Deep Inside: Zomby 'With Love'
- Words: Brandon Bussolini
- Photo: Shawn Brackbill
Zomby's DIY PR strategy is some unholy alliance of Aphex Twin's pranksterism and Kanye West's egomania. Those with enough stamina to follow the technically anonymous English producer—now based in New York—on Twitter are treated to a daily psychodrama where flashes of insight are woven into a running commentary on fashion, music, how cool his dog is, and his love/hate relationship with Apple products. This is all more or less expected of a highly functioning stoner who's too famous for the underground and too underground for what remains of the mainstream, someone who wants to retain control of his public image while reminding us that he could care less about it. With Love is as frustrating and compulsively consumable as Zomby's online presence, yet it suffers from its own consistency in almost exactly the same way.
Coming in at 33 tracks spread over two discs, Zomby's follow-up to Dedication is a metastasized version of that album's funereal sound. There are breakbeat-driven digressions that recall Zomby's 2008 homage to hardcore, Where Were U in '92, and experiments with canned trap sounds and structures, but the album is centered around his tried-and-true formula of cascading 8-bit synths and skipping beats. By the time we get to the second disc, we're numb to the producerly excellence on display. With its monochrome tastefulness, With Love is out to make good on Zomby's claims about how quickly he works, and how prolific he is—there are shades of Richard D. James's Mozartian productivity—more than it's out to push his well-established sound in a new direction.
There are some astounding moments on With Love, to be sure, but the double-album format doesn't allow listeners to appreciate the highs for long. The album trailer, with its Béla Tarr-meets-Givenchy tableaux vivants, feels like a more natural setting for the music than the album itself—the visual rhythms give the music some room to make an impact. With Love presents itself as a lone-wolf beat tape, with tracks ending abruptly like cryptic pirate-radio transmissions. Unlike the work of someone like Burial, though, there isn't any ambitious overarching structure to guide us through the maze of urban sadnesses or indicate peaks and valleys. The sound is polished to such a high sheen that we become snow-blind, unable to perceive the truly great moments among the blandly ratcheting ones. This album is grimly serious about Zomby's importance in the same way his Twitter feed can be, but it lacks moments of self-aware piss-taking that, in puncturing the mythology, would make it feel like an achievement. Either a lot of effort went into making this seem effortless or Zomby can actually produce this well in his sleep. Whatever the case, it makes for a strangely flat listening experience.
It's more interesting to think of With Love as three albums weaving in and out of each other. There's the album that mostly continues in the vein of Dedication, there's the album that's a more experimental, darker version of Where Were U in '92's junglism, and there's the album wherein Zomby's trying out to be Gucci Mane or Chief Keef's next go-to producer. Zomby's the last person who'd want anything to do with a concept album. His songs, individually or grouped in albums, are distinctly anti-narrative. Still, finding a way of breaking With Love down into its constituent parts makes its strengths and its flaws easier to grasp.
With Love album trailer
Zomby's taste in music is impeccable. He's got as good a handle on the virtues of trap as he does on grime or jungle, yet his attempts to replicate the sound are surprisingly rote and unimaginative. The second disc is heavy on trap, which gives it a lugubrious, interminable feel. "Digital Smoke"'s lurking videogame synths sound good, if entirely expected from the producer, but its underpinning of ratcheting hi-hats and booming kicks are as goony and anonymous as any stock Soundcloud trap producer. "How to Ascend" starts off the in the same Low End Theory-tryout purgatory, but is saved by its brevity and an urgent, stabbing synth line. "Vast Emptiness" is similarly unimaginative but stylistically coherent, suggesting, if nothing else, that Zomby might exist to credibly provide the content for a radio station in the next Grand Theft Auto. Although Zomby's imperative has been cry-now-cry-later funeral-parlor music for a while now, there's something conspicuously joyless about his take on Yung Chop territory—for someone who loves Chief Keef so much, there's none of the mind-blowing exuberance of a "Kay Kay" or the menacing restraint of "Citgo" on display here.
On the other hand, Zomby's forays into breaks, particularly drum & bass territory, are brilliant. Chopped-up Amen breaks have been creeping back into electronic music after a lengthy period out of fashion, with producers from Legowelt to Andy Stott sneaking in some sampled funk among their straighter beats. Zomby was ahead of the pack in terms of revitalizing those sounds, but he slows things down to devastating effect on tracks like "It's Time," which curls leisurely upward like incense smoke among cries of "It's time to get fucking mental." The urgency is barely contained by the treacle-like crawl of the cut. He proceeds to up the ante throughout the first disc, with the hardcore mania/ecstasy nightmare of "Overdose"—a callback to 4 Hero's classic "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare." This production style culminates in the fuzzy dopamine drum rush of "777" (no relation to the Autechre tune), whose cruddy 8-bit-sampler quality is a welcome stray hair in this otherwise tight razor fade of an album.
When Zomby hews close to Dedication's gothy sound, he also comes up with winners; the second disc opens promisingly with "Black Rose," where a vaguely medieval, thickly atmospheric melody harks back to 4AD's Dead Can Dance heyday. Elsewhere, the gloominess is cut with unexpected hints of funk, as with the sweet Rhodes driving the suitably nostalgic "Memories" or the cunning bass-guitar riff of "Isis." Zomby's clearly grown into working with vocals in a way he wasn't on Dedication, whose most memorable moment was the unfortunate Panda Bear cameo on "Things Fall Apart." "Isis" sounds like the result of someone giving Inga Copeland bunk directions to the Hyperdub studios—the delay-cloaked vocals give the impression of Hype Williams gone garage. As tired as '90s R&B vocal appropriations have become in bass music, "Rendezvous" manages to make vocal grabs from "The Boy Is Mine" sound genuinely sick—set over time-stretched, artifact-laden digital screams, Monica and Brandy are enlisted in Zomby's warped take on the sound. Zomby wants us to think he's a cultural oracle, but he's more of a curator than an innovator. His fandom make tired or discredited sounds feel universally relevant, but he's only circumstantially ahead of the curve.
If productivity is no object in Zomby's world, With Love argues convincingly that he could use an editor. A big part of the producer's appeal is his fragmentary, atmospheric approach—the idea that these are divinely mandated transmissions from another world. But from a materialist perspective, without buying into Zomby's messianic pretensions, he's a gifted producer who finds himself at a level of notoriety that's well suited to the fact that he looks to no other authority but himself. With Love is insular and often captivating, but too often falls between the cracks—between his self-image and the real world, between form and formlessness, between virtuosity and predictability. When we check into the music, there's usually something excellent to admire—technically, if not aesthetically. With Love's problem is that it puts its talent on display over 33 tracks—given Zomby's hubris, it's not impossible that this is some sly allusion to Jesus's lifespan—and offers few reasons for the unconverted to care.
It's when Zomby lets go of the bombast and indulges his nostalgic, emotive tendencies that With Love snaps into focus—and when he borrows bombastic, stock sounds that the album feels like an undifferentiated slog. There's still some dissonance between the producer's dryly excessive Twitter persona and his at times too-serious attempts to back up that arrogance with his music. Listeners willing to digest his latest album in small doses or on shuffle will find gold among the dross, but as a unified statement, it leaves much to be desired. Not quite enough of a step up in quality to justify its length, With Love would be the statement it intends to be if Zomby focused on something other than his own bulletproof persona. His branded Twitter diarrhea is an exhausting spectacle, but at least it owns up to the producer's contractions and isn't totally devoid of humor. Much like his feed, With Love goes on forever. Too often, by the time it has something to say, we've already tuned out.
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