After 2013’s long-winded With Love, many wondered whether Zomby would find new directions to explore on another LP. The years since have brought a relative chill to his previously trigger-happy Twitter account whilst a pair of Let’s Jam EPs on XL revealed a level of polish and depth that the producer had once only hinted at. True to its title, Ultra showcases Zomby at his highest level, further honing his singular sound while working alongside unique collaborators.
Perception is a running theme across the LP, as familiar sounds are broken down and recontextualised. The album frequently features trademark Zomby signifiers such as 8-bit synths, airhorns and sci-fi dramatics, but here they are rendered with an added grace and experimentality. Sporting track titles like “Reflection”, “E.S.P.”, “I” and “Her” to coincide with its inclination towards restrained beats and introspective sounds, Ultra’s polished production style seems to work in tandem with Zomby’s personal progression.
Opener “Reflection” has a dark cinematic quality, aided by Twin Peaks’ Log Lady ominously repeating, “Somehow mistaken for something else… Something else.” Drones, gunshots and rapidly descending 8-bit synths accompany her, collectively exuding frantic energy and uncertainty. The first half of the LP remains in this gloom. It doesn’t lift until the piercing “Glass”, where a childlike melody evokes the image of a music box gone awry.
“HER” recalls ‘80s TV soundtracks with retro synths and a mysterious pondering quality, as if on the verge of exposing some significant truth. Coming from a more rhythmic place, “E.S.P.” is dank and cavernous, with Actress-like hollow strings and deep bass eventually settling into a danceable groove. The track lengths on Ultra are notably longer than those of Zomby’s previous albums for the most part, allowing moments like “HER” to properly unravel.
Ultra features a slew of similarly elusive producers who contribute to some of its best tracks. “Sweetz”, the collaboration with Burial, is a knocking, woozy club tune that rides a repeating vocal and blown-out horns. Rezzett lend assistance on “S.D.Y.F.”, the jungle-grounded climax of the album which is awash in the duo’s tape saturated sound. Both collaborations serve as a slight relief from the hi-fi gloss that defines the rest of the album.
The challenge to improve and mature in the long term isn’t easily met, but Zomby proves successful on this record. While referencing 8-bit and ‘90s rave music is a nostalgic gesture, the tracks aren’t weighed down by symbolic references and feel distinctly 2016. In a year marked by many artists’ return to the LP format, Ultra stands among the most well-produced and self-examining. Though not quite faultless, Zomby’s latest reveals a higher potential that suggests his best may still be yet to come.
Zomby’s Ultra was released September 2 on Hyperdub.