A couple of things have happened in the two years that the pseudonymous English producer Zomby spent between major releases. (Yes, he contributed a track to Ninja Tune XX, and no, it doesn’t count.) Let’s see. The DJ-mix podcast established itself as dance culture’s truest exponent—cheap, disposable, in constant turnover—and helped enable an accelerated amount of cross-genre mixing and mingling in DJ culture; imagine 2 Many DJs-style cut-ups as a field unto itself. Suddenly, there is a super-size U.S. audience for electronic dance events—see the Electric Daisy Carnival in Vegas a few weeks ago, the biggest rave in the nation’s history, just for starters. Thanks to a combination of hundreds of hours’ worth of vintage DJ mixes newly digitized to SoundCloud and its ilk, crazy collectors with time on their hands putting obscure old 12-inches on YouTube, and the sudden mania for rave-era reissues and compilations via labels like Rush Hour and Soul Jazz, dance culture’s constant forward motion has hit a weird backspin—retro is the hippest thing going. (It seems like a third of the house singles I’ve heard this year are deliberately harking back to 1987.) There’s the biggest dance-producer youthquake in a decade, minimum—not to mention more first-rank female DJs and producers than at any point in the music’s entire history—with a hefty number of under-25 hotshots starting to call shots. Joy Orbison released “Hyph Mngo” and put dubstep—and by extension, bass music generally—into the center of dance music’s conversation. All Flying Lotus has to do is make a few calls and he can become the next Danger Mouse. Thom Yorke and Panda Bear arm-wrestle for guest spots on albums released by circa-2009 Fact Magazine phenoms.
The landscape has changed, and in several cases, it did so due to what Zomby put into motion. (Not Electric Daisy—you can pin that on Daft Punk.) The pseudonymous English producer who helped inspire the term “post-dubstep” typically wears a cosmic pyramid headpiece in his photos, and his music is similarly playful; the 2008 breakthrough “Liquid Dancehall,” leavened dead-serious bass with deliciously chintzy space FX and a falsetto title chant for a hook. Though Scottish producer Rustie gets half-credit for his rave-gone-Basquiat remix of “Spliff Dub” the same year, Zomby finished ’08 with Where Were U in ’92, a gleeful breakbeat-hardcore throwback that kicked off the neo-rave moment. The next year, he took on 8-bit nostalgia with “Digital Flora” and One Foot Ahead of the Other. All of it made the crackling-late-night-blues side of dubstep seem stiff and corny. Then for two years, nada.
So of course he returns with a crackling-late-night-blues album, his debut for indie bigwig 4AD. The title, Dedication, is a call-out to his recently deceased father, and while that isn’t essential to know, it does help situate the album some. Oddly for something that emerged from Zomby’s particular subculture, and that features plenty of rumbles and peaks, Dedication has become my morning album. It’s a portrait made of miniatures, scaled-down and exquisite. Tiny shifts signify compressed emotions, but its sweep is still grand, even at a compact 35 and a half minutes.
If dance culture is going mega, and a lot of dubstep’s heavy hitters are moving toward house and techno’s straighter rhythms, there’s something apt about Zomby stripping down and polishing rather than trying everything out just because he can. For that, we had his appearance last week at Angel Orensanz, where a flurry of unreleased stuff kicked off a disjointed hour-plus that ranged from old jungle and happy hardcore anthems to selections from Dedication. Wearing a dark hoodie and the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta, the lanky producer (who allegedly had to be coaxed from his hotel room with a bottle and some weed) seemed as too-cool-for-the-room as the Fader-reading crowd itself. The new stuff was energetic: processed grime with water-hits-basin “kicks” and door-slam “snares” and Tweety Bird oscillations; laser-bass dubstep, mucky and rude; pitch-bent squees inna Grand Guignol stylee, to match the Limelight-like stained glass Zomby played before.
Above all, it was messy. There’s none of that on Dedication. Zomby’s early work stood out for the care with which it was created, but even given that, there’s something startlingly mature about the production here. Even when he’s sampling gunshots among the ghoul-organ and cicada-like percussion on the lead cut, “Witch Hunt,” the deliberateness of motion is immediately apparent. That goes double for “Natalia’s Song,” which first seemed like an anticlimax and now sounds like one of the year’s defining tracks. Like so much else on Dedication, there are ghosts inside it. You hear a woman’s voice, primarily, smeared in echo, sometimes startlingly sharp, sometimes nothing but fog; always, her syllables are broken up and her presence never settles into place. The music seems soothing at first but soon turns razor sharp, each percussive flick timed with maximum precision (ditto “Salamander,” a short interstitial piece).
Beats drive much of Dedication, rest assured. “Vortex” is Atari electro with a sneaky little steel drum part; “Alothea” and “Digital Rain” revisit the 8-bit sound with a skipping kick; the closer, “Mozaik,” does the same only both harder and more hauntingly; and “Florence” is jungle that evokes the scenery through a bullet-train window. Nevertheless, this thing is designed for indie crossover. Look! There’s Panda Bear, singing over skanking pixels on “Things Fall Apart,” the most obviously pop song on the album. I’ve never gotten a contact high from Panda Bear (probably because I don’t have a trust fund), but his Mike Love impersonation doesn’t hurt the song all that much.
Still, if Dedication sticks with non-dance-heads, I suspect it’ll have more to do with how stubbornly the things that sound alien wind up lodging in your head. It helps that he writes plainly stated piano themes that are still lush (“Haunted”) and stately (“Basquiat”), and especially that he makes his screechy digital tones more luminous and friendly than ever, even when he’s highlighting their harshness, as on “Digital Rain.” It helps to be nostalgic for ancient video games—of course it does. But the next two years, it seems safe to say, will not provide dance fans with the kind of ruptures we’ve become re-accustomed to over the past few. Explosions are followed by retrenchments. If Zomby hasn’t beaten the pack again, figure it matters less. And figure that maybe he has.