If apocalypticism was once primarily the domain of metal, end-time philosophies are now seeping into all sorts of genres, and the musical intensity they inspire is coming along. There is currently a fertile intersection between noise, techno and hip-hop which displays exactly this sort of anxiety and bleakness. This blurring of genres is thrillingly displayed on the recent debut full-length by the British duo Zonal, which features Philadelphia’s Moor Mother (aka Camae Ayewa) on its first four tracks. Moor Mother recently issued her own album, Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes, which also matches the above description in spades.
It’s telling that Zonal’s Wrecked has come out on the underground metal label Relapse. The group is the latest project from Justin Broadrick and Kevin Martin, both of whom have their roots in the industrial metal scene, with Godflesh and God. Broadrick in particular is a staggeringly important figure, but if one traces his evolution over the decades, it is obvious his muse lies in intensity and extremity and not merely with the guitar itself. He and Martin have been longtime collaborators in any number of sonically punishing outfits like Ice, Techno Animal and Curse of the Golden Vampire, to name a few. Martin himself is also behind a number of heavyweight projects including The Bug and King Midas Sound.
Zonal is in fact an outgrowth of the now defunct Techno Animal. Both outfits mine similar territory, deploying tectonic bass and overpowered drums to merciless effect, but the sound is more abstract with Zonal. They are comfortable letting the beats drop away and allowing noise to come to the fore. And in the case of Wrecked, this is often where Moor Mother’s spoken word comes into play.
Album opener “Body of Wire” is composed of little more than a drone with Moor Mother’s voice riding over the top. “Death complimentary/There’s wires inside of me,” she intones to chilling effect. The following track, “In a Cage,” does have a beat, but it is still dirty and subdued beneath the vocal. Rarely does dub get this skeletal. After her normal mantra-like repetitions, Moor Mother shifts briefly to a more hip-hop influenced delivery, giving the song focus.
“System Error” has served as the album’s single, and delivers paranoia and anger in equal doses. The bass line sounds like a bomb designed to penetrate subterranean bunkers, and a fine glaze of noise coats every element. The track is reminiscent of, if not an update of The Bug’s “Poison Dart,” a track featuring another fierce vocalist, Warrior Queen. Both are immensely powerful tracks, but here Warrior Queen’s intense ragga delivery is replaced by Moor Mother’s more measured but equally visceral invective.
The second half of Wrecked is instrumental, but also powerful. The title track kicks off this half of the record, and consists of a dub-like groove generously coated in industrial corrosives. The instrumental approach here is more hypnotic but no less intense. Each song works in conjunction with the others, creating an atmosphere like driving through the city late at night while experiencing a teeth-grinding amphetamine high. “Debris” offers a seesawing tension between dub tempos and hyperactive high-hats. “S.O.S.” takes this same tension and amplifies it even further, creating a rhythm that could be almost accidental, if it wasn’t so perfect. Everything about Wrecked sounds threatening in the best way possible.
Moor Mother is nothing if not prolific. In addition to the Zonal album, and her work in recent years with the jazz group Irreversible Entanglements and DJ Haram, she issued her second full-length under her own name in 2019, Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes. It is immediately apparent that her work with Zonal was a match made in heaven (or hell). Just like Broadrick and Martin, Moor Mother possesses the ability to weaponize her influences, producing music that knows few rivals in terms of intensity.
The sonic template on Analog Fluids… isn’t far removed from Wrecked, but her powerful persona moves even further into focus. The opener, “Repeater,” brings her spoken word style to the forefront, supported by a bed of noise-riddled sonics. Some sounds hint at dark ambient while Saydah Ruz’s violin evokes the apocalyptic sounds of George Crumb or Henryk Góreçki. Moor Mother intones, “You hold death over our head, you hold life over our head” and “Leave me, don’t speak to me again, come back when you are made of ashes.” Throughout the album, no matter how intense the music becomes, Moor Mother is never overpowered; her words and delivery are stunning.
Justin Broadrick appears here as well, co-producing “After Images” with her. The beat is driving and full of grit, her delivery more hip-hop influenced. “After they come for me they’re going to come for you/5,4,3,2,” she rhymes. There are other collaborators as well. On “Black Flight” and “The Myth Hold Weight,” Moor Mother scars and terrorizes King Britt’s brand of funk, with Saul Williams also contributing vocals to the former track. There are host of others too, including Mental Jewelry, Giant Swan and Reef the Lost Cauze featured among the large cast of guests. Moor Mother is always credited as a co-producer on every track, though, never relinquishing full control, and despite all the hands involved, the album is incredibly coherent, sounding like an intense and focused vision of Moor Mother herself.
It is difficult not to consider Wrecked and Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes together. They feel like a signal, a statement from a new movement. Certainly they are at least sonically adjacent to clipping. and JPEGMAFIA, but there is an immense sonic heft that seems to place them on a level all their own. These artists may even be mining the fertile yet seemingly forgotten territory the short-lived Illbient scene occupied as well (recall that Martin’s first release as The Bug was on the WordSound label). Overall, though, Zonal and Moor Mother are uncovering powerful new ways of portraying our apocalyptic tensions in a musical language that’s up to the task. This is fertile ground others are sure to enter, yet these artists are so successful at what they do that as a listener, one may hesitate to trust the task to anyone else.