Dancehall, Dub / Hyperdub / November 20, 2020 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom
For about three decades now, Kevin Martin has produced an impressive amount of great sonic output across a wide variety of genres. From his many collaborations with Justin Broadrick (of Godflesh, among others) in the 90s (God, Ice, Techno Animal, Sidewinder, etc.), to his more recent work as The Bug, Flame 1 and 2 with Burial, and as part of King Midas Sound. And last year, he reunited with Broadrick as Zonal for the album Wrecked, which also features Moor Mother and which I think is one of the best Martin/Broadrick collaborations to date. He also began releasing ambient and drone-based work under his own name with Sirens, which he continued with this year with the five-part series entitled Frequencies for Leaving Earth and the album Sedatives. And now, his latest album as The Bug has also arrived.
Martin’s output as The Bug served as my own entry-point into his gigantic body of work – not unsurprisingly with the massive London Zoo from 2008, which remains one of his most essential releases. Then came 2014’s Angels and Devils, which contains many solid tracks, but does not work as great as a whole for me. And 2017’s Concrete Desert – his collaborative record with Dylan Carlson of Earth – also offers plenty of great moments, even though I am not completely convinced about the meeting of Carlson’s slow guitar-playing and The Bug’s usually much faster rhythms. Yet no such reservations of mine exist when it comes to this album, which I in fact think is one of Martin’s best to date – right up there with London Zoo. Its brilliance is not so much that it offers something entirely new, but rather that it powerfully showcases what Martin does best. Particularly when it comes to artists who release as much music as he does, each release becomes a bit like a snapshot of a creative process of mapping the formal possibility spaces that the artist has chosen to operate within – with some pinpointing particularly key locations within these spaces. For me, In Blue is such a release.
Hence, central to the sonic profile of In Blue are elements that we have come to associate with The Bug – great dancehall rhythms, heavy base and layers of noise – executed to absolute perfection. Indeed, the production is top-notch in a way that reminds me of the instrumental side of London Zoo – except for that In Blue has a much darker vibe – as well as of how great a producer Martin is. This may in fact be his best sounding album to date in my book. In a lengthy conversation about the importance of volume between Martin and Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))), published in The Wire last year, the two discussed approaching sound sculpturally – as a sound mass – with volume being a central component for articulating alien sonic environments at odds with those of everyday experience. This is something that keeps coming to my mind when I am listening to In Blue, given how meticulously constructed each track is. And it is indeed also a record that should be played at a loud volume, to allow Martin’s brilliant uses of rhythm, bass, echo and noise to fully flourish into the alien soundscapes he is striving to construct. In the album description, the music is referred to as ‘narco-dancehall’ and ‘dread drenched, electronic dub’, which certainly are apt terms for describing this wonderfully shadowy, claustrophobic record. Indeed, its main strength lies precisely in how Martin utilises his basic sonic arsenal to convey feelings of dread, alienation and claustrophobia. For me, some highlights from this perspective are the layers of echo and intense rhythms on ‘Destroy Me’, the rhythmic walls of noise and base on ‘Blue to Black’, as well as the ambient closer ‘End in Blue’ – where a vocal loop of the track title gradually is submerged into layers of echo and ambient drone.
Mentioning the vocals leads us to the other artist behind this record. Martin is of course well-known for his many collaborations – both as The Bug and as part of most of his other projects – which almost always are very exciting. But whereas his work as The Bug mostly has revolved around collaborations with numerous MCs, this time the only vocalist on the album is Dis Fig (Felicia Chen) – although this is very much appropriate given its dark and claustrophobic vibe that works really well with Chen’s intimate and seductive yet also creeping and unsettling vocal delivery that is particularly great on tracks like ‘Come’, ‘Take’ and ‘You’. For someone like me, who came to cultural consciousness partly by listening to trip-hop, this combination perhaps works particularly well – reminiscent as it is in tone and mood of, for instance, Massive Attack around the era of Mezzanine (1998) and 100th Window (2003), which also marked a turn of theirs towards a darker sound with female guest vocalists such as Liz Fraser and Sinéad O’Connor, among others. Indeed, this is the kind of music I have been wanting Massive Attack to make for a long time, but which artists like Burial and Martin have delivered instead with great success.