Zomby, ‘With Love’ (4AD)
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Though it’s cuter than a Guy Fawkes mask how hard Zomby works at being an enigma (electronic music apparently didn’t have enough of those lying around), his sprawling discography is becoming worrisome. The anonymous English electronic-dance producer (his favored headgear has included the aforementioned post-V for Vendetta cliché and an all-seeing-eye-laden, skull-encompassing pyramid) traverses dubstep, old-school jungle, grime, and ultra-pixelated video-game-soundtrack 8-bit with nonchalant freedom. Though he’s a miniaturist – only six tracks from his six major releases (three albums and three EPs) exceed four minutes in length — he’s not a minimalist, even when the arrangements are spare. He likes to make an impact. He just likes to do it from an oblique angle.
The very outline of With Love gives it an out feel. In an obvious way, it’s the widest-lens Zomby release ever: two discs (though veterans of the CD era might notice it all would’ve fit tightly onto one) with 33 tracks that showcase every side of his range. Around the time of his last album, 2011’s Dedication, the British avant-garde music magazine The Wire ran a Zomby cover story that parsed not just his recordings, but a passel of YouTube-only rarities as well — these, they declared, deserved to be considered alongside his other work. Here, it sounds like he took that praise to heart and went even further, arranging each disc’s songs alphabetically. Maybe he’s trying to evoke the nonstop random stream of social media, or maybe he’s just telling us to sort it all out our fucking selves, an action right in line with his well-deserved notoriety for late-coming, half-assed live performances on those occasions when he deigns to appear at all.
The primary demarcation between the discs is that the first relies more on breakbeat derivations and the second more on the slow-rolling rhythm programming of trap. The second half is mellower and slightly more pixelated-sounding, as well. Otherwise, it’s like the difference between going to the store for some milk and heading back to the store for some more milk.
That goes for the material as well, unfortunately, at least if you’ve ever gone shopping for Zomby before. He’s always been prone to spitting out sketches and calling them “works,” and while his catalog is hardly perfect (I’ll take “Godzilla” and leave everything else on 2009’s One Foot Ahead of the Other, thanks), much of the time what’s made his work so attractive is that the line is never quite clear, because what sounds like a simple repetition will take on unexpected wrinkles. On With Love, that’s exemplified by “777,” which closes the first half with a ferocious “Amen”-break drum’n’bass workout that builds incrementally to peak mid-’90s velocity, and disc two’s “Digital Smoke,” the most arresting of his ongoing “Digital” series of 8-bit tracks (see the 2009 12-inch “Digital Flora” b/w “Digital Fauna”) thanks to a steamroller 808 kick. Meanwhile, “Quickening” is a second-half trap exercise that puts its soft bell melody and off-kilter, hollow percussion on the four right next to each other, exerting a hypnotic pull.
There are even pieces with melodies that resemble songs, for those of you who like that sort of thing. (No Animal Collective guys on this one, though. Sorry!) “Isis” steps sharp on a Motown-ish two-four beat while vocal samples and plinky keyboards hit the ether together; “Rendezvous” alternates a couple of gaseous R&B-diva vocals (a pretty standard trick these days) and drops them with aplomb over a moody, medium-tempo track seasoned with time-stretched jungle vocals and air-raid sirens. (Both are on disc one.)
So yes, there’s good music all over this; excellent playlists will ensue. But this is about the object at hand, not the one to come. The way Zomby has put it all together, even the developed pieces might as well be sketches. Unlike Dedication, this doesn’t build from parts; it simply parades them. In the context of no context, nothing signifies, because nothing can. Everything gets lost, or at least diminished, in the shuffle. Nearly everything on With Love sounds pretty good, but so little of it stands out that there’s no chance for anything to imprint a pattern or (hell, why not?) a story in our heads before it gets dashed. Isn’t that this sometime-DJ’s job?
Yet it’s easy to imagine this becoming a touchstone Zomby recording by dint of being a ready-made primer, in much the same way Aphex Twin’s 2001 double-CD Drukqs resonated despite the fact that it might be his worst album. Similarly, With Love is the climax to years of activity in which new ideas were thrown around like volleyballs. Aside from its sheer heft, though, it’s hard to imagine it converting anyone who doesn’t already care. And when your piece of the acreage depends on your ability to turn heads, that’s a bad sign all around.