Kevin Martin (aka the Bug) frequently speaks of his fascination with the physicality of sound. The UK producer’s work has long explored the monolithically material qualities that sound and music can express. His career has taken several disparate turns in this search for intense material soundscapes and has culminated with his highly successful Bug project. Fire is his latest full-length to be released under the moniker and might be his most incendiary synthesis of stomach-quaking bass, savage rhythms, and captivating MC collaborations.
A perennial outsider on the dubstep/UK bass scene, Martin’s career took some eclectic detours before metamorphosing into the Bug. From the dub-inflected industrial metal of GOD to the experimental hip-hop of Techno Animal, his work throughout the 1990s contorted music into endless new bass-leaden shapes. When dubstep arrived at the start of the new millennium, Martin found himself ideally in sync with its unique sensibilities. The Bug’s 1997 debut LP, Tapping the Conversation, is a clear forefather of the genre, with its sinister yet seductive atmospheres and obsession with the heavy bass’ dark and mysterious properties.
Six full-lengths later, including his collaborations with Earth and Dis Fig, Martin has unleashed Fire, the third part of an “urban triptych” following 2008’s London Zoo and 2014’s Angels & Devils. Combining dubstep, grime, dancehall, these previous two releases cemented Martin’s brilliance at capturing the most viscerally thrilling pleasures of bass music. London Zoo featured two of his most iconic tracks, “Skeng” and “Poison Dart”, which garnered heavy rotation from influential DJs such as Kode9 and Loefah, helping cement the Bug’s reputation as a top-drawer purveyor of dark, dirty and conceptual soundsystem anthems.
Fire’s tone is, aptly, one of pure, scorching heat. Its cover depicts a sheet of flames, which makes for a potent parallel in a summer defined by news of wildfires and heat waves decimating countries across the world. Along with the climate crisis, Fire also comments on our planet’s increasingly volatile socio-political climate. If London Zoo and Angels & Devils each spoke to their own urban psychogeographies, then Fire reflects the urban landscape of the last 18 months – a place that has become defined by broiling tension and explosive anger.
The menacing tone of Fire’s MC’s guest appearances reflects this mentality. Each of the album’s 14 tracks features a guest appearance, all of which brim with energy, intensity, and righteous fury. Highlights include Moor Mother’s scarily tense work on “Vexed”, Flowdan’s effortless and elastic flow on the apocalyptic “Pressure”, and Manga Saint Hilare’s charismatic grime bars on the sharp, IDM-esque “Bang”. The ever-present MCs create a sense of unity amidst the carnage, creating a melange of voices that speak of their own experiences and aggressions. That gives the album a moral bent, as though collaboration has the power to extinguish a world up in flames.
Martin’s work here verges close to the tone of London Zoo, however this time, the vibe is not so much that of an urban jungle rife with noise, color, and potential danger, but a carnival at the end of the world, seeing out the oncoming cataclysm with a monster soundsystem and the finest MC’s left standing. “Pressure” is Fire’s finest exemplar of this apocalyptic approach, where, throughout the track, Martin’s obsidian-heavy instrumentation drops, as though the streets all around are being razed by the gusts of an inferno. “Bomb”, another collaboration with Flowdan, is equally punishing. Its runtime moves with agonizing tension, featuring a cinematic second-half that leads to a climax that never arrives, posing the troubling question of what follows all of this anger, anguish, and fire.
Fire is Martin’s finest Bug album. It distills both the project’s and his philosophy down to its simplest, purest form. In the process, it says something profound and provides a viscerally entertaining masterclass in bass-driven electronica. It’s as though his lifelong search for material soundscapes has led him here, to this point in time where the urgent and incendiary tone of the current socio-political landscape syncs up wholly with his vision of the potentialities of music. Fire is an album for a world on fire, a soundsystem at the end of the world.