The Bug: London Zoo

The Bug
London Zoo
Ninja Tune

The Bug is Kevin Martin, the “only one ruling selector” according to Tippa Irie on the fantastic and potent London Zoo. Those of us who’ve had their eyes on Martin for years knew this kind of career-defining album was festering somewhere within him. His vast, mostly abrasive past untethers like the bow firing a poison arrow aimed straight at the heart of musical convention and cultural complacency.

A long time partner of Godflesh and Jesu’s Justin Broadrick (in God, Ice, the Sidewinder, Curse of the Golden Vampire, and Techno Animal), Martin cradled obsessive talents for years under collaborative projects, all secretly his babies, but found in his Bug project a rare calling within dancehall and the raw blueprint for what would one day be called dubstep. That is, after trying free-jazz death metal, scorched-earth downtempo macro dub, power noise hip-hop, and an alternate soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (for the Bug’s first album). What 2003’s Pressure displayed adroitly was Martin’s affinity for palpitating a perfect nervous tension and a kind of time-warp urgency — left over perhaps from his industrial roots (I dare you to listen to London Zoo‘s Ricky Ranking-led track “Murder We” and not hear the squelchy scum-wasp bass of Nine Inch Nails’s “The Becoming”) — one that looks forward in order to look back at the dire present. No surprise that Martin has sourced Gibson, Ballard, and Dick as influences, but the big surprise was how well this sense of antitheistic dread interfaced with the natty dread, Rastafari’s apocalyptical religiosity, its fever-pitch Jah worship, and fiery-tongued rude boy glossololia.

The Bug is terminal. It lays off the dub-poetry-laden side of Pressure on London Zoo, but it heightens the zero hour terror of what exactly it means to be (barely) alive in Summer of 2008 (“This is summer insane”, Martin’s Ladybug cohort Warrior Queen incants at one point), the shuffling and volatile heartbeat of history ready to rain down distress from every corner. Martin shines floodlights in those corners, revealing a barefaced volatility as palpable as that found on Dre’s The Chronic (recorded mere weeks after the LA riots). His Jamaican-by-way-of-England guest MCs splatter London Zoo‘s canvas with blood, vitriol, and plangent dystopianist alarmism. Martin himself scores the mayhem with machine gun jolts, ominous tolling bells, murky sub-bass, and reverberating dystopianist alarm clocks, from the 8-bit bleeper to the seizure-stuttering variety.

The Bug is viral. Even though the MCs inked their own diatribes independent of one another for separate sessions, occasionally even in direct discord with one another thematically (pit Roll Deep’s Flowdan and his eschatological hostility on tracks like “Jah War” and “Skeng” against the relative disgust over reactionary violence in Ricky Ranking’s “Murder We” and “Judgment”), the individual tracks still piece together like snap-puzzle components, as if they were each tapping into the same conversation, the same synaptic nerve of the collective unconscious.

London Zoo is 2008 readying itself for a fix of the ol’ ultraviolence. Take the transition from the tribal stomp of opener “Angry”, featuring Tippa Irie’s rabid invective against those who “rape Africa” and those who “should have been there in the hour” of Hurricane Katrina, to the second track “Murder We”. Irie’s promulgation of discontent (“So many t’ing that get me angry / And so many t’ings that get me mad”) allows for the confrontational inner-city climate of “Murder We”, where the “streets are running blood red”. “Don’t you know from the look in my face I’m angry?” asks Ranking to a cop who badgers him for an ID. Irie had already established why Ranking, and perhaps all of us, should be mad. By the time Flowdan and Killa P escalate matters in the Doomsday clock-counting nursery rhyme verse of “Skeng”, stoically cataloguing artillery for the revolution, self-defense, or perhaps just gangsta-style one-upmanship (“doin’ some pricks with an M-1-6”), you’re ready to lock yourself in the panic room.

All this preemptive aggression comes with a price, of course, as the protagonist of “Skeng” gets “shot in the face like darts in a board”. The slow-churn bass continues until another round goes off. “Shot in the face make you send for the nurse”. Here, everything but the vocals and the beat cut out and we hear the same hollow and unemoted nursery rhyme voice repeat the last line three times, as if crying out to deaf ears, “Nurse….Nurse…Nurse…/ Doctor can’t fix you, send for the hearse”.

The Bug is an infestation, a multiplicity of voices challenging each other, spitting and yelling, pissing and speculating, frightening each other into defensive, claustrophobic poses. The vastly competent array of MCs each have their own distinct flow and pace, but very little — from Flowdan’s lightning-fast verbal gymnastics, to Rick Ranking’s slow-cooked esophageal rumblings, to Roger Robinson’s soulful melancholy — clashes in a way that dulls or vitiates the album’s impact.

Martin’s music for these tracks is likewise all-encompassing. It’s eight arms to choke you. A suffocation of sound (“Find it hard to breathe”, Roger Robinson says at one point). The full-bodied wall of sound on “Poison Dart”, with its military-strength bass reinforcement, its filthy jagged sawtooth edges, its fluttering cacophony of psychedelic synths, and its droning cavernous wails, is like a deeply tweaked-out shell shock relay that intensifies with every glowing blue and red light, every cop car chasing past the window. Yet, from America to Africa to the titular London to the lands of “suicide bombers” and the Taliban, the infestation expands far beyond the desolation at the windowsill. As frequent Kode9 partner Spaceape extols in his litany of caveats (not-so-subtly named “Fuckaz”), “Fear all them people who believes charity begins at home / Believe me, nothing begins at home”.

The Bug is infectious. It’s a vision of a world gripped by prepossessed fear and hatred, as if by a “rage” outbreak. It is also packed with full-on soundboy contagions of propulsive beats and lyrical hooks, enjoyable as much as a ghettoblaster to scare the neighborhood children as it is a paranoid headphone chin-scratcher guaranteed to bring about a case of stoned inertia creeps within yourself. It stays with you long after each listen, from the furor and motor-oil of “Jah War” to the disturbingly sparse and atmospheric “You and Me”, a love song for the end of the world which ominously refrains “All I care for is you and me / Let the world sink into the sea”.

The bug is a state of irritation. London Zoo is bugging out. “You and Me” is the one uneasy breath the album allows, and it fades in from what maybe the album’s centerpiece, Spaceape’s “Fuckaz”, which calls out in disgust all those perpetuating the casualized fear society. “Fear all them fucking people whose only concern in life is to mine permanent state of hesitance”, he says. Martin need not worry about being called out on this one. London Zoo is the anti-hesitance, a bug planted in the black box of a sinking world, a communicable antibiotic for those blinded by the darkness. At the very least, a spring into the freed asses whose minds will hopefully soon follow.

RATING 9 / 10