It's a sign of how blas' we're becoming about British dance music's ability to savage our preconceptions that nobody has reacted to the release of Dedication with anything approaching astonishment. Zomby's new album is coming out an indie label, 4AD, and features a vocal by Animal Collective's Noah 'Panda Bear' Lennox. It's a dance record, but nobody much will want to dance to it. It's unmistakeably influenced by dubstep, but it can trace its lineage back to the likes of Aphex Twin as well as to Burial, and its great-uncle on its mother's side may well be pioneering BBC Radiophonic Workshop guru Delia Derbyshire. It's an emotionally complex album, inspired by Zomby's dead father; at times it's sombre and downhearted; then, suddenly, it becomes almost celebratory. Five years ago, all of this would have seemed surprising and envelope-pushing. But in the intervening period, dubstep and post-dubstep producers have pushed the envelope so thoroughly that Dedication's attempt to give it a further nudge has shocked absolutely nobody.
Dedication is not an especially accessible album. It stutters and sputters; it stops and it starts. It builds and builds and then, just when it seems to have gained some momentum, it abruptly stops, a disinterested look flashing across its face. Many of the tracks are hypnotic, built as they are around looped, wistful synths and slow, syncopated beats. However, those tracks are short, very short: ten of Dedication's sixteen tracks last no longer than two and a half minutes. This creates an awkward effect whereby a track sucks you in only to abruptly spit you out again as the album segues - sometimes a little clumsily - into another song.
There's a sense in which this awkwardness suits Zomby's purposes. Dedication is not supposed to be a slick record; it's a notably personal piece of music, the dubstep analogue of an uncomfortable but impressively nuanced singer-songwriter confessional. Consider 'Basquiet', a harrowing two-minute march in which a stately piano line is intermittently joined by a buzzing, disquieting synth noise which undercuts its grandeur. Or take 'Witch Hunt', a more conventional piece of dubstep which manages to confound expectations by a) sampling gunshots from Counter Strike, and b) weaving those gunshots into the song so that they sound positively mournful. A less talented producer would have used the sample to punctuate a faster-paced track, generating a certain tacky excitement; Zomby counter-intuitively builds them into a down-tempo, sad-faced piece of dubstep, creating something darker. Still, Dedication is not entirely sepulchral. It's full of beats which are both insistent and persistent, lending most tracks a certain momentum.
As well as being a nuanced and surprising composer, Zomby is a versatile one. One passage from the middle of album demonstrates this perfectly. The heavy, insectoid synth stomp of 'Vortex' gives way to the swirling 'Things Fall Apart', on which Panda Bear again showcases his ability to pack a surprising amount of emotional subtlety into a simple, repeating phrase; in turn, this track gives way to the concise, tribal 'Salamander'. In part, it is this changeability which makes the album an awkward experience, by whisking us off our feet again as soon as we get our bearings; but, seen from another angle, it could be said to lend depth and an exciting unpredictability to the listening experience. An impressive album, and one you will return to.