Son Raw is back by popular demand.
A couple of people on Twitter asked me about the new Zomby record, and frankly, looking for an outside opinion on this one is an understandable impulse. Coming out of leftfield and never quite settling into a groove, Mercury’s Rainbow is a bewildering listen that’s part intriguing backstory, part alternate history, and part sleight of hand. It’s the type of mindbender that simultaneously invites hype and caution, particularly coming from one of dance music’s most inscrutable figures. I’m not entirely sure if I love it, but I’m really glad it exists.
First, the press release stuff: Mercury’s Rainbow was recorded 10 years ago, supposedly over a couple of frenetic weeklong sessions. And yes, the material is definitely vintage, with Youtube links to various radio rips attesting to its time capsule origins. Further, it’s supposedly Zomby’s take on “Eskibeat” the grime sound pioneered by Wiley in his earliest, vinyl-only days. That information alone is enough to send grime obsessives reaching for their credit cards upon release, but is it all true? Is it any good? Why now?
Mercury’s Rainbow dodges almost all of those questions. While this is definitely Zomby taking out those early Triton soundpatches for a joyride, he ends up exploring vastly different territory than Wiley’s functional classics, so calling this Eskibeat only works if you’re willing to expand the definition of the sound beyond “beats Wiley made at the turn of the millennium.” So if you’re looking for classic Eski, head to Soulseek, but if you want a dread-heavy Zomby album that sounds like getting lost in the depths of space, this one’s among his best.
It’s also a surprise, because Zomby’s more than capable of delivering a straight up Wiley pastiche—”3 is the new 6“ by (Wiley’s brother) Cadell proved it. Thankfully, Zomby’s also smart enough to realize that this sort imitation turns sour quickly, just ask anyone who’s suffered through 20 years of producers attempting RZA knock offs. So instead of ‘Where were you in ‘02’ imitation brand Wiley beats, Mercury’s Rainbow sees Zomby taking the same sound palette but using it to craft what sounds like a soundtrack to an imaginary sci-fi film.
The already minimal beats are reduced to near ambient loops, punctuated by just a few pulses and snares. The reverb is cranked to dubstep’s cavernous heights (this was made in 08-09) and the melodies are kept in an eerie minor key. It all makes for a frightening take on a sound that was actually quite cheerful by grime standards, and dousing Wiley’s pentatonic melodies in loopy, skunked-fueled paranoia makes for compulsive listening. It’s enough to make you wonder why he took so long to release the record: had Mercury’s Rainbow dropped in 2010, it would have leapfrogged similar records by Jam City and Logos, records that got substantial acclaim.
Only…he didn’t. In fact, Zomby has picked a truly bizarre time to release Mercury’s Rainbow—a few years after crews/labels like Boxed, Butterz, and Night Slugs released substantial amounts of music taking grime’s early sonic touchstones as starting points. On one hand, Mercury’s Rainbow’s drastic reduction of the Eski palette to its most essential elements is a powerful, bracing take. On the other, it’s not all that surprising to hear these sounds in 2017. Eski certainly feels far more played out now than it ever would have at the turn of the decade, when grime was undergoing deflationary growing pains, but should that count against the record? Hard to complain when you’re enjoying the album, just because you could have enjoyed it more a few years earlier.
Ultimately, what you think of Mercury’s Rainbow probably depends on just how much Eski you’ve been exposed to, and your tolerance for a deliriously evil take on the sound in 2017. As a standalone album, it’s a great take on a fantastic sound, albeit one that’s seen more than its fair share of devotees, though I suspect it will age far better than the majority of grime records chucking a few detuned squarewaves together. If nothing else, it’s definitely one of the weirder records you’ll hear at a time when dance music feels a bit too normal.