In late 2008, a CD popped up in the UK and stateside, its title interrogative and demanding: Where Were U in ’92?. It was a question as sneered and full of vinegar as anything a punk might have asked about that hallowed year of 1977. With only an EP on the esteemed Hyperdub label to his name previously, the masked and mysterious Zomby was instantly a primetime player in dubstep right as it was about to break out of its East London warehouse chrysalis, even if his debut already found him forgoing its sonic template. Zomby was interested in what had come before, namely 8-bit bleats, the squalls of hardcore rave and jungle’s drum dervishes, that first full-length an ode to that bygone era, right down to its components. But in answer to his own question, Zomby was roughly 8 years old that year, nowhere near a rave, yet not too far removed from a pacifier.
Ever since then, Zomby has been upsetting any and all expectations. He jumped to the respected indie label 4AD yet rather than build on that new platform, Zomby became even more unpredictable. I can personally think of three separate concerts, in New York and London, where the man was a no-show. When he released Dedication in 2011, rather than continue along the vein of brusque, jerky tracks, we instead heard the man at his most plaintive. Dedication was warehouse-averse, a series of ruminative and low-key bagatelles rather than bangers. That fragmentary nature of his fully manifests on With Love, a 2CD/3LP set released this week.
Though its runtime would have easily squeezed onto a single disc, the first half of With Love hearkens back to his earliest tracks, while the second stirs in more of Dedication’s bittersweet melodies to a slower trap sound. There are thirty-three tracks in all, nearly 2/3rds of them clock in under 2:30. So its presentation begs the question: Magnum opus or hard-drive dump? Rough sketches or polished songs? Meticulous miniatures or ideas that lost his interest midway through? Is he prolific or half-assed? Am I listening to a full-length or just snippets on Soundcloud? As all the tracks are in alphabetical order, seemingly imported into iTunes at random, it seems that’s up to the listener to sort this out for his/herself.
Myself, I recall being underwhelmed and confounded by Dedication at first. And it was only as I willfully unfocused on its microscopic components and took in the album as a whole that it opened up. A friend recently told me that it was only while immersing himself in With Love during a recent NYC rainstorm that he fell for it. There’s plenty of capricious moments to love here, from the giddy patois gibberish and skittering ticks of “VI-XI” to the meld of perky disco bass and handclaps to the wistful undertow of “Isis” to the more solemn “Black Rose.” The menace of “Pyrex Nights” presents Zomby’s music at its most actualized, hovering somewhere between UK bass and American trap. Much like another bewildering UK producer, Actress, Zomby too appears infatuated with the underworld, with tracks namechecking deities like Osiris and Shiva. The recent video suite/ mini-mix from Ollie Jones reinforces such iconography, the lush black and white video a slow and sumptuous tableaux vivant set to Zomby’s breakbeats, a speedball of sound and vision.
While such short tracks gave Dedication a sense of pacing it might not have had otherwise, such brevity on With Love never allows for any of the ideas to take root, much less cohere. “Digital Smoke” is trunk-quaking bass and anxious synths that begs to have an MC atop it, yet it slowly recedes from view before two minutes pass. “Overdose” dabbles in drum’n’bass fury for another two minutes while “It’s Time” takes the Amen break and the call to “get fuckin’ mental” and then halves its bpms.
It’s only on the 15-minute homestretch of With Love -- spanning from “Soliloquy” through the closing title track -- that Zomby hits his stride, twining the razorous, booming beats to the poignant piano lines to great effect. At times it reminds me of how Burial operates, as he too deals with fragments, scraps, hissy discarded bits, especially on his most recent string of singles. But Burial’s genius lies in assembling these small disparate moments into a whole greater than the sum of its parts and after numerous listens, Zomby’s largesse comes off as being ADD to the point of madness. Zomby changes speeds and trajectory so often that it feels less like a trip and more like being jerked in every direction, neither one long-lasting, so that With Love has the sense of going nowhere.