Years ago, John Roberts’ music was distinguished by its seeming simplicity. Like many of his peers on the Hamburg label Dial, he specialized in wistful keyboard melodies and punchy analog drum programming, making deep house of unusual purpose and immediacy. But in recent years, Roberts’ work has become more conceptual. On 2015’s playful “Orah,” he let himself be guided by the inherent constraints of the Akai MPC 2000, a vintage hardware sampler; on 2018’s more freeform Spill, he used recordings of trumpet and double bass in arcane ways, imagining the acoustic instruments as “probiotics” meant to stimulate new growth in the guts of his electronics.
He returns to the biological conceit on “Zero,” the first of a trio of new tracks sprung from what he describes as sonic “Petri dishes”—collections of loops of varying lengths designed to play back in perpetually shifting variations. “These were essentially environments that played themselves,” he notes, “that I could monitor, record, and select favorite moments from.” (“Zero” and “Nothing” are out now; “Infinite” is out March 16.) Yet the track doesn’t have the amorphous quality endemic to generative music, nor the idyllic overtones frequently found in music inspired by natural processes. With its thrumming, syncopated cadence, “Zero” at first sounds almost like footwork—albeit muted, as though heard through the walls of an aquarium. Contrasting musical cues compete for our attention as the song evolves, making it harder to say with certainty exactly what genre this music is.
Against a rosy backdrop of microtonal drones, a sentimental piano melody takes the fore; staccato percussive accents and slowly undulating filters create a hypnotic effect. Many of the sounds in the mix feel like Foley cues from a film—muffled explosions, wooden cracks, whooshing gusts of wind—contributing to the music’s three-dimensional character. Over the course of its five-minute runtime, “Zero” comes to feel like a physical environment, a space to explore. Perhaps right now, in the absence of actual opportunities to dance, that’s the best thing dance music can do: describe the potential for movement. The organic product of Roberts’ lab experiments, “Zero” resembles a kind of musical seedling, and like all seedlings, it feels like a symbol of hope.