One Foot Ahead of the Other EP
out October 6th
1984. A dark and stormy night… Little Suzy is babysitting at big, old, MacPherson place up on the hill… the one everyone says is haunted. *CRASH* What’s that noise?!? *CLUNK* *CLUNK* Is someone there? Oh no… coming down the stairs… a rotting carcass, emanating purest malice and ill intent, decomposed flesh hanging from blackened bones, gnarled and glinting teeth emerge from putrefied gums, gnashing, hungering for Little Suzy’s sweet, delicious brains. And then… a new sound, minimal beats and gameboy beeps and bloops, sinister synths and syncopated kicks… the walking undead stops, listens… and starts dancing.
Zomby is dance music for horror movies and platformer videogames. Combining the syncopated, sparse rhythmic sensibilities of classic D&B/techno/whatever acts like A Guy Called Gerald and Alter Ego with Gameboy sounding synths running through apreggios, endless scale progressions, and frequently, less complicated forms than that, Zomby are what would happen if djs from Berlin were asked to score a John Carpenter movie based on Castlevania.
On their newest EP, One Foot Ahead of the Other, Zomby’s sound is tightened, made more concrete. Ethereal space-out tracks are notably absent, and instead a beat, syncopated, head-nodding, reminiscent of minimal, techno, D&B, and other such European exotica, runs through the entire EP. To continue the horror movie metaphor, One Foot Ahead of the Other sounds like an original soundtrack – I’ve listened to the EP through probably 6 or 7 times now, and what is striking is its coherence. While the individual tracks may not jump out at you – and I must admit, on first listen I did not enjoy the EP, probably because I was skipping through, attempting to find those stand out tracks, which are usually my entrance points to an album, and they were not there. When I simply put the whole album on, on repeat, and lay down with a pair of headphones and closed my eyes, the music made its point. It induces a trance-like state, head nodding imperceptibly, foot tapping involuntarily, as you drift off into a pixilated dreamscape of purple clouds and harsh lighting.
I would be remiss in not mentioning just how large a debt this EP, and Zomby in general, owes to the classic videogames of the late 80’s/early 90’s. Even when I was fully in thrall to the beats, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was running and jumping through a Castlevania level, and I never even played Castlevania. Although Gameboy-core (how’s that for an awkward descriptor?) has a storied place on the fringes of electronic music, and occasionally pushes into the mainstream (see: 50% of the Crystal Castles’ songs), Zomby is notable for their earnest dedication to bleeps and bloops. One Foot Ahead of the Other isn’t an appropriation of videogame sounds for the purpose of making dance music; it is rather and appropriation of dance music to the purpose of making videogame sounds. If this EP is a soundtrack, it is the soundtrack to some imaginary, fantastical digital quest, to slay the vampire, rescue the princess. Each track feels like a new level, a logical progression, the same but different as the one before. As I said, this lends itself well to long-form listening, but can also lead to a feeling of repetition, as if you’ve fought this boss, jumped this gap before.
In addition to getting repetitive, Zomby’s consistency has the effect of polarizing listeners: if you like their distinctive sound, you’ll like the EP, but there’s little variance here to draw in those who dislike Gameboy synths or minimal beats. I can’t honestly assess Zomby on a linear “good-bad” scale – some of you will just not like the fundamental components of their music, and I doubt anything Zomby does or I write will change that.
That said, a few tracks do stand out, after repeated listens. I found myself drawn repeatedly to the title track, and to “Expert Tuition.” “One Foot Ahead of the Other,” a title that I can only assume is a reference to the platformers referenced so prominently in the music, has energy, carried in a bassline that pounds, but never emerges from the background, leaving the synth lines to carry the attention. The melody is almost plaintive, calling to the listener, inviting you in. “Expert Tuition” is composed of the same raw elements, but mixes it up, bringing the bass further into your consciousness, while the snare and kick are even quicker, speeding you along, your attention fully focused on the beat, while here the synths feel more like mood-setting window dressing. “Expert Tuition” is probably the song on One Foot After the Other that could be most honestly classified as “dance music,” and it wears the label well. A track to put on at the end of the night, when morning is calling, and sweaty worn-out dancers are sprawled on couches and carpets, thick gray smoke rising from the glowing ember of a joint, and even as one by one, revelers slip off to play the videogames in their dreams, their feet tap out a Zomby rhythm.
Ultimately, One Foot Ahead of the Other, while it will not be the kind of dance music most people are looking for, is not groundbreaking. The EP is well produced, coherent, and infectious, and for those reasons alone is worth a listen or two.