London Zoo was born of three key moments. An introduction to the thriving Dub-Step scene (of which The Bug is very much a pioneer before it carried a name) and it's key producers (via Kode 9) where Kevin realized there was others on the same sonic trajectory as himself, an introduction to Warrior Queen via his work with Wayne Lonesome on the Razor X Productions project, and a Mary Anne Hobb's Breezeblock session which introduced him to Flowdan (Roll Deep), and Ricky Ranking. All three of which figure heavily in the end result and live presentation. The Bug is the main project for Kevin Martin, a producer who over the years has also been behind a diverse range of projects. He is part of Techno Animal / Ice / God (all with Justin Broadrick of Godflesh / Jesu), King Midas Sound, Razor X Productions (with The Rootsman), Pressure and Ladybug.
[Ninja Tune; 2008]
Kevin Martin, under a dozen-or-so aliases and across numerous genres, has been screwing around with deep bass for well over a decade. 1997's Tapping the Conversation-- a concept album conceived as a surrogate soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation-- was his first release as the Bug, and in retrospect, it sounds like an alternate-universe prototype of dubstep, based on instrumental hip-hop rather than UK garage rhythms. By the time he issued his 2003 follow-up Pressure, he'd already charged headlong into heavy digital ragga, building a repertoire of grimy, distorted beats that mutated dancehall into a glitchy, blown-out commotion.
Martin's latest Bug album, London Zoo, is very much in keeping with that permutation, which stands out amidst the recent wave of dubstep in a way that makes Burial's Untrue sound like Music for Airports. But it also takes the Bug's work into a somewhat cleaner, less abrasive area-- it streamlines the sound, shaves away the distortion, and draws most of its impact from the rhythms themselves. Of course, "less abrasive" doesn't necessarily mean it hit any less hard: Martin knows how and when to drop a heavy beat directly on top of you, and there's a carefully crafted tension throughout this record, no matter how sparse or dense that beat actually is.
Sparseness and density tend to work in tandem on London Zoo's strongest tracks: Bass hits at machine-gun intervals, leaving deep, tube-station echoes disintegrating in its wake and giving a number of these tracks a simultaneous sensation of freeness and claustrophobia. Reverberating, distorted voices and spare synth melodies close in on you even as they recede into the distance, and the rhythms are so pervasive and locked in that after a while you start hearing the spaces in between as much as you're hearing the beats themselves.
Martin has also enlisted an army of top-notch singers and toasters for the record, ranging from dancehall veterans like Tippa Irie to Burial and Kode9 collaborator Spaceape. However, three names in particular stand out. First, there's Roll Deep member Flowdan, whose grumbling, elastic baritone contributions to the chaingun-rhythm "Jah War" (heard on the fantastic 2006 Planet Mu comp Mary Anne Hobbs Presents the Warrior Dubz) and last year's sinster, headknock single "Skeng" show up again here. Flowdan is also at the center of the manic "Warning", which features one of the album's best hooks and a hell of a rampaging performance; there's one cool bit about halfway through where he ratchets the intensity in his voice down to a conversational rumble to match a moment in the song where the bass draws back, then resumes shouting right when it drops back in.
Singer/toaster Ricky Ranking shows up on three tracks as well, and his vocal range-- switching from sweet melodies to foreboding chants-- is impressive, even if he's best suited to the slower numbers (especially the dirgelike closer "Judgement"). And the two appearances from Warrior Queen are knockouts: "Poison Dart", originally released as a single last year, is ruffneck feminism ("Though me na sling no gun, a boy think sey me soft/ But me a real poison dart") delivered with a sharp, wailing sneer over more low end than most MCs could contend with, and "Insane", which augments a chirpier, more buoyant flow with a smoothly-sung chorus and a few out-there adlibs, including a funny little riff on Tears for Fears' "Mad World".
The only caveat concerning London Zoo is how far it might skew away from your traditional notions of dancehall-- and even then, it helps to recognize that, if anything, this record is another manifestation of how London has transformed the sounds of Jamaica to its own ends, from 2-tone to jungle to dubstep. It's a tense record, sure, but that tension is palpable in a crossover-friendly way, invoking Babylon and fire while avoiding the more problematic aspects of "slack" lyrics. It's angry and ferocious, but always triumphant: When it threatens to bust out your windows and rip holes in your speakers, it crackles with the kind of force that makes you want to punch the air as hard as your subwoofers do.
- Nate Patrin, July 30, 2008