If you want to know who’s responsible for making the sub-low sound of British bass music a chart staple, you could do worse than look at Nero. Daniel Stephens, Joe Ray and Alana Watson come from the same dubstep-meets-drum’n’bass world as Chase & Status (who signed them to their MTA label) and their career has been an exercise in a very particular kind of pop music. Along with Pendulum and Chase & Status, they took a maximalist approach to dance music, breaking it down into big, chunky blocks of synths and bass, which, when they broke into the wider consciousness with the single Me & You in 2011, sounded intriguing, if at times rudimentary. While EDM has since taken the most crowd-pleasing aspects of dubstep (the drop, the unrelenting, wobbling basslines) and built shrines to its own ridiculousness in the form of Las Vegas residencies (Vegas staple Calvin Harris earned $66m [£42m] last year, according to Forbes) and festivals such as Tomorrowland and Electric Daisy, Nero have always seemingly had slightly loftier ambitions.
Their debut, Welcome Reality, was a concept album of sorts; a soundtrack for a film – set in the year 2808 – that didn’t actually exist. While it might not have reached the futuristic heights the group had planned for it, it showed what they were good at: big, hook-laden tunes (the album and single Promises reached No 1). They worked with Baz Luhrmann on the soundtrack to his version of The Great Gatsby, and the sleeve art for Between II Worlds (which bears more than a passing resemblance to Frank Miller’s monochrome-meets-hard boiled Sin City aesthetic) makes clear they haven’t given up on their cinematic ambitions.
The album opens with Circles, a mix of a driving, swinging bassline and breakdowns, that feels custom-made for people to mouth the word “epic” to after a few too many drinks at a festival. That’s not a band thing: the first half of Between II Worlds, with The Thrill, It Comes and Goes, and album standout Two Minds, finds a kind of hinterland between EDM, trap and trance in which subtlety is persona non grata. The only exception is What Does Love Mean, whose build-up is epic only in the sense of being far too long.
As with Welcome Reality, though, Between II Worlds becomes mired in Nero’s inability to control their self-indulgent tendencies. The title track sounds like the group pitching a theme song for a yet-to-be-cooked-up Bond film, which might have been more fun if it didn’t drag on for more than seven minutes. It also features a jarring Blade Runner-style voiceover (which, like Harrison Ford’s in the film, could do with being cut) and tries to cook up some approximation of dance-pop-prog. If that sounds bad, it is: plodding and at odds with their snappier, punchier four-minute numbers, which on Between II Worlds are what work best by far. It’s hard to believe Nero seriously think their fans want to have an album interrupted by what sounds like a particularly pained entry from Roy Batty’s nihilistic diary.
Satisfy snaps the album out of the funk with an electroclashesque bassline that mutates and morphs into something akin to a straightforward version of LCD Soundsystem’s Yeah. Dark Skies see them revert back to a dubstep buildup/drop formula that borrows from the reach-for-the-lasers hedonism of trance, which is one of the most obvious references on the album, despite their claims to be moving towards house and techno. The work of Ferry Corsten, Paul van Dyk and Gouryella would be good fits alongside the majority of Between II Worlds, so much so that the “past” referenced on Into the Past (Reboot) would probably be some time in Ibiza circa 1998.
That reveals the other issue with Between II Worlds: it feels like it is looking over its shoulder rather than trying to map out where things are going. Four years ago, Hudson Mohawke and Rustie were flirting with the same uncompromising mix of burgeoning bass and arpeggiated synths, and if Nero’s take on that style sounded slightly reductive then, it sounds positively atavistic now. In 2015, it’s noise, not maximalism, that’s becoming the weapon of choice for producers. Take Health’s track Stonefist, on which Pro Tools mistakes and glitches are building blocks of the song, or the Diplo, Skrillex and Justin Bieber track Where Are Ü Now, where Bieber’s pitched-up vocal is turned into an unlikely synth line. Expanding the sound palette to more than just the primary elements of bass, synth and “the drop” is the in-thing for those trying to get EDM taken seriously, but Nero seem intent on keeping it exactly where it is.