opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >
In a pop-dance crossover climate where even seemingly guaranteed hits-to-be like Evian Christ’s “Salt Carousel” come and go without much in the way of fanfare, dropping menacing blasts of serrated bass synths is simply no longer enough to grab the attention of the internet or the dancefloor. But Kevin Martin, the London producer who’s been recording for almost two decades as the Bug, among other aliases, isn’t just any bass producer looking for an edge. For the uninitiated, here’s an analogue: When we want to remember a time when “brostep” felt like a game-changing development, when a "drop” seemed like it might actually possess enough force to do permanent damage to one’s insides, we look to Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites,” which continues to shock after all this time and EDM’s speedy ascent to monogeneric ubiquity. It was, and is, the sound of a niche development in urban British club music being blown wide open and welcoming the masses in. The Bug’s London Zoo, which dates, preposterously, from all the way back in 2008, has something similar going on – the blend of dancehall, grime, and classic U.K. dubstep the Bug peddles is so stock-in-trade, and has been altered and stretched so frequently, that it’s sometimes hard to remember how it felt when it was just bubbling up from the underground. Luckily, there’s London Zoo as a document. It hasn’t aged a day, remaining one of history’s most ferocious, unforgiving uses of bass. Martin wasn’t the first person to make music combining those influences in that way, but he was the first to achieve such wide exposure and consequently, he persists as a formative, and formidable, forebear.
If Martin felt insecure about his own relevance today, you’d know it, because the new Bug LP Angels & Devils would’ve just been titled Devils, and it would have come storming onto the scene from the outset, just like London Zoo did with its immortal opener “Angry.” But it’s called Angels & Devils, and Martin takes his sweet time holding up the second half of the promise. Yes, the record is a successor to London Zoo, but it’s also a significant expansion of that sound, broadening and loosening up enough to admit a sizeable debt to ‘90s trip-hop – the influence of Maxinquaye and Mezzanine, those frequent touchstones, bleeds through constantly here – and to very recent advances made to the artier end of U.K. bass from high-profile peers like Actress and Andy Stott. Angels & Devils commences not with an “Angry” redux but instead with a patient, atmosphere-steeped suite of downtempo tracks titled “Void,” “Fall,” and “Ascension.” These pieces of music creep, crawl, drag, and slither rather than stomp and rage. The drum machines on “Ascension” and the more formal dancehall exercise which follows it, “Mi Lost,” have all the toughness of the percussion on London Zoo, but they’re inelastic; they don’t bounce, they sink into the production’s inky depths.
The record's energies are precisely bifurcated; there’s six gorgeous, elaborately layered “angels” (featuring guests vocalists like Grouper, Inga Copeland, and Gonjasufi), followed by six “devils,” a half dozen gritty, punishing, bass-first updates on contemporary dancehall that often feature Martin’s regular MC collaborator Flowdan. These tracks make the stuff TNGHT’s been threatening us with look like mere child’s play. At their most combustible and twisted, the “devils” approach Death Grips-levels of aural violence, blurring the distinction between danceable and terrifying, so it’s only fitting that those now-defunct provocateurs show up to turn “Fuck A Bitch” into the second-most frightening thing here (after the truly cruel “Fat Mac”). Across the board, the “devils” do indeed proceed largely by amplifying London Zoo’s basic formula up to 11 (or higher). It’s not the most innovative thing in the world, but it’s a tremendously successful technique.
Yet short of their obvious opposition, there is little here in the way of meaningful tension between the Angels & Devils. Side A isn’t Martin’s most compelling work, but it has some exceptionally effective moments – pairing Grouper’s ethereal vocals with seething, glitchy blurts of electronics on “Void” is probably the cleverest decision made on the whole LP, and the lush, haunted "Pandi" proves its best track. Yet for the record to simply switch modes and revert to London Zoo-style bangers results in a first half that’s interesting and palpable in the moment, but which quickly seems totally irrelevant. To build a soundworld as immersive as the one tentatively heard in the first six tracks of Angels & Devils takes commitment (Martin could stand to take more pointers from Actress’s outstanding Ghettoville), but the midway bait-and-switch just comes off like a mean joke, or, worse still, laziness. At the same time, the relative sophistication and elegance of the best of the “angels” make the “devils,” no matter how tightly executed, sound a bit clobbering and brutish by comparison. Repeated listens don’t draw out a compelling reason for the 50/50 division, a sequencing choice that does a disservice to both halves of the record, each of which possesses its own strong merits but which do not come together to articulate a coherent (or even a fascinatingly fractured) point of view. B-