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Album Of The Week

Lead Review: Ben Cardew On Zomby's Ultra
Ben Cardew , September 1st, 2016 08:24

On the masked producer's first full-length work since 2013, Ben Cardew finds an expansion beyond the usual tropes of Zomby-ism — collaborations unexpected for their results rather than their partners, tracks that play out over the five-minute mark, and the sound of thoughtful deliberation, all contributing to a welcome expansion of the known Zomby universe

Pop music has long been a tug of war between spontaneity and toil: for every hit single penned on the way to the studio or dreamed up on the toilet, there are the songs where the artist has sweated blood over the finer lyrical points or spent a year recording the bass lines.

Perma-masked, not quite anonymous, British producer Zomby has thus far sat firmly on the side of spontaneity: he once claimed that his concentration span lasted 25 minutes and if a song wasn’t done in that time, he would “clear the screen and start again”.

And that spontaneity came across brilliantly in his music. His debut album, 2008 rave tribute Where Were U In ’92?, was a riot, full of songs that burst in the door like an ‘ardcore Tasmanian Devil, made their point, then simply stopped. It was a fantastic, frenetic album, one that amply illustrated Zomby’s knack for melody and atmosphere. The songs sounded like they were caked in skank, bathed in rave sweat and permanently on the verge of reaching into their pocket for a little bit of what they fancied.

The problem was, where to go from there? You got the feeling from those early Zomby releases that he could make rave bangers in his sleep and they’d still sound fantastically murky and manic. But what would happen, people started to wonder, if Zomby actually stretched himself?

His first album for 4AD, 2011’s Dedication, suggested Zomby was working towards answering this question. ‘Things Fall Apart’, which featured (as most songs did in 2011) Panda Bear on vocals, felt like an attempt to build a song around Zomby’s production nous, while ‘Natalia’s Song’, for all the controversy over its origins, suggested an emotional depth in Zomby’s work that hadn’t been particularly evident in the likes of ‘Daft Punk Rave’.

Frustratingly, With Love, which followed in 2013, only re-muddied the waters. At 33 songs and 80 minutes, With Love was excellent but exhausting; a gut-busting, over-ordered Chinese banquet of a record, which left listeners stuffed to the gills and wanting just a little bit less Zomby in their immediate future. And Zomby obliged, releasing only Wiley collaboration ‘Step 2001’ and the low-key Let’s Jam!! EP between 2013 and 2016, as if waiting for With Love to settle

Which brings us to September 2016 and Ultra, Zomby’s first new album in three years. Whereas With Love felt like some kind of Zomby in excelsis, the peak of Zomby for Zomby’s sake, the new album suggests something of a re-think. It’s not just that Ultra sees Zomby return to Hyperdub for the first time in years, he’s also started collaborating with other producers, including Burial, Darkstar, Rezzett and Banshee. Gone, too, are the ultra-brief tracks of Zomby lore: of the 13 tracks here, only four are under three minutes, while three break the five-minute mark.

In theory, then, Ultra is a new broom. But the album’s 13 tracks boast more than enough proof that Zomby’s new lease of life works in practice, too. Perhaps inevitably, the collaborations are the first thing to leap out, not just for their origins but for the new perspectives they bring to Zomby’s work. The Burial co-sign, 'Sweetz', has already proved divisive and it is easy to see why: although the song borrows from the two producers’ classic sonic tics - echoing airhorns, vinyl crackle, the flick of a lighter - it brings to mind more The Beatles’ ‘Revolution 9’ and beanbags than the thrill of a rave.

Like ‘Revolution 9’, 'Sweetz' is a kind of shifting sound collage, obedient to its own rules of tempo and sound. Noises emerge then disappear into the eery murk, with little particularly musical to cling onto save the odd bassy throb and mucky hi-hat, until the appearance of what sounds a horribly distorted steel drum four minutes in, tearing through the mix like Jamie xx’s waking nightmare. It is an unsettling, unlikely listen: if anyone claims this is how they expected a Zomby / Burial collaboration to sound in 2016, they are almost certainly lying.

The brilliant ‘Quandary’, with Darkstar, explores similarly virgin territory. The song starts in an organic manner with a riff played on what sounds like a mbira and the shuffle of live drums - very unZombylike that - with the track becoming progressively more digital as it progresses, thanks to the intervention of machine hi-hats and Mr. Mitch-esque synth sweeps. This unruly mix could prove an eyesore but the producers’ rhythmical nous means the whole thing hangs together brilliantly, in what is the closest Zomby will ever get to something you could play around a camp fire. ’S.D.Y.F’, with Rezzett, meanwhile suggests a lost LTJ Bukem track from 1994, the only copy of which was found on a decrepit tape wedged between the back seats of an ageing BMW, all airy melodies, breakbeats, bass and hiss.

Tying these disparate elements together are the seven songs which form the emotional spine of Ultra. The seven - ‘Reflection’, ‘Burst’, ‘Fly 2’ (with Banshee), ‘HER’, ‘Freeze’, ‘Yeti’ and ‘Thaw’ - see Zomby taking his love for crystalline melody and moody atmospherics into newly ambient territory. They operate at a glacial pace, with kick drums largely absent and percussion driven by Eskibeat “Ice Puck” clicks, shakers and slippery hi hats.

Much like Wiley’s acclaimed Devil mixes - an obvious influence here, not for the first time in Zomby’s work - the result is music where the rhythm derives not so much from the obvious thump of a drum but from the way in which other elements interact, the way a sample will cut into the mix, a bass line pulses or a synth sound mutates. But whereas Wiley’s Devil mixes (think ‘Eskimo 2’) favour gradual, shifting progression, tracks like ‘Burst’, ‘Yeti’ or ‘Freeze’ are built upon rapid, percussive cuts between different elements, which spasm and jar into the mix like a funky nervous breakdown. (It would be great to hear an MC on ‘Yeti’, incidentally.)

The feel of these tracks - one of creeping, nervous dread - and the sound palette may be recognisably Zomby, even if they sound like a stylistic departure. But ‘HER’ and ‘Thaw’ push the boat out even further. Both tracks are full of soft, stately synth tones and astral melodies that bring to mind the embrace of warm electronica found on early Warp Artificial Intelligence releases, filtered through the gorgeous retro-futurism of Carl Craig’s Landcruising. They sound both clean and strangely comforting, a homely world away from anything else in the Zomby universe, confirmation that Ultra is a step into the unknown for the producer.

Ultra is, at first, quite hard to get your head around. There’s a lot to take in over its 50+ minutes, not so much in the With Love sense of sheer musical volume but more in the new ideas and stylistic left turns that find their home on the album. Leave it to sink in, though, and Ultra works fantastically as an album experience, with sequencing that sees the level of intensity wax and wane as emotions freeze and thaw.

For all we know, Zomby could have knocked up the 13 tracks on Ultra in a week-long spurt of creativity and then sat on them while he mucked about on Twitter. But it certainly doesn’t sound like it. The changes in tone, the abundant experimentation and the wealth of new directions make Ultra sound like the work of a producer who has thought long and hard about where he sits in the musical field and where he can go to with his sound.

By and large, this approach has worked brilliantly. More thought out than Where Were U In ’92?, more varied than Dedication and considerably more focused than With Love, Ultra is Zomby’s best album to date, a timely reminder of the skills of a producer who had threatened to disappear in a haze of social media spats and lost momentum.