Minimalism can be a powerful tool, but in Zomby's recent music it has become a handicap. His ideas either get stuck at the "sketch" stage, looping tantalisingly for a couple of minutes before fading out (2013's With Love), or are copy-pasted into full-length tracks with little development or depth (last year's Let's Jam 1 EP). Zomby's latest album, Ultra, a return to his old haunt Hyperdub after spells with 4AD and XL, goes some way towards reinvigorating his music. There's a new thorny quality to the sound, and a spread of collaborators pull things in unexpected directions. But Zomby still insists on keeping the mechanisms of his music exposed, and those mechanisms are starting to look pretty creaky.
That said, plenty of the album is interesting. Zomby often pursues longstanding interests. "Burst," "Yeti" and "Freeze" twist Eski's unmistakable sound palette into deranged shapes. "I" is uncanny UK garage, and "E.S.P." is a reminder of the producer's love for Aphex Twin. Bouncy house track "Glass" is particularly good, mainly thanks to its melody, a trademark Zomby earworm. (There are surprisingly few of these on Ultra.)
A few tracks give the album some melancholy depth. "HER" is a swooning, vaporwave-like loop, and closer "Thaw" could be the sweet-paranoid breakdown from a hardcore tune. A couple of collaborations pursue this mood, too: "S.D.Y.F.," with Rezzett, is gorgeous lo-fi jungle, and on "Fly 2," unknown producer Banshee makes seductive loops out of gasping R&B vocals. This is great until someone starts fucking with the tempo setting, a bad habit also indulged on "Glass."
The other two collaborations are weaker. The Darkstar-featuring "Quandary" is limp and drained of energy. On "Sweetz," Burial uses the complex, suite-like structure of his recent solo tracks, but fails to populate it with any interesting ideas. Even setting these disappointments aside, Ultra feels lacking. Repeat listens don't reveal any deeper logic to its tracklist, which remains a collection of intriguing ideas and not much more. For Zomby, showing his workings seems to be enough.