When Kode9 started up Hyperdub in 2004 it was a consistent stream of acclaimed records between him and Burial that really got the UK underground music scene noticing. By 2008 a number of artists who Kode9 felt fit the bill joined. Zomby was among this first wave, releasing his debut self-titled EP with them. He has since moved on to 4AD and over the years built an online personality rather than a public one as he, just like former label-mate Burial, likes to stay anonymous. In electronic music, producers come and go like fashion (something Zomby dabs in). If you want a long shelf-life you need to stay relevant which means constantly being on the circuit either through Djing, releasing free downloads or mixes and teasing the fanbase with upcoming tracks. It is a difficult route to do so through a hidden identity, Zomby pulls it off as luckily for him he is a great producer however his virtual persona has been questionable. If Burial is someone who relies on mystery and his fans see him as this god-like figure that gifts them with divine tracks like miracles when he feels like, then Zomby is the devil. He plays up to this villainous persona daily in forums or with tweets like “just cuz im on twitter im not the same level as you fam im like the sun you are like a grain of sand on a far away random planet”. This sort of stuff is bound to alienate some fans, but in this day and age scandal and self-indulgence goes a long way and it’s easier to seem larger than life in the shadows than physically having to play the role.
Zomby’s latest offering on 4AD is not a far cry from the last. The tracks may be as short as ever, most barely reaching the 2 minute mark, yet it’s a much more extensive output. Staccato synths reverberate throughout the album creating this uneasy and unforgiving atmosphere just as the last release did. The booms of bottom heavy sub-bass help in adding a little warmth to what is an icy affair. ‘Black Orchid’ from Dedication is a great example of Zomby’s idiosyncratic synth work, and it is this same palette that he paints much of With Love. Just as Dedication had these beat-less mood compositions so too we find in With Love. The ethereal ‘Black Rose’ and ‘Reflection In Black Glass’ are as their titles suggest void of much colour. As the more beat-orientated tracks go we face once again snippets that, if they were longer would fit in a club environment such as ‘This One’ and ‘Isis’. However this does not seem to be his primary motive. It’s as if he has condensed the tracks enough for us to get a quick fix of what an 8 minute track would make you feel in a mix.
On Dedication we saw how Zomby can jump from a piece that has a faint Hip Hop tinge to a more jungle one, while all the time making sure not to fall into any specific genre trends. With Love on the other hand does have a number of tracks that wouldn’t stick out as much in a mix of a particular genre. Disk one explores a range of tempos and beats. The opening track is a great introduction to the album and Zomby himself. Pixelated 8-bit gloops percolating in the background while bustling drums trudge along with the bass were the sounds that caught the ear of Kode9 back in the day. The pensive, broken-beat ‘Ascension’ starts up next, but just as you are getting settled and the beat has just began to well and truly marinate you are pushed into ‘Horrid’. Gigantic 808 booms, inhumane hi-hat work and a snare that you will become very close to later on dominate the track. ‘If I Will’ utilises the human voice as drums which is enjoyable and a nod towards the Timbaland sounding ‘Lucifer’ from the earlier release. ‘It’s Time’ and especially ‘Overdose’ and ‘777’ take their cue from early 90’s UK rave music; something that Zomby is a master at replicating, here he perfectly captures darkside jungle circa ’93. ‘Isis’ really stands out possibly it’s because Zomby has never really explored anything like it, acoustic sounding bass and drums with a basic 4/4 beat that could even, god forbid, be mixed into a house set.
Having moved to the states, Zomby’s change in location is very apparent on the album. With Love snatches you away from chest boxing Funktion-Ones in East London, and leaves you inside a smoked out bedroom of a Englewood youth in house arrest. Disk two is dominated by what you heard with ‘Horrid’ in the early stages and it’s this template that the rest follow. The subtle differences between the tracks makes disk two have a much more consistent narrative. Unfortunately it quickly becomes a tiring listening experience and you soon realise the they start blurring into one. This is a shame, as the unpredictability of the first disk is what really made the album. ‘Pyrex Nights’ is the stand out trap-strumental, but this is possibly due to the variation in bass and drum kit. ‘With Love’ is a haunting end track which will leave people with a peculiar after-glow and makes up a small amount. Zomby’s sudden infatuation with the drill scene overwhelms the latter part of the album as if he made a number of melodies in one blunted night. Just as he was making music for a culture that was a part of a past time and place, this exploration into trap must be a nod to the now or future. If these tracks are not for clubs and not varied enough to be enjoyed privately then they must be built for MC’s. The gun shots, horns and the “anything test dead!” (Overdose) all come from sound-clash culture. Zomby’s music is strongly aligned with UK grime, not just because of the frosty eski-synths, but because the track lengths are perfect for an intro, a drop and a rewind. ‘Things You Do’ and ‘Pyrex Nights’ have this confrontational aspect that a skilled lyricist can eat up. It is as if these samey trap tunes were purposefully made for a quick bar or two before the next one is pulled up, and if this wasn’t Zomby’s aim then maybe they will end up being part of a soundtrack in a game set in post-apocalyptic London. Or it might just sound track a fashion show influenced by south and west Chicago, areas where just as the popularity rises in its music so too does the crime rate.
The early parts of With Love are genre-blending, monochrome snapshots of UK club culture — you can easily be searching through your radio and stumble upon ‘This One’ and you’ll never find out the name of the song. The album travels even deeper than Dedication and shows off Zomby’s damn good ear for composing effective short melodies. Those morose chords, skittering drums and vocal samples evoke multitudes of emotions on the first disk and it is the vocals that are missed the most during the latter parts of the album. It starts to get so desolate within the company of synthesised sound and sparse beats that you begin to long for that human touch. Unfortunately Zomby does not provide and you are forced through loops of repetitive instrumentals which are less successful in developing the atmosphere and ranging moods of before. Those releases on Hyperdub seem like a whisper now, gone are the days of 8-bit Casio chip-tunes and bouncy drums. All colour and vitality has been drained during his time at 4AD, now brandishing a sound that has matured into darker territory. Yet he still maintains a unique presence in electronic music, which will surely make him stand out among the crowd for quite some time.