I’ve heard more than my share of extremes in society get acknowledged with either “that’s punk rock” or “that’s so metal.” Certainly, unexpected musical recontextualizations default to mentions of these genres. I’m reminded of historical events like The KLF bringing Extreme Noise Terror on an award-show stage to play “3 A.M. Eternal” and Lou Reed turning guitar feedback in on itself with Metal Machine Music. Currently, we see Miley Cyrus’ ongoing campaign of playing (and playing with) indie-rock legends.
All of this raises the question: where do we encounter things that are “so hip-hop?” How do we reference beats, rhymes, and life in the most rebellious sounds and situations around us? British musician Kevin Martin might have the answer. With a background in jazz, dub and electronica, and a string of harsh and heavy collaborators, he’s uniquely comfortable straddling stylistic fences. The largest, most consistent portion of his catalog comes from his recording and performance as The Bug.
The Bug’s work started out as Hyperdub-quality dubstep leading up to London Zoo in 2008, then furtively branched out—backwards in time—to trip-hop and downtempo circa 2014 and Angels & Devils. A veteran of working with metal experts like Justin Broadrick, Martin joined up with Earth for the fascinating Concrete Desert in 2017. Maybe The Bug knew he was on to something back then, but in the moment the album’s monolithic beauty somehow seemed natural and like too much of a novelty all at once.
On new album Fire, the DNA of industrial and digitized equivalents of doom metal have fully taken over, as The Bug’s buzzing and echoing atmospheres lumber relentlessly towards the ears and hover like zombies. These constitute a unique canvas for a host of rappers, toasters, and poets. More importantly, none of it feels like a stunt or a mashup. This is not Jay Z/Linkin Park, not Anthrax/Public Enemy, not even the dark corners long inhabited by Dälek. This is body-horror dancehall and more.
Dubstep, EDM, and the rap and rap-adjacent styles represented on Fire normally suggest something fun or joyful, and bring with them some measure of release. This, however, is an artfully rendered (and exclusively) feel-bad album. Many tracks like “Bomb” have The Bug’s synthesizers serve as squealing stand-ins for looped riffs and feedback. The bass and drums of Black-music soundsystems, meanwhile, are transformed from tools of unifying dance when turned up to 11, to vibrating weapons of mass destruction when turned up to 20.
Anything resembling a traditional grime cut features a sonic claustrophobia, as The Bug’s triggers spiral and pile into a smothering form of sensory deprivation blocking out all but the fuck-you growl of vocalists like Irah (“Demon”) and Moor Mother (“Vexed”). If you spot trap music on here—like weed song “Ganja Baby,” the lone ray of thematic sunshine on Fire—it’s probably been set to impossible quadruple-time patterns suggesting the sonic malice of both Danny Brown and Aphex Twin.
What really helps to define Fire as isolated/disturbing and isolating/disturbed are its lyrics. British poet Roger Robinson opens and closes the album, first imagining a near future based on the worst instincts of responses to COVID-19, and then paying tribute to the victims of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. In between, The Bug’s guests focus on language and settings concerned with conflict with oncoming intruders: the random assailant, the known rival, the foreign government, the unfeeling algorithm.
An album this downright sinister might sound like a tough listen. Somehow, The Bug’s soundtracks are never so abrasive as to be physically uncomfortable, and his friends’ vocals cut through the dark like voices to the blind. This music cartwheels, a yin-yang made manifest and sent downhill—hip-hop that’s so metal and, when stood on its head, the sound of metal that’s so hip-hop. The endless twisting on Fire sends listeners to and clear over the edge into the abyss.
Label: Ninja Tune
Adam Blyweiss is associate editor of Treble. A graphic designer and design teacher by trade, Adam has written about music since his 1990s college days and been published at MXDWN and e|i magazine. Based in Philadelphia, Adam has also DJ’d for terrestrial and streaming radio from WXPN and WKDU.