I’ve been a fan of Kevin Martin for about 20 years. I first became aware of him when I heard Possession, by his noise-jazz band God. It was a huge-sounding record, the band (which featured electric and upright bassists playing simultaneously, electric guitar from Justin Broadrick of Godflesh, howling vocals, and multiple horns, including guest sax by John Zorn on some tracks) throbbing and shrieking through explosive, marathon tracks—it was like a collaboration between Charles Mingus and Al Jourgensen. God made a couple more records after that one, and I dug up their earlier, skronkier work, too; it’s all still in my iPod today. But then he did something completely different on the druggy, hypnotic Re-Entry, by Techno Animal—entirely electronic, it combined kosmische music with techno’s “chillout” side, and dubby audio-hallucination effects. I loved that, too, and when he formed Ice (who made two albums, Under the Skin and the less-impressive, hip-hop-damaged Bad Blood) and curated the two Macro Dub Infection compilations, I snapped it all up. Whatever he turned his attention to, though, it was clear Martin’s intention was always to overpower the listener, to force sensory overload—maybe in the service of catharsis, maybe just for his own amusement. And I was happy to be bludgeoned.
The latest EP by Martin’s highest-profile project, The Bug, is a stopgap-ish effort. Earlier releases under this moniker—the “Gun Disease” single with vocals by Cutty Ranks, the Pressure album, the Aktion Pak EP with Warrior Queen—were terrifically energizing, a sort of industrial-strength take on dancehall, produced and intended to be heard at skull-crushing, rib-cracking levels of volume and bass. Martin teamed up with The Rootsman and an array of vocalists to release a dozen or so limited-edition singles under the name Razor X Productions, and those were even more speaker-abusingly awesome. (They’ve all been gathered, instrumental B-sides included, on the two-CD set Killing Sound.)
The second Bug full-length, 2008’s London Zoo, was the beginning of the end, though. Martin’s initial fascination with the destructive, chaos-mongering possibilities of dancehall and ragga had given way to an infatuation with the vastly less rewarding dubstep sound emanating from his native England. Dubstep had never been anything but a new name for illbient and dark digital dub, which had been thoroughly explored in the late 1990s and early 2000s by the Brooklyn-based WordSound Recordings label—the very imprint that had released the first album by The Bug, 1997’s instrumental Tapping the Conversation. On London Zoo, the tempos slowed down, the beats aimed for creepy instead of concrete-cracking, and there was dub poetry in place of ragga ranting. A few tracks retained the old aggression, but the music was complex to a fault, intent on representing some kind of polyglot urbanism that wasn’t what I came to The Bug for. It was like going from The Clash to Sandinista! with no intermediate steps. Pretty much everyone else who heard it seemed to love it, of course.
Anyway, this new EP comes in the wake of Martin going even softer with the King Midas Sound project. What The Bug once was to dancehall, KMS is to lovers’ rock—heavy, vaguely menacing. The album, Waiting for You, was all soft hisses and bass that throbbed like a mother’s heartbeat heard from within the womb, instead of explosions heard from down the block. And now the two projects are starting to bleed into each other, as one of the two new songs on this four-track slab, “Catch a Fire,” features vocalist Hitomi, previously heard on the KMS album. The other features Roots Manuva, and is more traditionally dancehall-y and rumbling. Then we get two remixes: “Skeng,” from London Zoo, has some subtle, atmospheric crackles and squelching sounds added by Autechre, and “Poison Dart,” a showcase for Warrior Queen and one of The Bug’s best tracks, period, gets remixed to little effect by Scratcha DVA. None of it’s bad, exactly, but none of it is essential, either. The Pressure-era Bug tracks had a raw, digitally-crunched intensity that left me breathless. By comparison, this stuff wouldn’t even stir me off the couch. That said, it’s still more forceful than 90 percent of what’s out there.
Here’s the video for “Catch a Fire”: