When I interviewed Kevin Richard Martin this summer for episode 57 of the Burning Ambulance podcast, he mentioned that he was working on a new album as The Bug, his first under that name in nearly four years. In Blue is out now, and it’s both a continuation of his previous work and a departure.

Like its predecessor, 2017’s Concrete Desert (reviewed here), it’s a full-length collaboration with a single partner. In the prior case, Martin worked with guitarist Dylan Carlson of Earth, and the results were crushingly heavy and glacially slow, the musical equivalent of being steamrolled. This album is more uptempo, and much less oppressive. His creative foil this time is Felicia Chen, aka Dis Fig, whose 2019 album Purge has much in common with his work, while still clearly the product of an individual creative mind. Its nine tracks are built from layers of hiss, concussive underwater bass impacts, and vocals that conjure a particularly female desperation and madness.

Chen reached out to Martin in 2018, asking permission to use a track from his post-industrial lovers rock project King Midas Sound in a DJ mix she was preparing. He checked out Purge and immediately decided she was the voice he needed for the new tracks he’d been working on. They worked on the album for close to two years, and the results are fascinating.

The female vocalist/male electronic musician paradigm is an old one, going back at least as far as Yazoo in the early ’80s, but it really became notable in the 1990s with trip-hop acts like Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird, Portishead, Lamb, Moloko and others. There’s definitely an element of that on In Blue; the overall moodiness, and the way the vocals barely escape a whirlpool of echo at times as the rhythms tick unstoppably onward, certainly suggest trip-hop. At the same time, the sonic commonalities with Purge make it easier to imagine the album being a real collaboration rather than a producer finding the right voice for a track.

Although it’s consistent, sustaining a single very late-night mood, there’s a lot of variety among the tracks. The core elements — hissing static; post-dancehall rhythms; impossibly deep, amniotic bass; endless echo and reverb; and Chen’s vocals, which are sometimes drifty and half-asleep, and sometimes focused and fierce — are deployed in a variety of ways, ringing subtle variations on the formula so that the album flows and mutates as it goes. Some tracks, like “Blue to Black” and “You,” could be singles, but the instrumentals “Blood” and “Forever,” which almost break the album into acts, are like listening to Basic Channel 12″s from underwater.

Martin started out as a sonic terrorist, but in recent years, beginning with King Midas Sound and continuing with a string of releases under his own name, he’s embraced calm and beauty. This latest album is closer in spirit to albums like Sirens, the five-part Frequencies for Leaving Earth series, or the new Sedatives (all available on Martin’s Bandcamp page) than earlier Bug releases like Pressure and London Zoo, let alone the psychotic dancehall explosions of Razor X Productions. But it’s instantly recognizable as his work, and will please any longtime fan.

Phil Freeman

Watch the video for “You”:

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