Album Review: The Bug—“Angels & Devils”

The Bug

By James Li

Some music, whether it intends to or not, evokes a certain city: the Ramones are New York, Kendrick Lamar is Los Angeles, Broken Social Scene are Toronto. In this way, few musicians are able to capture their hometown the way that the Bug does. The Bug is the pseudonym of London producer Kevin Martin, and Martin’s London is menacing and claustrophobic. Angels & Devils, the Bug’s first album in six years, is a sampler of dominant British styles, drawing from the darker and more extreme sides of hip hop and electronic music.

Angels & Devils (Album Artwork)Like the title Angels & Devils might imply, the album’s theme deals with the duality between light and darkness, and where the two intersect. Its two sides are accordingly split, with light prevailing on the first side and dark on the other. The Bug’s previous album, London Zoo, featured a host of guest vocalists, and Angels & Devils continues that trend. The album opens on a dreamy note with “Void,” in which the Bug layers vocals from Grouper’s Liz Harris over his cavernous production. It brings to mind Elizabeth Fraser singing over a Massive Attack beat, which is never a bad thing. Inga Copeland’s deadpan cuts through the bass on “Fall” — “the rise and fall of your gun will tell me the story of your city.” But a few tracks later, on “Mi Lost,” Miss Red delivers a playfully sassy toast, asserting that she is Israel’s ambassador of dancehall. “Ascension” and “Pandi,” two instrumental dub pieces, give the first side of the album some room to breathe. “Save Me” rounds off the A-side with a detachedly soulful R&B ballad.

On the second side, Angels & Devils gets angrier. One of the most eye-catching features is from recently disbanded experimental hip hop trio Death Grips. Death Grips were rarely willing to play nice and collaborate, with the Bug being their only collaboration other than Björk, but they match each other in intensity beautifully on the raging “Fuck a Bitch.” But as surprising as it may be, MCs Flowdan, Manga, and Warrior Queen rival — and perhaps even surpass — Death Grips’ MC Ride as far as sounding angry is concerned. Both “The One” and “Fat Mac” feature rapping from Flowdan and guitar from Godflesh frontman Justin Broadrick. On the latter track, Flowdan makes sure to savour every threat he issues: “Skin graft… skin burn… I laugh… they learn.” Warrior Queen’s toast on “Fuck You” is cuttingly direct — it sounds like TLC’s “No Scrubs” if it had a dancehall riddim and Death Grips levels of aggression.

But there’s more to Angels & Devils than the singers and rappers featured on it. The Bug tailors his production to suit every featured vocalist, whether it’s handling Liz Harris’ delicate cooing or bringing out the aggression in Manga’s rapid-fire raps. And while high-profile features from Death Grips, Gonjasufi, and Grouper might compel you to check out the album, the performances from Miss Red, Flowdan, and Warrior Queen are just as, if not more, memorable. The Bug also proves himself to be a true dubstep auteur — an obsessive dubplate collector rather than a shameless bandwagon hopper. Angels & Devils contains the DNA of dubstep, incorporating dub, grime, garage, and UK bass, but it injects a healthy dose of industrial and noise to keep things interesting.

The Bug plays with duality on Angels & Devils, but darkness prevails even in the more beautiful moments on the first side. And despite the thematic duality, it sounds like a cohesive and singular musical statement. In short, Angels & Devils is the sound of London, but not the London you’d ever want to visit. It doesn’t evoke double-decker buses and red phone booths so much as it does council estates, knifepoint muggings, and surveillance cameras. If it isn’t one of the best albums of the year so far, then consider it in the running for the best electronic music this year, and definitely one of Britain’s most interesting musical exports. (Ninja Tune)

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