Twenty years ago, Kevin Martin was a man obsessed. Week in and week out, he did the rounds at reggae shops across London, flicking through bins of imported 7”s in search of the latest, wildest riddims from Jamaica. Martin’s background lay elsewhere: He had started out in the late 1980s as a post-punk saxophonist and screamer—one of his frequent collaborators was Justin K. Broadrick of grindcore legends Napalm Death—and in 1994, he had curated the landmark drone compilation Ambient 4: Isolationism. But dub was slowly creeping into Martin’s music; in the mid ’90s, he compiled Virgin’s Macro Dub Infection series, which traced dub’s pulse through post-rock, hip-hop, noise, and techno. By the end of the millennium, when Jamaican dancehall producers were making some of the most inventive beats on the planet, riddims like Steely and Clevie’s “Street Sweeper” had definitively rewired Martin’s brain. Hunkered down in his studio in Northwest London, Martin attempted to translate that ruthlessly spartan energy to his own doomy sensibilities. The result was 2003’s Pressure, released under his alias the Bug: Pairing Martin’s bare-knuckled bass-and-drum barrages with Caribbean-rooted singers and deejays like Paul St. Hilaire and ragga legend Daddy Freddy, the album established the Bug as one of the heaviest outfits in UK bass music.
Heaviness can take different forms: It can land like a punch or weigh like a lead blanket. Following the Bug’s equally tough London Zoo, Martin shifted his focus to King Midas Sound, a collaboration with British-Trinidadian dub poet Roger Robinson, and the force of his closed-fist blows gradually dissipated, as though melting into pure gravity. There were collaborations with Austrian experimental guitarist Fennesz, post-metal minimalists Earth, even the doleful folk musician Grouper. Over the past couple of years, working under a variety of aliases, Martin has kept up a steady stream of increasingly ethereal recordings, each one more eerily disembodied than the last. But on Fire, the pendulum swings back to the other extreme. Drawing inspiration from the abject state of contemporary Britain, nourished by fury and fantasies of righteous violence, it is Martin’s heaviest album in years.
Following a two-minute intro of pandemic-themed scene-setting, in which Robinson’s grim speculative fiction is set to Sunn O)))-like drones, the album explodes into action with its second track, “Pressure.” The ragged foghorn blast that opens the song feels genuinely apocalyptic, like the last sound you might hear before the world comes crashing down. Variations on this motif turn up across the album, peppering the record with fight-or-flight triggers.
Martin hasn’t sounded this energized since Pressure, and some of his techniques—like the sizzling bass tone of “Demon,” which suggests a smoldering speaker cone flapping in the wind—date all the way back to his ’90s work in the duo Techno Animal. He never overcomplicates: Most of these tracks throb away at 140 BPM, syncopated kick drums telegraphing an anxious, slow/fast cadence, bass writhing like a pit in the stomach. The monochrome character of his onslaught makes small details stand out: In “Fuck Off,” an insistent bass pulse is accompanied with hints of Psycho’s shower-scene string stabs; “Bang” is backlit with coruscating chords, as though a curtain of flames blazed behind his bomb-crater bass. Uniformly sullen, the record’s minor-key basslines do little more than inch up and down, as though they were too exhausted, too sick with rage, to offer anything more. Martin’s melodies aren’t just economical, they’re practically miserly—products of a wartime economy hoarding all of its resources for ordnance.
War is all over these songs, and it’s not just idle chat; it’s a metaphor for the spirit of insurrection that fuels the whole album. “This is a war/Ideological war,” croaks Kingston dub poet Nazamba on “War.” On “Bomb,” veteran grime MC Flowdan promises, “Well if a war man’s more than ready/Done them live on telly/System’s corrupt, needs to get bun up”; on “Pressure,” he is still more explicit in his call for vengeance: “While we a hunt for the food and them a argue about tax/People are dead, mum’s still crying/The fire’s gonna blaze on these aristocrats.” Martin’s bleak backdrops leave plenty of room for his vocalists to shine: “I kick shit, I rip shit, I leave shit with no head,” mutters Moor Mother on “Vexed,” in what must be one of the year’s most apoplectic performances. It’s not just what she seethes, but how she seethes. She snarls like she’s on the prowl, burning up with spite.
For all the omnipresent menace, it’s often a wildly fun listen, particularly when the rising UK MC Logan is on the mic. It’s present in the menacing way he growls, “Tell dem bwoy deh fuck off,” or the death-metal gurgle he puts on his chanted refrain of “War/Clash/War/Clash”—they’re as satisfying as the one-liners in any over-the-top action film. But the album casts a solemn shadow: The album’s final track, “The Missing,” is a spoken-word elegy for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, in which 72 people perished when a council flat went up in flames. (The 2017 disaster highlighted the deadly consequences of inequality in contemporary Britain. A public inquiry cited multiple “systemic failings” that led to the victims’ deaths; survivors called the public-housing development a “death trap.”)
Dub poet Roger Robinson somberly sketches a scene of holy deliverance, mourners attempting to hold onto the feet of their loved ones as the bodies of the dead ascend to the heavens: “A hundred people start floating from the windows of a tower block; from far enough away they could be black smoke from spreading flames.” The synthesizers swell in volume, an ambient lament. “Amongst the cirrus clouds, floating like hair, they begin to look like a separate city,” Robinson intones. “Someone looking on could mistake them for new arrivals to earth. They are the city of the missing. We now, the city of the stayed.” This moment of mournful gravitas puts Fire into context. It’s a reminder that Martin is not just a masterful stylist, in ambient and dancehall alike, but that his best work is grounded in a powerful sense of justice. Burrowing down to the elemental, he and his vocalists tap into an intoxicating wrath. It is electrifying, cleansing, and cathartic, like a fire that razes a corrupt system to the ground.
Buy: Rough Trade
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