Photo: Phil Sharp
Long before he was The Bug, blending dancehall, dubstep and industrial noise into a floor- and wall-shaking bass assault, British musician Kevin Martin was blending free jazz energy with punk-rock attitude and metal power. His first group, God, was a massive ensemble, at times featuring as many as a dozen members: two electric bassists, an upright bassist, two drummers, electric guitar, and multiple saxophonists. The participants, who varied from album to album, included some of the biggest names in the UK improvised music community—drummer Eddie Prévost of AMM, saxophonist Tim Hodgkinson, bassist John Edwards—as well as others of a noisier, more aggressive bent, like Godflesh guitarist Justin Broadrick, Oxbow guitarist Niko Wenner, and alto saxophonist John Zorn (who guested on the first God studio album, Possession).
God only lasted a few years, producing two live albums, two studio albums, and a few EPs and scattered compilation tracks, but the relationship between Martin and Broadrick continued. They formed several more projects, including Techno Animal, Ice, The Sidewinder, and The Curse of the Golden Vampire. Under these names and others, they combined dub, instrumental hip-hop, industrial noise, and massive guitars, creating hypnotic and paranoia-inducing music that was both impossibly heavy and deeply unsettling.
In the 2000s, Martin and Broadrick have mostly operated separately. Martin now uses The Bug as his primary alias. His first work under that name was Tapping the Conversation, an imaginary soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Conversation, released 20 years ago on WordSound. It was brooding instrumental music with scratches by DJ Vadim—interesting, but a brief diversion rather than a new path. Six years later, he re-activated the name for Pressure, an album of in-the-red industrial-strength dancehall featuring a range of vocalists including Daddy Freddy, Toastie Taylor, Paul St. Hilaire (aka Tikiman), Roger Robinson and more. Subsequent Bug albums, EPs, and singles have featured a slew of vocal collaborators, most notably Warrior Queen, whose furious, impossible-to-ignore persona makes her his ideal counterpart. He also issued a string of singles as Razor X Productions, and a softer, less assaultive album, Waiting for You…, as King Midas Sound.
The latest Bug release is a collaboration with Earth guitarist Dylan Carlson, recorded in two days. Concrete Desert (get it from Amazon) is a collection of instrumentals that swath slowly unfolding guitar storms in shimmering feedback arcs and waves of bass, and lays it all on top of minimal, old-school beats that thud, clack, and boom. Carlson and Earth have undergone significant evolution since the group’s earliest days as a sludgy, instrumental doom metal outfit, as heard on Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version and Phase 3: Thrones and Dominions. They tried stoner rock on Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, then disappeared for close to a decade before re-emerging with 2005’s Hex: Or, Printing in the Infernal Method, on which Carlson and company were playing something like half-speed, doomy country-rock. That’s the style they’ve pursued ever since, varying it somewhat from album to album as instruments (organ, trombone, cello) are added to the mix.
If there’s any direct predecessor to Concrete Desert in Martin’s back catalog, it’s almost certainly the track “.357 Magnum is a Monster,” from the first Ice album, Under the Skin. You can draw a straight line from the way the savage guitar (courtesy of Broadrick) lays atop the ticking, thumping beat to these new tracks.
The mix on Concrete Desert is deep and dense, but never overwhelming. Carlson is rarely a lead voice in the traditional guitar-over-rhythm sense; on a track like “Don’t Walk These Streets,” he’s one more atmospheric element, shimmering and wavering like the haze off hot pavement. It’s more than 90 seconds into the five-minute “Gasoline” before he arrives, announced by a short feedback fanfare, and cranks out a distorted garage-rock riff that sounds like it’s coming through a practice amp the size of a house. Behind him, the drum machine is almost martial, and psychedelic drones that recall the ambient half of Techno Animal‘s 1995 double-disc, Re-Entry, hum and pulse. On “Agoraphobia,” the impossibly deep bass of Ice returns, joined by a drone reminiscent of a didjeridoo or a bullroarer, as Carlson’s guitar peals in the endlessly patient country-metal style of recent Earth.
At the tail end of the disc, Justin Broadrick makes guest appearances on two tracks. “Dog” is a reworking of “Snakes vs Rats,” and “Pray” is a version of “Broke”; in both cases, the Godflesh frontman adds anguished, roaring vocals that are fine, but don’t really improve on the originals. The instrumentals are more focused and potent.
Concrete Desert is billed as a collaboration, but at least superficially, it feels like Dylan Carlson entering Kevin Martin‘s world as a guest. That’s to be expected, though. No musician limited to an instrument should ever fully trust a man whose primary creative tool is the mixing board, be it Lee Perry, Bill Laswell, Adrian Sherwood, or Kevin Martin. For minds like theirs, everyone else is just a sound source.
Stream Concrete Desert on Spotify: