, the result of Nero “scouring the internet for rare boogie tracks”, as you do. Finally, there is the closing trio of Daryl Hall collaboration Reaching Out, the rave pop of Promises, and Departure. The latter closes the album in fine, cinematic style.
“We wanted to make a dance album that takes you on a journey,” reveals Dan, “with segues and a sense of flow from beginning to end.”
“It’s the sort of album we’d have loved as kids,” adds Joe, who admits that the benchmarks for Welcome Reality as a coherent, near-conceptual piece of work were Radiohead’s OK Computer, Daft Punk’s Discovery and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
“We wanted it to sound memorable but not dated,” says Dan. “Some albums are very ‘now’ but won’t be relevant in a year. We want ours to last.”
Job done. In fact, fully expect Welcome Reality to rip the roof off a club and/or do damage to whatever the future version of your bedroom stereo will be in, at the very least, the year 2808.