In a time when DJs and producers have become rock stars and globe trotters, Zomby is something of an anomaly. To start with, there is the fact that he has managed to maintain anonymity in an era when privacy as a concept appears to have been universally abandoned in a flood of tweets and status updates. There is also the fact that he is impossible to pigeonhole. So far we have had a wonderfully mischievous album of early-nineties throwbacks (Where Were You In ’92?) and then a U-turn for an introspective and restless follow-up (Dedication).
With Love represents something of a bridge between those two albums and stands as Zomby’s boldest artistic statement to date. After all, nothing says “bold artistic statement” like a double album, that old chestnut that can lead so easily to accusations of self-indulgence. At just over 80 minutes, this is not a particularly long double album, closer to the last M83 album than something like Wu-Tang’s insanely bloated second album. Yet it still manages to cram in 33 tracks of fairly brief lengths, apparently created in a period of intense creativity for the producer.
Volume One of the album is pretty much killer across the board. The complete absence of guest vocalists means that this is basically a journey that takes place within the headspace of an anonymous musician, and it is the purest distillation yet of the artist behind the mask. Rather than the kind of sprawl you would expect from a double album, this first half is made up of skeletal constructs that are stripped down until only their essential components remain. Zomby’s fertile imagination and firm grasp of dance culture turn this into a whistle stop tour of British dance music history, complete with the jarring cuts between tracks that have become his trademark.
There is some great work on here. Zomby switches between upbeat and downbeat, between hedonism and solemnity, with a total confidence in his material. The strongest run of songs on the album begins with the ominous twinkling and deep bass kicks of “Horrid,” which leads into the unexpected warmth of “If I Will” with its beatboxing and chopped up vocal. “It’s Time” could have been a cut on his debut album, while he visits a more sensual side on the haunting “Memories” and still has time to trek through some devil-horned jungle on the fantastic “Overdose.” It’s the incongruity of these songs that makes Zomby such an interesting artist.
With Volume Two, however, the mood becomes altogether more serious and some of the game playing is lost in place of a cohesion that actually dilutes a bit of the magic. When “Digital Smoke” runs into “Entropy Sketch,” and “How To Ascend” runs into “I Saw Golden Light,” the ideas start to merge and become a little uniform. That the beat remains so similar throughout the second half of the album (all echoing bass kicks and trap music) does not help the sense that the skitter side of Zomby’s imagination is missing here, replaced by something that is sadly a little more dull.
This glacial and almost willfully opaque approach to the second half of the album could be deliberate. We get a sense of the man behind the music on the first half of With Love, only for him to disappear back into the shadows for the second half. Perhaps this is simply a common case of an artist slightly overplaying his hand with the release of a double album. But With Love is at least half a terrific record, and may well prove to be a palette cleanser in the career of a producer who appears capable of anything. As usual, it is impossible to predict where Zomby will go next, and the world of UK bass music is a brighter place for this unpredictability.
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