Kevin Richard Martin’s (The Bug) Sirens shares with my favorite ambient album of the decade, Biosphere’s N-Plants, a concern with how systems meant to work perfectly tend to go horribly wrong. N-Plants was about the meticulous machinery of nuclear plants, ostensibly designed to provide humans with power while staving off the deadly by-products of this “clean” energy, failing more often than they ought to. And Sirens is inspired by the premature birth of Martin’s child in 2014, the ensuing complications for his wife during childbirth, the precarious operations the newborn had to endure for the first month of their life—and, of course, the helplessness Martin himself felt during that time as a father. His anxiety, as reflected in the titles of the suffocating dark ambient tracks on Sirens, seems largely directed at the unreliability and impersonality of the systems working to keep his child alive, and his lack of control over them. The old Robert Burns quote about mice and men comes to mind.
There is a dreadful sense of anticipation throughout Sirens, mixed with a sound design that obscures and distorts as if the music occurs behind closed doors and thick walls. Sirens is a remarkably passive album, preoccupied foremost with events beyond the control of the protagonist whose mindset Martin’s music approximates here. This music is about waiting, waiting, waiting—and not knowing. Two reviews I’ve read of Sirens have been from fathers, both of whom recognize the feelings of helplessness Martin invokes here. I don’t have kids and have no plans to at this moment in time, but everyone knows how it feels have a pit in their stomach, and the all-encompassing void of this music suggests one as big as a black hole.
The music is in the vein of the slow-moving but seething instrumentals Martin created for February’s Solitude with King Midas Sound. Like Sirens, that album dealt in the personal and uncomfortable, centering itself around Roger Robinson’s obsessive, self-loathing breakup narratives. There was an element of satire to Solitude, with some of its lyrics seeming to reflect the often petty and one-sided breakup-album genre back on itself. I thus found Robinson’s words less emotionally compelling than what Martin was doing. Here—though the narrator isn’t heard but implied, twiddling his thumbs as his head swims with horrific possibilities—the emotions rise to the level of the music. Sirens hangs in dead space, not resolving, the great clubby swells of bass building to nothing like a staircase into a brick wall.
Occasionally, Sirens employs the hair-raising shrieks of horror soundtracks, as on “The Surgeon” and “Mechanical Chatter in the I.C.U.” But Sirens works best when it retreats towards its center. Martin uses a treated vibraphone, much like the one Martin collaborator Liz Harris used on her Nivhek album this year, on opener “There Is a Problem” and “Alarms”. On the latter, he slowly increases the sustain on each lingering note, so it seems to retreat into itself before being cancerously taken over by a flood of sirens. The longest track, “Life Threatening Operation 2”, burns out so slowly—like the last embers of a fire fizzling out into the earth—it’s easy to zone out and forget you’re listening to an album before “Alarms” rudely reminds us.
There’s no release on Sirens; it just coils deeper, reflecting the way fear dissipates into trauma. Martin’s wife and kid are fine, there’s nothing to worry about anymore, but the ordeal must remain as a dark pit in Martin’s memory, and that’s what birthed Sirens. Why would Martin make an album like this? Was it emotionally necessary? Is Martin like Ridley Scott inflicting his claustrophobia on the cast of Alien, leading them through cramped sets as a playfully sadistic way of exorcising his demons? Why would he want to return to that headspace? Why would he want us to enter it? It feels perverse to enjoy an album about a man’s real trauma as a thrill-ride, but Sirens comes out as one of the most beguiling and frightening works of domestic horror ever committed to record.