Zomby’s “With Love” and the importance of physical media
Zomby’s “With Love” is a double album by a dubstep artist known for recording 1- and 2-minute shuffles. How did it come to be?
I ask this while holding a gatefold triple-vinyl edition of “With Love.” The history of physical media, especially the relationship between vinyl and CD, explains how even artists given to brevity have been pushed to make expansive epics.
By 1984, the writing was on the wall for vinyl LPs. The Compact Disc, introduced a few years prior, promised higher fidelity sound in a portable size, although it would take a while before CDs became a truly on-the-go format. Large home stereo systems were still the name of the game – if you were rich enough to afford CD playback equipment, why not go all-out?
But did CDs really sound better than LPs? That’s up for debate, and listeners will hear what they want to hear. The CD did have at least one decisive advantage – its maximum playing time, which at 74 minutes easily outstripped the 40-50 minutes typical of an LP. The greater length opened new artistic doors even as the CD’s single-sided nature closed others (no more per-side themes), and throughout the 1980s artists pushed the boundaries of the album format, with the Red Book spec as their key enabler.
They added content that would have been nixed in the past to keep the album under 50 minutes. It was possible to make a single CD with an amount of music that only a few years before would have required 2 or 3 LPs. And releasing 2-3x LP (a double or triple album) wasn’t something that bands did lightly. Pushing 60+ minutes of content on the public was a statement.
The Mother of Invention had unleashed Freak Out! in 1966, a four-sided monster with an atonal collage on side four, and two years later The Beatles brought sprawl into the mainstream with the 30-track, 90-minute White Album. While the latter still requires 2 CDs, Freak Out now comfortably fit on one disc, which takes some of its grandeur (two LPs! side 4 is all noise!) away.
During the transition from LP to CD, artists previously known for their restraint began to dabble in longer-form projects. The punk label SST Records was a microcosm of what was happening with recording at large. Husker Du finished the 70-minute Zen Arcade in 1984, an expansive work that inspired (or perhaps kindled the envy of) labelmates The Minutemen. Only a few months later, The Minutemen recorded 45 songs – padded with stripped-down covers and instrumentals – that lasted “only” 81 minutes. Their Double Nickels on the Dime was a double LP that still hasn’t been pressed on double CD.
While the Huskers-Minutemen rivalry was the impetus for these epic works, the changing of the guard in physical media format enabled their largesse. The Minutemen may even have gone too far in swallowing up the possibilities of the CD era, much like video game developers went bananas for full-motion video after the CD-ROM displaced the floppy in the mid-1990s (the 6x CD The Beast Within is still the best example of this excess).
In 2014, we’re seemingly long past the point at which CDs became obsolete. Streaming music services and digital purchases are more convenient, if not more profitable. Still, the CD lingers, but it barely resembles its 1980s self. Today’s CDs come with bonus discs, bonus tracks, bonus everything – anything to push that 80-minute barrier. At the same time, the double CD album has become less of an oddity than a fact of life – whether it’s the studio album + a live disc, or two studio discs, recording more than 80 minutes of music is cliche.
I’ve already looked at one of last year’s double albums – Shaking the Habitual by The Knife – and in that entry I mentioned Terre Thaemlitz’s excellent work on the growing disconnect between album length and performance length. He skewered the divide with his 30-hour album Soulnessless, which shipped on a microSDHC. But I’m not surprised that an artist as ambitious as Thaemlitz would do that. I am surprised, however, that Zomby made a double album at around the same time, a time when MP3s have essentially made it possible to record a never ending album.
With Love: The gritty details
Zomby’s style would seem unsuited to long form media. There are few lyrics, so telling a long-winded story is pretty much out of the question. Similarly, there are no exceptional instrumental chops that would justify, even if tenuously, extended jamming and progressive rock pretentiousness. Sure, Zomby is not heir to these traditions of rock music, but his style forgoes even the most excessive aspects of the more stylistically germane electronica genres, such as the extended remix (trance), the sprawling soundscape (drum n’ bass), or the mashup (EDM).
What does Zomby sound like? There’s a lot of plinky keys and synths, as well as 1990s R&B samples, which is de rigeur for dubstep. In dubstep, the 1990s are ancient history, with a historical relationship to the present-day akin to that of the 1960s British Invasion to modern pop and rock – Zomby’s breakthrough album was, after all, called “Where Were U in ’92?” and closed with a dizzying sound barrage punctuated by samples (“Sonic Boom!“) from 1990s cultural hallmark Street Fighter II. It was one big long send-up to rave.
With Love isn’t a similar single genre exercise. Rather, it has inspiration, variety and length that seem rooted in the ideal of a compilation album. There’s a little bit of chiptune, some jungle, a dusting of ambient, and a lot of trap. Opener “As Darkness Falls” is so chiptune that it reminds me of another double album, Hella’s 2005 opus Church Gone Wild/Chirpin’ Hard, which was essentially two separate albums, with the superior half consistently echoing Nintendo Entertainment Sytem-era boss battle music (the other was an unlistenable menage of Boredoms-esque drum noise). With Love follows similar logic. One of its halves is trap-dominated, while the other is more stylistically varied.
There’s a consistent, melancholic veneer that tries to tie With Love together. Though it moves between genres, there’s always a certain distance, a particular darkness that emanates from the music. It’s this theme that makes With Love a real heir to the epic album because it insists that the proceedings are more than just a collection of songs, that there’s a singular logic holding it all together despite the apparently unfocused running time. Taking such a stance is a cliche, as it is literally the raison d’etre of the artist album, but it’s necessary all the same because advances in physical media capacity has enabled works that seem destined to be unfocused.
“Soliloquy” may be the best track on With Love, with lightly whirring rhythms, punchy bass and overlapping melodies that interlock nicely, drawing the listener in even as the iciness keeps them at arm’s (ear’s?) length. Vocal samples are rare, but the ones in “It’s Time” recall 1990s-era Goldie and maybe hint at trip-hop, a suggestion strengthened by the track’s beat.
With Love has the length and scope of a trance compilation, but the singularity of purpose of Zen Arcade. While it’s hard to call anything the “last” of its kind, With Love feels like the send-off for the double album. It exhausts the listener across six sides of vinyl/2 CDs, its every machination under pressure from both the growing expectations around how much material an artist should churn out in the MP3 era and the need to “tie it all together” and make it more than the dreaded Just a Collection of Songs.
It’s not the most extreme example of a product forged under these dual pressures. Pan Sonic’s 4-CD Kesto, not to mention Thaemlitz’s aforementioned SD card-album, push the envelope further, but by doing so they become something alien, something that’s barely recognizable as an album that can be packaged, enjoyed in one sitting and replayed. But With Love is still relatively traditional. IT paradoxically feels extremely long – 33 tracks will do that – while being short for a double album, much like Double Nickels on the Dime nearly 30 years ago. It does long form in the only way that the brevity-minded dubstep genre can do – as a glorified mixtape, roughly transitioning form one burst of notes to another. Only the thematic darkness keeps it together, as if midnight were approaching for the album’s Cinderella run.