First Listen: The Bug, 'Angels & Devils'
Kevin Martin, the shadowy English musician behind The Bug, could make "Happy Birthday" come across as a brooding dirge streaked with reminders of inescapable entropy and death. In other imposing projects — the creeping industrial-metal group God, the seething electronic act Techno Animal — he's established himself as a furrow-browed master of musical heaviness taken to formidable extremes. But Martin has a way with finesse, too; a hold on his rage that keeps his furious sounds from turning into blasts from mere tantrums.
All of which invites a certain question: reggae? That's the sound Martin mines the most in his music as The Bug, and he mines it improbably well. Reggae, of course, is more than just laconic rhythms and lilting one-love collegiality. It can be stormy, defiant and, especially in the murky electronic form of dub, marked by mystery. Martin homes in on all of that at once, with an ear for the welding that can make it all fit together.
Past Bug albums such as Pressure and London Zoo have grabbed at the antic energy that powers digital dancehall, with its thwacking electronic beats and madcap toasting (not unlike rapping but not entirely like it, either). Angels & Devils, however, takes a wider view of bigger and more varied soundscapes. "Void" opens the album with a gauzy, glassy-eyed gaze, as Liz Harris (a.k.a. Grouper) mewls over midtempo rhythms and leaves evaporating vocal trails enlisted mostly for texture and mood. The ominously throbbing "Fall," featuring Inga Copeland from the mischievous duo Hype Williams, ratchets up the intensity, but even then, the power comes mostly from confinement and restraint.
At the album's midpoint, though, it becomes clear that the angels and devils in the title each have their side. Starting with "The One," the album's harder second half dives into the noisy, agitated muck of dancehall and grime, a U.K. variant of hip-hop that has cultivated its own traits. Rappers Flowdan, Manga and Warrior Queen mouth off in the remaining tracks with a pleasing degree of energy and menace, and the mercurial U.S. duo Death Grips finds a sympathetic soul in Martin, whose every creak and clang sounds somehow cataclysmic. In its outermost extremes, this excoriating, enervating music offers the promise of a cleansing, like greasy hands scoured with gritty soap. But there's sensitivity and a sense of craft in all the intricately rendered echoes and crevices, too.