An astronaut hurtles through space toward a black hole on a doomed mission. The knowledge of her fate triggers a deep depression and realization of the many unfair reasons why she was chosen for this suicidal trip into space. I’m describing Zonal’s album “Wrecked” rather than a movie. This narrative isn’t explicitly spelled out, but its song titles frame a cry for help in sci-fi imagery: “Debris,” “Black Hole Orbit,” “S.O.S.,” “Alien Within,” “Stargazer.” The first half features vocals by queer rapper and poet Moor Mother, but it then turns entirely instrumental, growing more minimal and even grimmer.
This is the second time around for Zonal, although the first under this name. British musicians Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick formed the electronic duo Techno Animal in 1990, releasing six albums. With the benefit of hindsight, their 2001 “Brotherhood of the Bomb” was far more significant than it seemed at the time. A collaboration between the group and leftfield rappers like Rob Sonic, Antipop Consortium, and Company Flow, it paved the way for artists like Death Grips, Clipping, and JPEGMAFIA’s mix of punk, hip-hop, and industrial attitudes and textures. But Broadrick and Martin had many other projects — Broadrick started out as the singer/ guitarist of Godflesh and later founded the shoegaze-metal Jesu, and Martin continued the aesthetic of “Brotherhood of the Bomb,” if not its exact sound, under the name The Bug, producing abrasive dancehall reggae and a collaboration with drone-metal band Earth.
Moor Mother has frequently used sci-fi imagery, going back to her debut ep “Animals screw in space.” On this album, the idea of “Alien Within” ties more to the alienation of feeling like a stranger on this planet than the thrill of making contact with others. With its slow tempos, metallic percussion, and massive low end, the whole album feels like a portrait of depression. Both Broadrick and Martin have discussed their mental health issues; the original incarnation of Godflesh split up because Broadrick had a nervous breakdown.
“Stargazer” closes the album with a fuzzed-out drone that sounds like multi-racked static. “Body of Wire” began it with similar sounds, but at least it had a more audible human presence. It also promises something: Moor Mother says, “Behold the masterpiece.” Their video for “In a Cage” preserves a mystique. Moor Mother is the only member who appears in it, and she’s hidden behind a mask most of the time. Even when her face is shown, she sits on a bare stage, bathed in red light.
While working for Virgin Records (which released Techno Animal’s second album “Re-Entry”), Martin got the label to release landmark jazz fusion and dub reggae compilations. The latter hovers as an inspiration over “Wrecked.” Without resorting to copying its techniques of raising instruments up and down in the mix or drenching the music in reverb, Zonal captures a similar feeling of creeping dread. “System Error” repeats Rastafarian imagery about Babylon representing the corruption of the modern world. Their music frequently loops Moor Mother’s voice in the background as a faint echo. As a much different influence, “In a Cage” quotes the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” “Wrecked” suggests the influence of Swans’ molasses pace and overbearing feel, but unlike that New York group Zonal aren’t playing rock music.
“Medulla” might be the most punishing song on “Wrecked.” Almost eight minutes long, it’s paced like a dirge and based around an enormous but slightly muffled snare drum pounding as if Phil Collins is in hell and thunderous synthesizers. Moor Mother repeats her mantra, ““I spit this shit like I got a bounty on my head/ They want me dead, motherfuckers… I’m a fugitive.” The song’s imagery brings up the history of runaway slaves. “Catalyst” is even more overtly political, referring to America’s long history of sexism and racism — “If you was black, you was a fraction” — and offering tentative hints of hope and grace.
“Wrecked” is a demanding listen. It runs 64 minutes and while its individual songs are striking, it was made to be heard in one sitting rather than placed on a playlist. I may be over-reaching to see a narrative in it, but at least its mood and level of ambition sustain such an interpretation. While recent films like “First Man” and “Ad Astra” have taken strong, silent white men into space, Zonal and Moor Mother (whose second solo album “Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes” comes out November 8) open the arena up to an anger and disenchantment expressed by people who don’t look like Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.
ZONAL | “Wrecked” | Relapse Records | Drops Oct. 25 | relapse.com