If the artist, DJ and producer behind the Zomby moniker has been keen to obfuscate and confuse through anonymity, he has become an even trickier proposition since releasing full length statements on the 4AD label. The widely misunderstood Dedication explored grief cumulatively, through a series of clipped and unpredictable miniatures. For With Love, Zomby has sustained the approach, perhaps even enhanced it, although this time there are few clear thematic signifiers. With Love is a sprawling, unwieldy double disc set that veers wildly between moods and styles.
Perhaps in order to protect the air of mystery that surrounds his every move, Zomby seems reluctant to do much explaining of his output, although his sometimes confrontational presence on Twitter suggests a degree of impatience with critics who misinterpret him. Those making the obvious (and perhaps reasonable) comparison of With Love with Aphex Twin’s similarly disjointed Drukqs have been met with huffy repostes. But if that comparison has sometimes been used to dismiss this music a little casually, it also surely has a positive dimension too. Drukqs was an album that grew in stature and made increasing sense over time; the same may well be true of With Love.
This is not least because that title is, a little like Dedication before it, rather loaded. This is an album that has surely been crafted with love and care. The stereotyped preconception of Zomby is of an impatient artist with a short attention span, always keen to move on to the next thing and happy to throw out anything he records. Few seem to have considered that the abrupt, clipped endings of many of these tracks might actually be an intentional device – and that the sudden shifts in atmosphere (the ambient-tinged mood music with handclaps on Isis suddenly giving way to a slowed down old school jungle beat on Overdose) might be suggestive of a more complex and nuanced artistic personality.
One of the most beautiful and fully formed moments on disc 1, the lovely Memories, might give the biggest clue to Zomby’s strategy here. This is music that attempts to distill life experience and emotion into bitesize pieces; the uneasy juxtapositions demonstrate how quickly an individual’s fortune or perspective can change, or perhaps how the impressions of fossilised nostalgia can mislead or confuse. One moment it’s ‘time to get fucking mental’, the next it’s a rather dramatic comedown. Like many of the tracks here, Memories skilfully balances a memorable, haunting theme with tricksy, sometimes intrusive, skittering percussion. The idea of memory and experience is then further reflected in With Love’s irreverent hop and skip through dance music history and culture.
If Dedication was tinged with melancholy and sadness, then the first disc of With Love feels dark and occasionally menacing, deftly interweaving some threatening sounds with the euphoria of the club experience. It’s an intentionally unsettling listening experience, which sometimes creates false sense of security only to suddenly undermine any sense of safety or protection. The occasional manipulated vocal samples often serve to add to the feeling of creeping unease.
The second disc mostly captures Zomby in more serious, reflective and less passive-aggressive mode. Black Rose serves as a helpful opener – slow, pensive and dark. It sets the tone neatly for much of what follows – the insidious melodies of I Saw Golden Light, the carefully placed, chiming piano chords of Glass Ocean and the stealthy, half time groove, and high pitched repeating figures of How To Ascend. This disc would clearly have made for a more concise, cohesive and accessible stand-alone release; but that would hardly have constituted the provocative, thrilling, unusual statement that Zomby clearly wanted to make.