Zomby is undoubtedly a workhorse: it’s very considerate of him to find time in his busy schedule of being Twitter’s most irascible electronic producer to make new music. I imagine he’s the type to constantly fiddle with ideas and sketches, pulling out a VST or drum machine at any opportunity, resulting in many embryonic track ideas left gathering pixel dust on hard drives. 2013’s With Love felt a lot like this was the case, stuffed to the brim with 33 tracks that came and went without leaving an impression, and with so many tracks of a similar bent they felt like separate drafts of the same tune. It was an interesting listen but lacking flesh.
Ultra, Zomby’s return to Hyperdub, is more substantial not just by light of comparison but by the surfeit of patience unusual for a Zomby release. Tracks average out at four to five minutes, and he is more willing to let a pattern breathe and develop for longer stretches of time. Zomby was never really known for his ability to create sonic worlds to immerse yourself in, but on ‘HER’, minor-key pads and sustained tom-drums are steadily submerged into reverb but only subtly. By the end of the track you know that something has changed but it can be difficult to initially intuit what. It’s a new technique for Zomby, and it suits.
Not much, if any, consideration is made over whether these tracks would work in a club setting, or if it pays requisite homage to the intersections of grime, jungle and hardcore that Zomby took liberal influence from in the past (though there is still plenty of it). Of particular interest are the four collaborations with producers who share his musical priorities. ‘Fly 2’ with Banshee is a characteristic display of Zomby’s insouciant attitude. After two minutes of a looped vocal sample and swelling synths, the duo repeat the track again (shades of Miles Davis’ infamous repeating technique on 1969’s In A Silent Way), but slowed down.
‘Sweetz’, the collaboration with elusive Hyperdub legend Burial, has proven divisive among fans of both artists. As is Burial’s prerogative in the past five years, there’s no real structure to speak of, resembling more a collage than a song. The usual suspects of Burial productions come correct: evocative dialogue (“my whole life…”), rainlike crackle, and FM-frequency drums. These combined with Zomby’s harder edge (“got me fucked up”) and sharp steel drums intermeshed with low-in-the-mix air horns make for a track that’s probably not up there with Burial’s best, but certainly an impressive showing for Zomby and his more off-centre bent.
When the album turns to the more traditional, however, it becomes rote and forgettable. ‘Freeze’ and ‘Yeti’ are two of the album’s shorter tracks but it’s their point in the album where it starts to feel overlong and plodding. They also fall victim to a similar problem found in With Love in that they are so similar to Ultra’s second track ‘Burst’ that they feel repetitive and wheel-spinning. Ultra is a solid release, probably Zomby’s best and most focused, but there is still some room to figure out when a sketch is best left on the cutting room floor.