Collaborations are the ultimate musical wild card, offering up either a pleasant surprise or unfulfilled potential. Fortunately for us, both Justin Broadrick (Godflesh and Jesu) and Kevin Martin (The Bug) have made it their mission to form some of the most intriguing super-duos over the past decade. Broadrick has worked with everyone from Jarboe to Sun Kil Moon and contributed to Concrete Desert, Martin’s recent collaborative album with Dylan Carlson of Earth.
Now, the former Techno Animal bandmates are back together as Zonal, a project that celebrates their hip-hop and illbient roots with the help of multi-talented wordsmith Camae Ayewa. She’s made a name for herself with her industrial spoken word project Moor Mother, though I’m partial to her outstanding work with avant-garde jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements. With her contributions, Zonal’s debut album Wrecked unravels as an engulfing, disorienting foray into the darkest depths of instrumental hip-hop processed through the lens of the industrial underground.
Wrecked unravels as a double-album of sort, at least in the sense of having a clear two-side structure. The first six tracks all feature Ayewa’s cutting lyrics and haunting delivery, while the final six tracks all rest in the hands of Broadrick and Martin. It comes together to offer a unique experience; both approaches have their own intricacies worth exploring, and having too much of either would have diminished the unique sonic journeys.
The album as a whole revolves around a formula best-described as “dark trip-hop.” Imagine the heaviest, most industrial-tinged moments of your favorite Massive Attack and Portishead albums, then dial up the darkness exponentially. Each track is a suffocating concoction of pulsing, throbbing bass swarmed by walls of noise, heavy synths, and general electronic and industrial atmospheres.
This provides the perfect backdrop for Ayewa’s preferred subject matter of aggressive personal and political observations. “In a Cage” sees her riffing on lyrics from the classic Smashing Pumpkins track “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” albeit with a delivery that feels much more devoid of hope and drenched in sorrow. On “System Error,” she attacks the “rotten system” we all find ourselves in, closing out with her signature blunt lyrical style:
BROKEN DRONES BROKEN GLASS MAKE BREAKBEATS
KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN
THE PLUG IN TO YOU AND ME
YOU AND I KNEE DEEP IN THE LIE
HEAD UP IN THE HIGH
HOW YOU DOING JUST LIE
WHILE TIME CREEPING BY
While her performances are consistently on point throughout the first part of the album, it’s Side B where Zonal kick things into high gear. Broadrick and Martin do an excellent job crafting beats for Ayewa’s style of rapping/spoken word, but they naturally fall a bit into the background as she becomes the focal point. As soon as the duo retake the spotlight on the title track, the album takes off into truly incredible territory.
Along with “Debris,” the first two tracks of the second half are absolutely crushing slabs of industrial hip-hop written and performed at the highest level. The production quality is nothing short of immaculate and accentuate the bass-heavy tone and instrumental choices. The tracks create multi-purpose walls of sound that straddle the line between relaxed and claustrophobic vibes. It’s a testament to their songwriting prowess that they can cover multiple moods on the same track, as is the case with Black Hole Orbit” and “S.O.S.” The former is a dub track through and through with prominent, thumping wobbles, while the latter takes on an eerie tone with sharper, soaring synth choices. “Alien Within” and “Stargazer” explore the band’s dark ambient and noise interests, respectively, and round out the sonic variety present across the album as a whole and Side B in particular.
By this point, it should be clear that we’ve reached an unexpected conundrum. While the main draw for Wrecked was the participation of Ayewa, its actually the instrumental portion of the album that truly shines brightest. As stated above, both sides are well-crafted and intriguing in their own ways. But the talents of Broadrick and Martin reach peak impact when they provide their tracks with some breathing room to fully ebb and flow. I’d still be interested to hear additional emcees and vocalists appear on future Zonal albums, especially Billy Woods and Matana Roberts. But sometimes, star power isn’t the only path to success or a guarantee of achieving the best results, something Wrecked clearly demonstrates.
Regardless, Wrecked is an excellent project from two veterans of the industrial and electronic underground. Broadrick and Martin explore familiar territory that fans of their past projects will surely recognize and appreciate. Yet, the way the duo present these styles – along with the emphasis on spoken word elements – feels like a fresh reinvention brimming with potential. The duo’s careers have been defined by fearless exploration, and with Zonal, it looks like they have every intention of continuing to build their respective and collective legacies.
Wrecked is available Oct. 25 via Relapse Records.