Zomby is one of those digital age artists who, à la Burial, opts to transmit sounds to the world out from under a veil of anonymity. This artist’s cover-up of choice is a grinning Guy Fawkes mask, tastefully color-coordinated to go with his standard uniform of Givenchy, Adidas tracksuits, and Nike trainers.
In most cases, I wouldn’t fixate so heavily on an artist’s physical appearance or on the brands they choose to sport, but in the case of British-born, New York-dwelling electronic producer Zomby, I think it’s not only relevant, but essential to the metaphysical gesture of his art. One quote in particular from a recent Dazed Digital piece on the producer really speaks to this downright obsession with aesthetics, which Zomby sees as potent for their ability to transcend or undermine the conflicts embedded in human relations by the socioeconomic or racial contexts that define them: “It’s hard to deny something so well made and so aesthetically perfect.”
This statement echoes one made in a less sweeping manner by fellow EDM intelligentsia figurehead (and owner of the label that used to release Zomby’s music) Steve Goodman a.k.a. Kode9 in a recent interview: “That is one of the key powers of music, to overload and short circuit people’s value systems and produce an intense encounter in which all other issues temporarily subside.” Zomby takes the idea one step further, though, by suggesting that his music specifically breaks down these barriers, or, even more boldly, that he as a person is doing so — it’s never made explicit what “aesthetically perfect” gem he is referring to, but the implication is that he’s talking about his own music.
I think this quote is interesting because it reveals a lot about Zomby’s mindset as an artist. For one, it shows that he is simultaneously 100% confident in the flawlessness of his own craft and yet somehow insecure about its merits, about the characteristics that come attached to his own identity — he assumes that there is reason one might want to “deny” his music to begin with.
This mysterious particle of imperfection isn’t in the music itself, though; on With Love more than ever before, Zomby’s productions are shimmering and sonically pristine. His hands work deftly with virtually every sound in underground and mainstream bass culture; from the jungle qua digital fractal breakbeats of debut Where Were U In ‘92? to the transgeneric rhythmic hexagrams on Dedication, Zomby is fully capable of not only replicating the hallmarks of myriad bass styles, but also using them to his own singular ends. With Love finds him harnessing the the twisted apocrypha of dubstep, UK garage, hardcore, jungle, and even the Black America-born styles of trap and drill as starting points for his own meditations. Subsequent to the release of Dedication, Zomby relocated from the UK to New York City and began work on the tracks that would comprise With Love, letting his intuition guide the shape that the record would take rather than following a master plan.
Enter With Love: without a doubt Zomby’s most eclectic and sprawling work to date, the record spreads over a lengthy 80 minutes, taking the listener on a hacked and corrupted Google Earth journey through the global bass underground, one that has been infected by the sneering virus of Zomby’s ever-darkening, mathematically precise vision of the world — one recalls the universe-as-infinite-fractal hallucinations of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (and the soundtrack too, actually). I wouldn’t venture to call this record focused, but the tone is consistent: even with productions as blade-sharp as they are dense with grim atmosphere, there’s a sense of dread lingering behind every meticulous, zen-focused execution of an idea. It’s like the feeling of being hypnotized by the gleam of a perfectly symmetrical diamond — even if your subconscious registers the blood that’s been shed over what you’re beholding, the potential for the comprehension of paradox has been temporarily short-circuited by the narcissistic, self-contained perfection of the object. There’s a violence to the music on With Love — a brazen, almost sociopathic attention to detail that’s far more unsettling than any sonic flaw could be.
This brings me back to the above quote about how you can’t deny something that has no identifiable flaws. Maybe I’m reading too much into what the dude means, but especially in the context that Zomby brings it up in, the idea of an undeniably perfect aesthetic that is capable of erasing or obscuring the context it arose out of frankly strikes me as, well, really fucking dangerous. Context is always oppressive because of the way it binds art to the material conditions that surround it, but without it, aesthetics would have nothing to transcend and would lose their significance entirely. Reality is violent, and context is the symbolic intrusion of reality into art, which operates in the imaginary.
Just like the no-fucks-given UK jungle that influenced Zomby’s early work, the apocalyptic nihilism exuded by today’s omnipresent Chicago drill sound (which Zomby claims to “become demonic to” while flying first class in a Balmain tracksuit) wouldn’t sound so fucking potent if it didn’t also serve as a direct link to the trauma-inducing gun violence that still haunts the Windy City’s South Side. In trying to distill the poetry of underground bass music into a form freed of the strictures of context, Zomby ironically ends up stripping the sounds that inspire him of what made them so electric to begin with.
Maybe this is why Zomby’s music has always been so minor-key, so claustrophobic: above all, With Love is anxious about its own existence and paranoid over its own deniability, the possibility that there might be a splinter of the underground somewhere out there that its sleek algorithm has failed to integrate. With Love is a curious title for an album this stripped of human flaws; in fact, it more accurately could have been titled Without Love. What resonates most here is a desire to escape and transcend the human experience — the whole anonymity thing, Zomby’s devout faith in the reward that awaits perfect aesthetics, not to mention the song titles on this record that all evoke a desperate yearning for sublimation: “Ascension,” “It’s Time,” “Vanishment,” “Digital Smoke,” “Vast Emptiness,” “I Saw Golden Light,” “How To Ascend,” “White Smoke.” Think I’m reaching? Here’s what the producer had to say when Dazed Digital asked him about the significance of the mask: “My mask is not a part of a rebellion. I’m not a part of a rebellion. I’m just trying to make great records and vanish into the heavens.”
With Love’s desire to obscure any traces of the artistic hand that made it is both its most compelling trait and what ultimately prevents it from ascending to the aesthetic nirvana it imagines. Zomby navigates the rhythms and frequencies of the underground with all the intelligence, precision, and tenderness of a brain surgeon. This preoccupation with transcendence via flawlessness ultimately renders With Love an utterly loveless affair, the soundtrack to an infinitely-extending gallery of gleaming white rooms filled with slightly varying riffs on nothingness. The listener wanders patiently through, rapt, in search of an apex or a moment of revelation, but when this moment finally comes, it brings only the realization that you have been trapped in the narcissistic loop of an echo chamber, one that leaves you feeling lost and alone.