As befits an artist signed to the 4AD label, Zomby maintains a mysterious and anonymous public profile. The British electronic music producer reaches his fans and conducts rare interviews via social media, and has kept his given name a mystery. He has received quite a bit of acclaim, though, especially for his second album, 2011’s Dedication.
For his first album, 2008’s Where Were You In ’92, Zomby used early-’90s equipment in order to obtain an authentic sound that helped him pay homage to techno music’s early, groundbreaking years. Now, for third album With Love, he has gone at least a step farther. No word on what type of synths and machines he used, but Zomby has created a sprawling, 33-track double album whose aim is nothing less grand than encompassing all of electronic music’s history, sub-genres, micro-genres and all.
You could make a pretty strong argument that electronic dance music has been beset with inertia for the last 15 years or so, that most every crevice that can be explored has been. But it can’t possibly have been as dull and plodding as With Love makes it sound. Most of the tracks are vignettes, clocking in at a couple of minutes or so. This approach is novel, at least; many of Zomby’s peers let their tracks go on for too long. In an odd way, though, the brevity of the tracks and the way many seem to stop right in the middle only underscore how weak and sketch-like the material is.
As advertised, With Love does feature a handful of different styles, making good on its promise to include both floor-fillers and more downtempo, after-hours fare. Tracks like “Horrid” and “The Things You Do” reveal a synth-pop influence. There is the rumbling, outer-space drum ‘n’ bass of “It’s Time” and “777”. “Overdose”, with its tense synthesizers and steady stare, doesn’t pay homage to Roni Size and LTJ Bukem as much as imitate them. There is rave in the form of “Orion” and house in the shape of “VI-XI”. “This One” is a pretty good approximation of Chicago and Detroit house in particular. As for the more mellow stuff, the vaguely Far Eastern “Black Rose” could be Dead Can Dance, while “Pray For Me” and “How to Ascend” go the trip hop route and “Glass Ocean” and “Sunshine in November” deal in sparse, pretty minimalism.
On paper, it all may sound pretty rewarding, a sort of cornucopia filled with electronic riches. But despite the variety of styles, With Love suffers from a sameness that renders it less dynamic than it might seem. Imagine a painter doing cubism, impressionism, realism, and a variety of other styles, but painting everything in the same drab colors, and not bothering to finish any of the works. None of it is particularly exemplary, and very little stands out. Zomby’s tracks all share a moody, minor-key headiness and, apparently, the same rigid, heavily-reverbed drum machine. While it’s obvious the man knows what kinds of sounds he wants, the approach sabotages With Love‘s ambitious aim. You just don’t get a sense of the depth and variety of the history Zomby is trying to encapsulate. Also, much of With Love‘s second half is made up of loping, rather dull dub and dubstep.
The title track is held off until the bitter end. With an eerie synth siren in the background, odd scratching noises, and well-placed sub-bass and drums, “With Love” is genuinely haunting. It’s the one track on the album that does not seem to have any pretense to it. With Love is listenable in the way a lot of middling electronic dance music is. To call it a glorious failure would imply Zomby worked as vigorously on the music as he has on cultivating his mysterious, cultish aura. But the evidence suggests that might not be the case.