“Formative” is a Vague Visages column about music albums that influenced the writer’s teenage experience.
Having grown up on the cusp of the internet age, a scattered collection of my old CDs still gathers dust at my dad’s house. If they were sorted by date of purchase, then there would be a noticeable evolution of my taste from the age of 12 to 16, ending with half a dozen Hard House and Hard Trance compilations. Some of it holds up, but most of it doesn’t, especially the trashy dance music.
I don’t remember the following transition, but soon enough I was discovering music on YouTube and downloading full discographies of people like Kode9, Digital Mystikz and Zomby. The year 2009 was not the beginning of dubstep — far from it — but it was a stage in its development, which still contained the genre’s powerhouses. Skrillex released Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites in 2010, and suddenly dubstep was becoming a bad word — and rightly so. Skrillex’s music is from another planet compared to the truly bone-shaking rhythms and electronics that were being released by labels such as Hyperdub, Deep Medi, Tempa, Hessle Audio, Non-plus, Ninja Tune, Werkdiscs, etc, etc. Dubstep is the wrong word for what we were gurning to in clubs, but at its purest, it influenced some of the best music coming out of the UK at the time.
Zomby’s One Foot Ahead of the Other is not the best album from that period (though not a favourite, Burial’s Untrue is the obvious pick), and it’s not even Zomby’s best (Dedication?). But it was one of the first to show me that electronic music could be subtle, odd and still aim for dark rooms full of sweaty young people. What’s important, however, is that Zomby’s tracks were more exciting when plugged straight into my head. His music enlightened me to how euphoric and pleasurable 8-bit sounds can be, especially when they are used not for kicks, but to project melancholy and strangeness.
In typical Zomby style, each track on One Foot Ahead of the Other is a small experiment used to express a specific motif. In this case, glittering 8-bit arpeggios pouring over 2-step, 4×4 and dub rhythms. Zomby’s melodies are carefully crafted but achingly simple, and when he hits on a perfect combination of sound and melody, like with “Godzilla,” it would be hard to find a musician quite so thrifty who can evoke so much. The drums on a number of tracks are exactly same, but listen to how tiny changes in the mix create different foundations to balance, like a spinning disc, the sounds up top. And while “Pumpkinhead’s Revenge” is the opposite of soothing, it is the best example of how Zomby’s synth tones genuinely glisten — you can hear the edges of the arpeggios echo as if they are spraying sparks of light.
At 19, with the album stored on my MP3 player, adored but never more than a solid secondary work from one of my favourite artists, I travelled the long-haul flight from London, through Qatar, and onto Sri Lanka, where my granddad was waiting for me. He emigrated to England in 1950, making his home and life here. In his later years, no matter how much his body was failing him, he returned to Sri Lanka, his homeland, whenever he could. In 2012, I decided to meet him out there for 10 days. Looking back, I wish I had stayed at least two weeks, but my priorities were different then.
We made base in Kandy, where he grew up, and our hotel sat on the hills which surround one flank of the city, high above Bogambara Prison. At night, he would sit in bed, and I would sit on the balcony, drinking and smoking. I was of age, but doing this around him, if we were in England, would’ve been unthinkable. Because of what the trip meant to him (and me), my granddad said nothing. It was one of those nights that I fell in love with “Firefly Finale,” the last track on One Foot Ahead of the Other. Even now when I hear the repeating synth line buried under the beating chords, I revert back to that point; the city lights cradled by the hills and reflecting in the night sky, pulsing like the broken beats pounding in my head.
My granddad passed away this year, and that trip will always be the most important time I had with him. I don’t have Zomby to thank for that, but his music helps me to relive a moment that might otherwise have been lost to memory.
Mark Seneviratne is a data analyst for an arts funding organisation and is based in Manchester, UK. He also writes for The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry, and will have a short story published for the first time in Not One of Us come October 2020. At university, he thought having a Michael Haneke poster made him edgy.