Zomby & Machinedrum :: Double review (4AD / Planet Mu)

Zomby and Machinedrum are both excellent candidates for post-dubstep status because of their expertise and reluctance to fully engage with dubstep as a genre. Both have made works that suggest broad musical knowledge and taste, and both are capable of pulling “post-dubstep” out of its confused mire.

Zomby 'Dedication'

Is there really such a thing as post-dubstep? Wikipedia tells me so. The name’s pretension makes me balk, but so does its slipperiness, much more so than post-rock or any similar classification. At its worst, it’s an insecurity-assuaging shibboleth for dubsteppers who hate the way Skrillex rose to fame. Don’t worry, that irks me too – “Post-dubstep” is a stab in the right direction, at least. If Skrillex et al.’s popularity is any indication, dubstep’s potential to be a catalyst for creativity is waning. This new “genre” is presumably the result of producers realizing this, so now we have an amorphous new form on our hands, one with strains of dubstep, R&B, and house, that’s much broader (and less conceited) than that lazy term implies.

Zomby and Machinedrum are both excellent candidates for post-dubstep status because of their expertise and reluctance to fully engage with dubstep as a genre. Both have made works that suggest broad musical knowledge and taste, and both are capable of pulling “post-dubstep” out of its confused mire.

Machinedrum was the most prolific member of the Merck stable. In addition to jazzy post-rock as Tstewart and Autechre worship as Syndrone, he happened to make the best IDM hip hop album ever, Now You Know, a record that showed up even Funkstörung at their best. Even though I pessimistically assumed that he would fade into Discogs obscurity after Merck died, he made a surprisingly relevant comeback last year crafting lush not-quite-garage as one half of Sepalcure, on Hotflush of all places.

Zomby, who is less proven but equally adept, comes off as somewhat of a dubstep dilettante. He is involved with the scene enough to merit his own dubstep forum thread, etc., but his walloping singles and dank EP’s hint at so much more – a rare ear for texture, familiarity with fashion and literature, and a reverence for the history of electronic music most others lack. A maverick, in short, and a perfectionist – his reticence, appearance- and music-wise, suggests a frustrating degree of self-imposed integrity that would sooner send sub-par work to the trash rather than the lathe.

With Zomby silent for God knows how long and Machinedrum dropping hints he has more on the ball than your average 10-years-in-the-game IDM dude, both were primed to make a big move in 2011. Which is sort of what you have to do to get noticed in any meaningful way nowadays, with the Internet amplifying the clamor of formerly local scenes to a muddled roar. A big move was also exactly what Zomby’s long silence hinted at, not to mention his deal with indie giant 4AD. It seemed likely the label would be Zomby’s proving ground and Dedication the unstoppable force that put all doubts to rest.

As it turns out, Room(s) is the album Zomby needed to make. Instead, Dedication is like its creator – evasive, shadowy, and brimming with unfulfilled potential. The individual pieces are fairly well accomplished, sure, but the final product sounds unplanned, without any theme or pacing. In other words, it could easily be mistaken for a disordered collection of Dusk & Blackdown radio rips, or a random selection of 16 mp3’s from Zomby’s hard drive.

Dedication does have its brilliant moments, though, some that are among Zomby’s best. If you want eerie you’ll find it here, in the clicking creep of “Witch Hunt,” the foreboding drone of “Vanquish,” and the haunted grooves of both “A Devil Lay Here” and “Riding With The Devil,” natch. “Mozaik” is also worthwhile in all its stately simplicity, as is the Photek exercise “Florence.” But for every strong foot forward, Zomby takes at least one exasperating step back. There’s the toothless, dimly affecting single “Natalia’s Song,” among other less realized pieces ranging from curious to unmemorable, most of which are too short to leave much of an impression. “Things Fall Apart” is egregious, though, as it’s the most fully realized idea on Dedication, and one of Zomby’s best productions, but Panda Bear’s atrocious voice spoils it, adding nothing but cheap indie appeal.

Machinedrum 'Room(s)'

It’s interesting to note that Zomby apparently spent 18 months working on Dedication, which sounds like a slow process compared to the “flashes of inspiration” Machinedrum has mentioned in recent interviews. That doesn’t necessarily make Dedication safe or even calculated, but it might have suffered from some bouts of second guessing during that year and a half. I might be wrong about that, but it wouldn’t change Dedication’s inferiority to Room(s). Room(s) was recorded on the fly with minimal editing, a method Machinedrum says he hasn’t done before. His early work was intensely cerebral and overthought in places, so the change shows – Room(s)is one for the dancefloor, a set of stripped-down, muscular tracks that grip hard and never let go. They are laser-guided bombs, all of them, spiriting footwork to a less insular place, from dark Chicago warehouses into a pulsating oblivion, transcending influence and precedent with power and grace. This is album of the year material we’re talking here, a future classic, visionary and massive.

Really, now. This is damn good stuff. It’s the sound of juke and hip hop and drum’n bass and everything else that makes asses move collapsing under their own gravity and forming a hot fiery lodestar, tempered by that delicate interplay of full-speed and half-speed dubstep is built on. But instead of putting any emphasis on dubstep’s suffocating sub-bass, Room(s) is a breathless visceral rush, focusing mostly on melody and rhythm. And my, what rhythms. They’re mesmerizing, a combination of drum’n bass’ manic energy and instrumental hip hop’s laid-back affability. The two potentiate each other in a glorious multi-speed mess, creating a nimble propulsion that makes everything, and I mean everything else, sluggish by comparison. It’s like watching a wheel spin so fast it looks like it’s going backwards.

This didn’t come out of nowhere – just beneath Room(s’) polished surface you can see footwork’s shadow, an influence that imparts much currency and relevance. Footwork is far from being the Next Big Thing – it’s really just the latest form of what I wish musicologists would call the Booty Continuum, which includes ghetto tech and similar ephemera – but it happens to be where a lot of action is right now. With Room(s) Machinedrum substantiates footwork’s most recognizable signifiers, tom-tom assaults and repetitious vocal samples, making his tracks more palatable than their rudimentary predecessors with the addition of stronger structure and better songwriting.

Footwork is just one of Room(s)’ reference points, though. Machinedrum is an IDM veteran and it shows – check the μ-Ziq sample on “Come1” and the Luke Vibert-copping vocal bit on “Sacred Frequency.” More generally, too, Room(s) evokes Hard Normal Daddy’s spastic vigor, not to mention the Jimmy McGriff song “U Don’t Survive” samples, which will remind any Squarepusher fan of “My Red Hot Car.” And sure, all the forlorn crooning is straight from Burial’s book. But Burial is suited for riding night buses in London at 3 AM, whereas Room(s) is optimally experienced at 80 miles per hour on a busy highway at night. The whole thing is a rush, all jackhammer 808 kicks and skittering snares anchoring vocals chopped, fried, and Autotune’d beyond recognition.

I could go on and on about Room(s), but not just because of its potency and muscular precision. It has real staying power, the potential to really stick, something great enough to inspire awe and stunned silence even in the Internet age of overhype and rapid-fire culture. It is unflagging, trenchant, years ahead of its time, a prediction of some future state of music. Room(s) is the kind of album you listen to for a week straight, all the time wondering why you used superlatives to describe anything else. This is what comes after dubstep. Not post-dubstep per se, but more than enough of a confident affirmation to carve a brave new path for electronic music.

This is a lot more than I can say for Dedication. In fact, one could say that any comparison involving Room(s) is unfair the way this article is set up. Indeed, most efforts will pale next to Room(s), but the reason I put Dedication on the other side of the ring is because of how much it pales. Since 2007, Zomby has given nothing but tantalizing hints at his prowess, adumbrating some great promise. And sure, Where Were U In ‘92 was well done, but it was a dodgy way to deal with expectations, and it made me doubt whether Zomby would eventually be able to concentrate his formidable talent into one package. Yet Dedication doesn’t toy with us like ’92 did; it’s a statement, no fooling this time. It has its heights, sure, even undeniable ones, but as a whole, it’s pretty sparse, the good moments landlocked by vagary. Without context it might be a decent album, but it’s just not a great Zomby album, not even close to what I know he could offer – that is, a tour-de-force. Like Room(s).

Dedication is out now on 4AD and Room(s) is out now on Planet Mu.

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