It almost seems disingenuous putting the Bug’s name on Concrete Desert. Sure, Kevin Martin is involved, but those looking for anything inspired by hip-hop or dancehall or anything else you can nod your head to aren’t going to find much. What we have here is a collection of tracks with only the loosest connection to dub, expansive and oppressive things with only a tangential relationship to the genres that Martin, as the Bug, has dabbled in.
To be sure, the Bug vs. Earth feels more like Earth’s, and specifically Dylan Carlson’s, project, in mood if not instrumentation. Concrete Desert is a post-apocalyptic solo death-trip, featuring collaborators who know how to offer the sorts of sounds that fill out the others’ ideas while maintaining a clear separation from their day jobs.
Martin shines brightest throughout Concrete Desert when he takes Carlson’s sense of expanse and fits it into a tight space through the confinement of steady, dense beats. A track like, yes, “Agoraphobia” is only five minutes long, but the entire first half of it is a build-up, a steady drone underlying Carlson’s regular, melodic, slightly distorted guitar musings. Its second half, however, offers a slowly building beat and bassline, forcing that guitar into a rhythmic box, resulting in a creepy-crawly sort of quiet that suits its title perfectly. “Snakes Vs. Rats” continues this theme, though this time, its entire five minutes are dominated by Martin’s beats, minimal and deliberate, while blasts of static and cuts of pendulum-esque guitar offer visceral frights to go along with the oppression.
Perhaps the strongest of Martin’s beats contributions is on “Don’t Walk These Streets”, a song as foreboding as its title (all of the titles on Concrete Desert are well-chosen, actually), and which actually shows a little bit of complexity and build to its beat and bassline. It is surrounding, encroaching malaise put to tape, and its beats are rendered more effective by their disappearance late in the track, at which point you hear just how loud and impenetrable the underlying atonal drones have become.
The contrasts present in “Don’t Walk These Streets” are emblematic of Concrete Desert as a whole, as the beat-oriented tracks are propped up by the more ambient material, particularly two mammoth tracks that act as the midpoint and finale of the album. The ten-plus minute “American Dream” is a striking work, with a thoughtful and peaceful guitar motif floating over the top of tremendous washes of sound, like passing ocean liners or idling airplanes. There’s little progression to be found here, but it is a success in the way it draws you into its dark, mechanical world, with only a hint of life—those guitars—to be found. The title track, which closes the album, is similar in scope and mood to “American Dream”, but its 15 minutes are more resigned than oppressive; guitars are layered on top of one another, the electronics are more like melodically passing clouds than mechanical behemoths. While nobody would mistake it for an uplifting piece of music, it’s almost pleasant in its construction, at least offering more hope than Concrete Desert‘s first 60 minutes.
What these extended ambient segments serve to do is to underscore the menace of the more beat-oriented material. Without the beats, there is, at least, some sense of safety. With the beats, threats are imminent.
There’s a limited audience for something like this; to call Concrete Desert “exciting” would be a stretch even by those who love what it has to offer. It does offer plenty, though, especially if the near-flawless setting and maintaining of a mood are of interest. This is difficult, oppressive music, full of sounds that would rather suffocate than eviscerate.