Kevin Martin’s used many different names and paired with many different collaborators in his two-decade-plus career, all of which have found him reinterpreting beat-driven music to abstract, often harsh results. With Ice, he explored the darker and more menacing side of hip-hop, once collaborating with a young El-P on standout track “Trapped in Three Dimensions” on 1998′s Bad Blood. With Godflesh’s Justin Broadrick, Martin pushed that hip-hop sound into much heavier, industrial realms via their Techno Animal alias. Add the squealing free-jazz sax of John Zorn to that pairing and you get the jazz-metal mayhem of God, which released some unexpected major-label sanctioned records of their own in the early ’90s. With The Bug, however, Martin’s been the primary engineer since the late ’90s, exploring the abrasion and immediacy of grime and dancehall with a long list of vocalists, from Spaceape and Flowdan in the grime and dubstep realm to Grouper and Death Grips beyond its borders. If there’s a way to turn street music into something supernatural, Martin will figure out how, and he’ll find the right partner to bring along on his hellacious journey.
Earth’s Dylan Carlson is the latest to pair up with Martin on an extended sonic exploration and, given the history of past musical partners, is far from the most outlandish. His elegantly massive guitar drones are less crushing than Broadrick’s industrial-metal presence and less abrasive than Zorn’s noise-jazz pedigree. Their partnership on a larger scale is also not 100 percent surprising, given that Earth and The Bug first offered a proof of concept on their 2014 single, “Boa/Cold.” Their first proper full-length collaboration, Concrete Desert, stretches their conceptual pairing of ominous electronics and godlike drone out to 68 minutes, revealing a breathtaking series of dark ambient soundscapes that more often than not come to life in the form of more tautly constructed songs.
Those soundscapes, though—they’re incredible. “City of Fallen Angels” is one such moment of slow-moving grace, the buzz of Martin’s electronics providing a subtle counterpoint to the open chords strummed from Carlson’s guitar. Neither moves in any particular hurry, their slow escalation of sound gliding effortlessly as if suspended on the surface of a body of water. It evokes the dystopia of the song’s title, but the beauty of it all seems to put the emphasis on “Angels” more than anything. Yet dystopia is at the center of the album, a conceptual thread inspired by the urban nightmares of J.G. Ballard winding through each track. And if Martin and Carlson hadn’t explicitly mentioned it in their statement about the album, it’d be detectable regardless. The distorted pulse of “Gasoline,” for instance, is like a road trip through Mad Max’s desert badlands, while “Agoraphobia” has a pronounced feeling of danger in its bass-heavy static.
Certain points throughout Concrete Desert find Martin and Carlson stripping their aesthetic back to its barest, with tracks such as “Broke” and “Other Side of the World” providing a mood without much in the way of progression. Yet on the immediate sound of industrial-dub highlight “Snakes vs. Rats,” or the cinematic expanse of the title track, The Bug and Earth showcase more than an interesting stylistic partnership, but one that yields some dynamic and innovative results. In the scheme of both musicians’ careers, it’s one stop on a very long journey, but one whose rewards are alternately intense and utterly gorgeous.