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The Bug
London Zoo David McNamee , July 9th, 2008 17:47

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Dread

-verb (used with object)

  1. to fear greatly; be in extreme apprehension of: to dread death.
  2. to be reluctant to do, meet, or experience: I dread going to big parties.
  3. Archaic. to hold in respectful awe.

    -noun

  4. terror or apprehension as to something in the future; great fear.
  5. a person or thing dreaded.
  6. dreads, informal. Dreadlocks.
  7. Archaic. Deep awe or reverence.

Dread is the great, ancient superweapon of dub reggae. A god-killing machinegun for Jah that can shoot the user through time; made out of drugs and religion. Dub was renowned for its chasmic bottom-end, the bass tones that took the listener’s head and submerged it under heavy currents. At least, that’s how we imagine dub now, looking back on it from the year of dubstep. In retrospect, those huge wells of sound are more implied than sculpted. It isn’t bass that’s tugging on our soul, as our spooked-out senses flail, it’s dread. It’s us, colouring in the cavernous spaces in the production with gloopy-thick paranoia, a trick of the mind where our emotional responses are cued by mental associations and filtered through drug experiences. For Jamaicans, this was seen as being a kind of soul-quaking commune with Jah, but white Englishers’ dread is cued by the overpowering otherness in the music, the voodoo-like refractions of sound and seductive seer-like babble of unfamiliar voices, invoking apocalyptic sermons in a patois so pleasingly indecipherable that it could be the tongue of demons, it could be death metal.

Trying to sketch a mental map of the relationship between dubstep, the music of 2008, and its Jamaican antecedents it can be believable that what the multi-ethnic, post-religion dubstep musicians of London are trying to do with their dub, rather than summoning their own dread as energy source, is simply to describe dread in modern electronics. Those plunging, reverberating, stomach-opening forceps of bass in dubstep are a literal tracing of the music-less god-fear in dub. The two Burial albums made this beautiful, by making night-time London sound as though it existed underwater. The tense yet lulling pull of bass on those records sound perfect as you are pulled around London on late night public transport, suffused with that angry sleepiness you feel when engines rock your body to sleep, and around you lights and billboards scream into a hypnogogic blur, but your mind is alert and sharp like a knife, ready to fight if it has to. You look up and the street lights seem diffused and smudged, the air between you heavy and thick. London replaces Jah as our commune, and we’re all drowning.

The sequel to Pressure is The Bug’s most dubstep-aligned outing yet, although it’s significant that the sounds Kevin Martin and co were creating five years ago formed an accidental aesthetic prelude to the movement. London Zoo is a record swarming with dread, but more than any dubstep it revitalises dread as a sonic weapon. And this time, more subtly so. ¬Pressure was a metallic, skin-flaying clatter that saw parallels drawn between The Bug and industrial, noise and power electronics. A head to head with Wolf Eyes at Brighton’s Concorde 2 saw how ultimately mismatched the pairing was though. As Wolf Eyes stabbed the audience in the face with shrieks of distortion, the crowd crammed themselves instead into the venue bar, hiding. When Martin and co hit the stage they re-emerged, the blonde-dreadlocked, bongo-playing denizens of Pavilion Gardens, shaking their Aussie asses to a dancehall that was made accessible to white bodies by rendering it in clanging noise with rhythmic straight lines and sharp-edges, instead of the gelatinous funk of Jamaican dancehall.

The sonics of London Zoo are surprisingly easy on the ear in fact, the bass frequencies slithering in the same foreboding depths as dubstep but with less of the over-riding emphasis on murk. Indeed where this album really wins is in how powerful the colours and textures of Martin’s sounds are. The mindflashes of clashing technicolor tones are great, because not only do they make the music hallucinatory and engaging, they make it fun. Listen to Tipper Irie on opener ‘Angry’. He uses a basic rant against US imperialism simply as fuel for a passionate flow, but with the music exploding into lurid psyche-dancehall behind him, you picture Tipper as some pipe-cleaner-limbed, pink-dreadlocked Fraggle, preaching with bulging eyes and a snarling mouth. Where cutting-edge urban music’s other favourite son, Burial, uses dread to paint a requiem for London, Martin just makes the town into a cartoon jungle.

Flowdan and Ricky Ranking intone ominous words of vague, unspecified paranoia. Gloom has become such a wretched cliché for musics circling around the dubstep diaspora in 2008. What is missing is _dread)¬ – an ambiguous label for an intangible lifeforce, and which here finds an expression in invulnerability as a response to universally-felt fear; something God-sized and metal-cold and itching and tingling with life.

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