Deconstructions, echoes and cross references: Stefan Betke on Zomby’s Dedication
Stefan Betke, alias Pole, is a producer, sound engineer, and the co-founder of the Berlin-based ~scape label. Legend has it that in 1996, Betke accidentally dropped his Waldorf 4-Pole analog filter, causing it to spit out the un- predictable hisses and pops that eventually became the trademark of his idiosyncratic dub techno. Zomby‘s recent announcement of his upcoming double album With Love reminded us of Betke’s excellent review of the UK producer’s previous LP Dedication, originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
There were a couple of occasions where Zomby and I could have met in person—I’ve played more than one festival where he was scheduled to appear either right before or right after me . . . if only he had shown up. It’s a running gag amongst promoters that when you book Zomby, you better have a replacement act on hand. It should also be known that when you first listen to his music digitally, it should be in a proper format. My first listen to Dedication was as a low bit-rate MP3 and after around three minutes I thought to myself: I haven’t heard something this bad in a long time. Luckily, my second listen was in CD-quality format and the difference was like night and day. Of course, as a producer and studio engineer, I’m sensitive when it comes to crafting sounds. But with Dedication— Zomby’s second album—almost all of the detail and sophisticated sound-design disappears when not listened to in the proper format. This was most apparent in regards to Zomby’s complex manipulation of hall and reverb. Together with the effects, the instrumentation and balance in his composition make for masterfully precise and clearly defined grooves. Aside from the fact that I don’t like the sound of gunfire at all—and there’s lots of it on the album’s first track, “Witch Hunt”—Zomby has an incredible ear. But I can’t emphasize it enough: anybody listening to Dedication on cheap headphones and in MP3 quality will miss the experience this record has to offer.
The album is a compact work of no more than thirty-six minutes, with individual tracks clocking in at circa three to four minutes—something you might expect more from the conventional singer- songwriter. But Zomby makes his point quickly, sucking in the listener with classic introductions and then leading them to more chorus-like passages. Ultimately, you get shot out the other end with Zomby’s codas, which usually end abruptly. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the album are the refrains, which recur over the course of the entire record—unexpected deconstructions, echoes and cross references of melodies and rhythmic patterns pop up out of nowhere, but are brilliantly embedded in the album’s narrative.
Dubstep tracks are usually the opposite of pop songs; dubstep is about the dancefloor, about never-ending rhythms, trance, repetition and hypnosis. Dedication could have incorporated all of those elements, but instead blazes a new and different trail—one that’s not so bass-heavy. What it retains is a moodiness that’s expertly recast within a pop context. That’s a brave and important move, because over the past few years, dubstep has become monotonous and overly self-referential. Some dubstep producers have moved into new territory—Detroit techno, Berlin-style digital dub techno, Chicago house . . . These are all legitimate musical directions, but I don’t see them leading to anything new. When talking about poppier, post- dubstep genres, James Blake inevitably comes to mind. But unlike Blake, who apart from his first two twelve-inches is little more than an overhyped poster-boy, Zomby’s Dedication is the opposite of superficial. I don’t think a typical dubstep DJ would play individual tracks in a club, but there are intelligent, progressive DJs who would gladly throw a Zomby tune into their set—people like Actress, Flying Lotus or Four Tet. Speaking of Four Tet: I recently listened to his last album There Is Love In You and immediately realized the incredible similarities between “Angel Echoes” and Zomby’s “Natalia’s Song”. Atmospherically the tracks are like twins separated at birth. If I DJ’ed, I’d definitely put these two together. ~
Published April 28, 2013. Words by Stefan Betke.