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The Bug
Angels & Devils Rory Gibb , August 29th, 2014 06:44

Each crisis bleeds messily into the next, and from our mass-mediated distance the effect is enough to scramble the senses. In an era of live rolling news feeds, minute-by-minute updates and hastily tossed off op-ed commentary, the divides and distinctions between these individual reported events become blurred: Gaza melts into Iraq, into Syria, into Ferguson Missouri, into petty divide-and-rule violences committed at home by a coalition government seemingly intent upon wreaking as much havoc as possible in its five-year tenure. The never-ending news flood is confusing: relatively minor events close to home are sucked into the same torrent as sickening injustices committed further afield, rendering it all surreal, somehow equidistant. But it's also desensitising and disempowering. Taking vested interests into account, how even to start dissecting out truth from agenda-led fiction, fragments of salient information from the roar of background noise? Despite being made to feel both emotionally invested and complicit in these worldwide events, you feel paralysed by the weight and guilt of it all - the live blogged civil wars; the saddening photographs of the dead from distant conflict zones; the friends and acquaintances trading opinionated blows on social media. You're aware on a gut level that you should be taking action, getting involved, yet where to even start? Sometimes, just to cope, it feels safer just to switch it all off. Ignore the trash free papers littering tube carriages, switch off the datastream, get as far away as humanly possible from Comment Is Free. Bury your world in a pair of headphones and turn inward.

Since the 2008 financial crash, it's almost inevitably become a cliche to discuss the sonics of contemporary pop music in terms linked to our experience of crisis-stricken Western capitalism. Dread sensations and hauntings. Information overload and maximalism. Comforting nostalgia for an imagined pastoral idyll. Bleakest ever bleak aesthetics as a mirror of our powerlessness in the face of crumbling economies, militarised police activity and what feels like a state of perpetual war. Doing so, however eloquently, to some extent feels like covering obvious ground - of course art doesn't exist in a vacuum, and facile comparisons or reductionist analyses don't help anyone. But, then, how else to proceed?

You can't ignore that the geopolitical atmosphere we live within is seeping insidiously into the music we create and listen to, especially in a twelve-month period that's so far seen the release of unique records like Actress' Ghettoville, Sleaford Mods' Divide & Exit, Heatsick's Re-engineering and copeland's Because I'm Worth It, each of which tackles themes of systemic corruption, alienation and disempowerment on its own self-dictated terms. Equally, sound's capacity to evoke and explore complex cocktails of emotions and affects has meant that some of the most forceful and resonant artworks of the last few years have been musical. 

Kevin Martin's brilliant, lurid, cartoonish last album as The Bug, London Zoo, came out in 2008, coinciding perfectly - and, unless Martin knew something the rest of the world didn't, one assumes unintentionally - with the credit crunch, making it feel eerily timely. As with the firey wordplay of grime, its MCs' outbursts of hot-blooded, conscious rage and dark humour were expressions of the economic and social challenges still acutely faced by working class and ethnic minority communities throughout the artificial calm of the New Labour years. Listen back now and those lyrical concerns haven't diminished - and nor, for that matter, has Martin's production, all Jackson Pollock-alike arcs of colour splashed across scaffolds of steely sub-bass.

If anything they're more familiar, and more insurmountable, after four years of austerity politics, sneeringly overt government and media corruption, police brutality, corporate lobbying and privatisation. "Fi' all them fuckin' people who ignore blatant facts, just so they can maintain an order beneficial only to themselves," raged Spaceape on 'Fuckaz', and the faces of a dozen self-serving current public figures saunter flabbily through the mind's eye. 

Martin has spoken of "[a] love of the friction caused by culture clashes" as fueling his music, and there was plenty of that in London Zoo (and also running backward through older projects like Techno Animal and God). But another theme running through the core of that album, and further articulated through the inner-space dub of Martin's King Midas Sound project, was more ambiguous, keen to lead you along quieter pathways. It concerned the sounds and smells of life in the capital; the subconscious grain and texture of existence in one of the world's most populous and culturally diverse cities. You might operate as distinct from the other communities around you (be they of class, ethnicity or geography), it said, but those realities are within touching distance - inhabiting the same sensory space, or a mere flicker of the FM signal away, traces of their lives intermingling with yours whether you choose them to or not.

King Midas Sound's intimate Waiting For You album reflected on these subtler sensations that also characterise urban life beneath the surface noise and distraction. Its protagonists, vocalists Roger Robinson and Kiki Hitomi, were actors in a romance played out within a London temporarily devoid of people, but alive with the blurred traces they left behind: Jamaican sound system bass leaking and pulsing through dilapidated tower blocks and suburban streets, and shuddering up the ultra-crisp concrete-and-glass edifices of the city's Square Mile.

More perhaps than anyone else since London Zoo, it was Hype Williams - the now-defunct duo of Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland - who picked up and expanded upon the themes that album was reaching toward. Incorporating the hyper-referential quirks of post-internet culture, yet strongly grounded within a geographical location - once again London - the duo's irradiated synth turbulence, dreamstate pop and sound system bass ooze riffed on identity, connectivity, conflict and coexistence in a contemporary multicultural urban environment. That their faltering, scuffed textures resembled a cassette-recorded pirate radio broadcast, or the muffled booms of a subloaded stereo from a passing car, only intensified the effect.

Their 2012 Hyperdub album Black Is Beautiful felt like a live broadcast, its sweet pop songs and mangled noise piped into your conscious awareness from somewhere just around the corner, behind a wall or window, or a few notches away on the radio dial. The Hyperdub connection aside, it's probably no coincidence that Kevin Martin was regularly present in the audience at the duo's London gigs. Since last year's split, the pair's solo projects have, if anything, become more thematically focused. Blunt's The Redeemer posed uneasy questions of our assumed privacy in an age of surveillance, while Inga Copeland's Because I'm Worth It reflected on corporate incursions into public and personal space ("The city is yours," she opined on 'Advice For Young Girls'), with one eyebrow raised and a fat subwoofer installed in the boot.

It's Copeland's voice that delivers the first clearly audible lyrics on Angels & Devils, Martin's first album as The Bug since London Zoo, when second track 'Fall' splutters into action like a faulty engine. "Let the game begin," she taunts, the gauntlet thrown down as quicksilver bass and whiplashes of translucent melody surge into life around her. It's among the most powerful she's sounded on record, something that's equally the result of Martin's production. The mood and sonics of King Midas Sound have clearly fed back into his studio approach for The Bug; the sound of Angels & Devils is more deft and fluid than ever before, less reliant on breezeblock blasts of distortion, yet it still hits home with pummeling force. Instrumentals 'Pandi' and 'Ascension' are monolithic and clearly intricately wrought, yet their mood still possesses something of the roaming, spontaneous quality of a Hype Williams composition. The album's beats unravel as dynamic, churning masses of percussion, bass, and monotone static pulses processed to be fine as drizzle yet hard as tensile steel. These components coil around one another uneasily; soft as touch one moment, the next second ripping chunks of flesh off each other. Evoking their densely populated urban world, these volatile interactions hint at many cross-connected narratives, shifting identities, multiple protagonists whose timelines collide for a few seconds then pull apart again.

Dropped into these treacherous environments are Martin's cast of collaborating vocalists, who rise up impressively to the challenge of matching London Zoo still-anthems like 'Skeng' and 'Poison Dart'. Flowdan out-menaces his considerable previous achievements on 'Fat Mac', a black hole lurking at the centre of the album, featuring guitar from Justin Broadrick that's dense and tarry enough to suck the air out of your chest. Fellow Roll Deep alumnus Manga spits fire across dancefloor wrecker 'Function' and Warrior Queen is ferocious on 'Fuck You', while recent collaborator Miss Red is glassy-eyed and strung-out on highlight 'Mi Lost'. These songs are a reminder that, for all his immersion in production techniques and the inner mechanics of sound, at his best Martin's music as The Bug has always been vibrant, militant pop at heart - rough, raucous, and often wildly catchy.

Yet the world's atmosphere has changed significantly since London Zoo exploded from the tracks in a whirlwind of carnivalesque riddims and spider-legged dancehall. While playful, prone to diversions and bizarre lyrical asides, that album's ire felt focused and directed, its enemies more clearly known. Six years since the collapse of the banking sector and Western society now exists in a state of permanent, stagnant crisis, and it's hard not to feel broadsided by the barrage and frequency of conflicting information we're exposed to daily. The first installment in Martin's recent Acid Ragga series of 7"s - pure, visceral 303 fire over reinforced concrete dancehall beats - featured veteran sound system toaster Daddy Freddy screaming himself hoarse: "Me can't, me can't take this no more / Rich a get a richer and the poor a get poor".

That stifling frustration is further amplified among Angels & Devils' cast of vocalists and MCs, matched by Martin's productions, whose tsunami-like washes of noise and bass shroud and sometimes threaten to overwhelm them. Previously confident and foregrounded, here they can sound tense and edgy, cautious in negotiating their environment. On opener 'Void', Liz Harris' liquefied voice is a phantom presence flitting along rain-soaked streets; an acid line pirouettes slowly in the middle distance, indistinct as if captured in a photo negative. "We lost," chants an urgent yet listless Miss Red, trapped in perpetual transit and half-obscured in a talcum power mist of distortion and dub siren bleeps. "Flying high from coast to coast, coast to coast, coast to coast..." You think of the itinerant lifestyle of the modern DJ, the stale air of airports, burning fossil fuels pumped into the atmosphere. 

Flowdan, a presence so cheerfully violent on 'Skeng' and righteously furious on 'Jah War', on Angels & Devils by comparison often sounds terse, his hackles raised and the fight-or-flight response activated. "Snipers on my rooftop," he spits venomously on 'Fat Mac', echoing recent US police force brutality. The effect is electrifying - fortified by Martin's wrought iron drums, Broadrick's guitar is cataclysmic, tearing as if through a rift in time from some future London where humans scuttle among burning wreckage. In the face of this destructive force even the indomitable Flowdan sounds dwarfed, his cast iron taunts, husky growls and surreally funny asides ("They play the bagpipes / Give them some wet wipes") half scorched away by the flames licking at his heels. Later he's more resigned. "They're putting bare shit in our food," he complains on 'Dirty' - one of the album's laugh out loud moments - yet in the same breath concedes. "You know you've gotta like it or lump it."

This consistent atmosphere running through Angels & Devils - of joyful sound system abandon and party impulses clashing headlong with unsettling reality - means that Martin's choice to divide the album in two down the middle works surprisingly well. The Angels and Devils phases act like mirror images of one another, the focused mood of each intensifying the other: you're met with a pleasurably jarring jolt of acceleration when the second side explodes into life with the Flowdan-assisted 'The One', one of Martin's most gleefully fiery dancefloor beats to date. But the angel/devil dichotomy doesn't completely hold true in an album whose strength is its ambiguity. Just as Miss Red, Copeland and Gonjasufi forcefully battle against Martin's turbulent production on the A-side, flip the record and Flowdan, Manga and Warrior Queen still feel constantly on the verge of being crushed by the sheer pressure of their surroundings.

It's that feeling of subtle feedback, between Martin as producer and the powerful personalities of his vocal collaborators, that makes the album's one outlier feel like such a jolt: when MC Ride of Death Grips emerges on 'Fuck A Bitch', his characteristic gravelly bellow immediately breaks the album's spell. The unforgiving machismo of his delivery lacks the self-deprecating humour and playfulness of his fellow 'devils'; refusing, unlike his companions, to show any chinks in his armour, he feels oddly out of place.

But that's a minor issue in an album that's otherwise remarkably deft at uniting the many aspects of Kevin Martin's musical output to date. With King Midas Sound having lately mutated into a caustic, immersive beast of a live band, he's spoken in recent interviews of feeling comfortable with the characteristics of his various projects further bleeding together. On Angels & Devils that shows, and it's stronger for it. Still possessing that knack for unearthing pop from the most shadowy of places, here he's pinpointed a zone where the furious party impulses and black humour of early incarnations of The Bug are threaded through with vulnerability and tenderness, and where sound system wreckers coexist alongside tracks that battle through the city while enclosed in their own space, hood up and headphones on. As a result, the urban world it evokes feels distinctly contemporary. Listening to the MCs pick their way through the volatile, ambiguous and ever-shifting terrain of Angels & Devils you can't help but feel echoes of our own increasingly fraught efforts to negotiate our own individual roles and opinions in a society whose battle lines are being constantly redrawn and reframed.