What with all the controversy surrounding shadowy UK dance producer Zomby - accusations of plaigarism, Twitter tirades, the shunning of interviews and regular non-appearances for gigs - you could almost forget he was known for making music. Still, he's done plenty of fascinating stuff in his time: 2008 debut album Where Were U In '92 was an homage to late '80s/early '90s hardcore rave, mixing up Aaliyah, Gucci Mane and Blade Runner soundbites with breakbeats that rumbled along at hyper-speed around stabbing synths. Since then he's released a varied range of other material - 12"s and EPs for Hyperdub and Ramp exploring various wonkified strains of club music, and 2011's second album and 4AD debut Dedication. The latter was a different enterprise again from his previous work: two minute, soporific sketches on the theme of mortality, all characterised by the use of sinister keys, light flickers of percussion and punctuated gunshots.
So what exactly, then, is the Zomby sound? He's certainly developed a range of instrumental quirks that are distinctly his - pirouetting arpeggios, stripped-back and paranoid melodies and isolated, ghostly atmospheres - but the rhythms around those consistent traits have changed markedly from release to release, drawing in ideas from rave, grime, jungle, house and more. Perhaps all of this variation is a reflection on Zomby’s own conflicted personality - attempting to immerse himself in and pay tribute to the rave music of his childhood, whilst also trying to engage with and alter the ever-changing sounds of today.
With Love finds him continuing to explore these varied avenues - it again straddles UK dance mutations such as garage, grime, jungle and hardcore while maintaining that signature Zomby production style; equally, it continues the trend for short, sketch-like tracks that he established onDedication. However, rather than opting for a shorter album, he doubles the quantity - the album clocks in at a mammoth 33 tracks, split across two CDs, making it a sometimes testing prospect for the listener's attention.
With Love's first disc is a generally upbeat affair - it pairs the grime and rave influences of Where Were You In '92 off against the dark sub-bass lines and fluorescent melodic structures of Dedication. Opener 'As Darkness Falls' is an atmospheric intro, beginning with squelchy synth stabs and repetitive wailing sirens before a shuffly beat takes charge, carrying on throughout the song until its abrupt end, when brief melodic interlude 'Ascension' begins. Later, longer tracks like 'If I Will' and 'It's Time' - with its 'ardkore-frazzled MC chants of "it's time to get fucking mental!" - make more explicit references towards the dancefloor. 'Isis' is closer in spirit to the haunted house he released on singles like Digital Flora, drawing together a funky bass groove, some '80s-ish keys and a soulful vocal. 'Memories's swung, Afrobeat-leaning percussion touches on UK funky, while 'Vanishment's filigree-fine curtains of synth feel like tributes to Selected Ambient Works-era Aphex Twin.
Some of it's lovely. However, the miniaturised tracks sometimes slide by barely catching the attention at all, while some of the vocal samples feel rather lacklustre - Brandy's voice on 'Rendezvous', for example, adds a hint of discordance to what really feels like an unfinished piece of music. The record's themes are clear, though - the emotional resonance of track titles like 'Horrid', 'Memories' and 'Pray For Me', and the overall downbeat, melancholy mood, both tie into the romantic and compassionate sentiments of the album's title.
The second disc is a different matter altogether. Gone are most of the breakbeats hinting towards hardcore rave and jungle, and instead we're left with ethereal synth and keyboard melodies that flow from one track to the next over clicking US rap beats. Some of it sounds almost identical to the quieter moments on the first disc, while other moments sound like expansions on the themes explored in the generally low-key Dedication: 'Quickening's chimes are reminiscent of Pantha Du Prince, while 'Shiva' and 'Soliloqy' bring to mind sometime collaborator Actress. Again tracks feel like sketches rather than complete pieces, and the fluctuations in mood from track to track produce a similar sense of emotional oscillation - this could perhaps be seen as reflecting the aesthetic and title of With Love, but all the same it feels overweight, and in need of a judicious trim.
Indeed, while With Love is an ambitious and entertainingly composed undertaking, offering glimpses into Zomby’s varied inspirations, it can still be frustratingly piecemeal and somewhat self-indulgent. The album's sequencing often places incompatible tracks next to each other, as if to give the listener a purposeful jolt. Which can be refreshing and pleasurable in small doses, but across the space of two discs and 33 tracks the effect runs close to wearing, feeling like a mass of variations on similar, jittery themes.
[This piece was originally published in The Quietus on 11/07/13]