For a guy who has supposedly written over 5,000 songs, Zomby has released a scant amount of material into the world. A few early singles that predate 2007’s name-maker, Where Were U In ‘92, and then its follow-up in 2008, One Foot Ahead of the Other, add up to only around 90 minutes of music. Much like his elusive public persona, Zomby’s minimal artistic output up until this point has only served to tease and tantalize. To be sure, his two (relatively) long players have been brief encounters, but brief in the manner of a mugging or a shark attack, with Where We U In ‘92 being especially notable for its unrelenting nature, sonic harshness, restless stylistic shifts, and richness of ideas. Listening to it as a rave culture redux, as a pill-sized historical supplement compacting not only disparate musical genres but also an entire way of choosing to live, is much like when Neo jacks in and suddenly knows kung fu. While experientially not on par with having lived it, Where Were U In ‘92 is still a powerful, illuminating document, and not to mention an always thrilling listen.
As much as that album launched Zomby into the consciousness of those outside the still metastasizing dubstep scene of the day, Where Were U? is still much more of an homage to a time and place than a statement of future intent. In other words, Zomby isn’t a revivalist looking to re-appropriate the aesthetic of early-90s rave culture. He is far more forward-thinking than just that. We should see that album as only a piece of who Zomby is, an offering to the world to show a certain, well-manicured side of his sound. After all, his public persona is notoriously elusive, as he obscures his identity and rarely gives interviews.
Dedication, then, marks the first truly solid handshake and face-to-face chat. Compared to his latest, One Foot Ahead of the Other now seems like a stop-gap release, email correspondence rather than eyeball-to-eyeball association. After “Spliff Dub” dropped on Hyperdub, lots of people expected Zomby to become some sort of dubstep tastemaker, but he abandoned that expected path with Where Were U?. In an unexpected way, he has fulfilled that promise by opening up the playing field that the post-dubstep scene currently has before it. Thus, with its return to relatively recognizable form, Dedication is the album that fans have been waiting for since 2007: namely, a proper debut.
Dedication arrives not without complications. Zomby’s father, a huge influence on him, passed away during its completion, and the album is assembled as sort of an homage, the music not necessarily written as such but, as Zomby has stated, the time and work put into it functions as a sort of tribute to his father. We’re well familiar with the creeping dread and dark tension that has characterized Zomby’s work thus far, and Dedication maintains that vibe while toning down the tempos and refining the palette. He has always been a master deconstructionist, and here the space between the sounds is effective and well-measured. The skeletal “Alothea” is sneakily propulsive, and “Riding With Death” boils grime down to its essence while simultaneously launching into the future. “Witch Hunt” is a spectral visitation from late-90s Memphis. With gunshots and a skittering beat, it’d be a fitting vehicle for Three Six or Tommy Wright III.
“Natalia’s Song” presaged the album by a couple of months, and it remains Dedication’s most arresting track. If it sounds a bit like Burial, it’s because Zomby wrote it and sent it to his friend. The song only gained a life of its own after Burial played it on the last-ever Mary Anne Hobbes broadcast. Zomby has always existed as a kind of analogue to Burial, but “Natalia’s Song” perfectly parallels Burial’s most recent work on his Street Halo single. Only on “Things Fall Apart” and “Black Orchid” do the crystalline arpeggios, which have featured so heavily in Zomby’s past sound, rear their heads. “Things Fall Apart” will perhaps already have a good amount of notoriety due to the inclusion of Panda Bear, and it’s a minor triumph that he has managed to recontextualize Noah Lennox’s interminably sunny bellow to seem so foreboding.
The final third of the record is utterly elegiac, perhaps the most obvious break with Zomby’s past. “Florence,” “Haunted,” and “Basquiat” are all churning, tortured numbers, the latter sounding something like a final goodbye with its rich piano and string textures. The presence of these tracks cement Dedication’s emotional heft and oppressive atmosphere, but they also show Zomby’s incredible versatility. “Mozaik,” the album’s closer, functions as a cleansing agent and perhaps a kind of sign toward retribution or triumph over his father’s passing. Like much of Zomby’s work, its ending comes far too soon.
At 35 hefty minutes, Dedication is Zomby’s most complete statement to date. But, much like the man, it offers a number of details in one hand while obscuring other crucial signs with the other. Will Zomby continue down this mournful, restrained path? Not likely for such an insatiably fidgety creative talent. Then again, with an artist like Zomby who purportedly has a huge vault of material lying around, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when these tracks were made. It seems, according to him, that Dedication was assembled as much as it was created from scratch, so what Zomby’s next move will be and exactly what form it will take is anyone’s guess. Ever the consummate artful dodger, it’s not likely he will be giving away many concrete clues in the interim, and therein lies Zomby’s true wisdom: the time-tested design of slaking our thirst while stopping just sort of truly indulging us.