- The Bug crafts his hardest, meanest record after a year of hell.
- Kevin Richard Martin has spent the last decade of his career shrouded in the proverbial shadows, focusing on King Midas Sound and stirring ambient under his given name (among many collaborative projects). Sure, he's had his aggressive moments, but even his work as The Bug—typically acerbic and earth-shaking—has been unusually atmospheric, even restrained. At its heaviest—like that underrated LP with doom metal band Earth—the music felt more murky and environmental than the kind of full-throttle attack of older Bug records like London Zoo or Pressure. Then the pandemic happened. Instead of retreating further into himself, Martin used the feelings conjured by the shutdown—and, particularly, the disastrous and incompetent response of the UK government—to make his hardest, angriest, most kinetic album ever. And if you follow Martin at all, you'll know what kind of statement that is.
When Martin released his last album as King Midas Sound in 2019, the obsessive and romantic Isolation, I called it his "bleakest" work yet. But Fire certainly gives it a run for its money, albeit in the opposite way. It begins in much the same manner, with King Midas Sound vocalist (and award-winning poet) Roger Robinson reciting lines over a ghostly pall of an instrumental: "The only way we could see our families would be through the square screens / Goodbye to raving / Goodbye to hearing the beast beating in our hearts / Hello loneliness / Goodbye compassion / After the fourth year, we gave up." It's a dystopian vision that sounds eerily close to home after the past year, but lest anyone mistake Martin and Robinson for anti-lockdown nutters, most of the LP concerns itself with wider sociological and political issues.
Take "War," with Jamaican MC Nazamba, whose chorus is a spat-out list: "It's a war / Ideological war / Political global war / Technological war," over a slow-motion dancehall thud nearly drowning in rumbling low-end. Fire paints a picture of a world in flames not only with its lyrics but the very sound itself: "Pressure," which reunites Martin with long-time collaborator Flowdan, features some of the meanest, most intense Bug production in recent memory. So much of the LP feels haunted by this cloud of sub-bass that both grounds the music and makes it feel unstable and violent. This isn't a record you want to play in an apartment complex.
Fire is a classic-style Bug album, just with everything turned up to 11. It's more intense, but the rhythms are familiar and the format is the same, as Martin teams up with a variety of vocalists to preach their visions of brimstone and apocalypse. In addition to Robinson and Flowdan, there are a number of new voices this time around, notably London's Logan_olm, who provides two of the record's highlights, especially "Fuck Off," with a barked chorus that makes it a worthy successor to "Skeng" (or at least Warrior Queen's "Fuck You" from 2014). Manga Saint Hilaire provides dextrous grime fury on two tracks while Irah chews on syllables like beef jerky on the thrilling "Demon."
If there's one thing to knock Fire for, it's the intensely masculine energy—only two tracks feature women, and past collaborators like Warrior Queen feel sorely missed. Those two tracks are actually among the most memorable: "How bout dat," with London's FFSYTHO, is kinetic and snarling, while Moor Mother steals the show on "Vexed," where she starts out sounding righteously indignant and eventually turns evil. I've never heard an MC make the word "vexed" sound so scary.
Still, I don't think Fire is meant to adhere to anyone's preconceived notions about anything: this is visceral, grinding music that presents vision after vision of hopelessness, righteous anger and violence. It's not that the album touches on any new themes for Martin, but more that it feels more of the time than any of his other records. It's as if the (hell) world has finally caught up to The Bug, instead of vice versa. Listening to these seismic waves of sub and venomous vocals feels like holding a mirror up to the world, and as I got to know Fire and each of its angry chapters better, I kept thinking of that old adage: "if you aren't angry, you aren't paying attention." This is protest music that sounds like it wants to burn the world down and start again.
01. The Fourth Day feat. Roger Robinson
02. Pressure feat. Flowdan
03. Demon feat. Irah
04. Vexed feat. Moor Mother
05. Clash feat. feat. Logan
06. War feat. Nazamba
07. How bout dat feat. FFSYTHO
08. Bang feat. Manga Saint Hilare
09. Hammer feat. Flowdan
10. Ganja Baby feat. Daddy Freddy
11. Fuck Off feat. feat. Logan
12. Bomb feat. Flowdan
13. High Rise feat. Manga Saint Hilare
14. The Missing feat. Roger Robinson