Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How Did We Get Here And Where Do We Go Now?

The Bug – London Zoo (Ninja Tunes, 2008)

It’s tempting to caricature Kevin Martin as something of a musical chancer, given the length of his career and his tendency to latch on to certain musical scenes. ‘London Zoo’ has been marketed, somewhat inaccurately, as another chapter in the story of dubstep. Actually, it seems like a natural progression from Martin’s first album as The Bug, which had more in common with the heavy and insistent rhythms of dancehall. Like its predecessor, ‘London Zoo’ makes fruitful use of an exciting cast of guest vocalists and toasters.

The vocal performances on this outstanding record have so much urgency and conviction that they simply compel the listener to pay attention. Longstanding Bug collaborator Warrior Queen returns to command attention through the sheer force of her vocal personality and Roots Manuva cohort Ricky Ranking provides the album’s concluding and most resonant imagery on the apocalyptic ‘Judgment’. It’s simply impossible to ignore the righteousness of Tippa Irie on the opening ‘Angry’, striking at everything from the American government response to Hurricane Katrina to suicide bombing at home.

Even more brutal and uncompromising is Spaceape on ‘F**kaz’ (hard to believe that this piercing directness comes from the same vocalist who made the more ambiguous ‘Memories of the Future’ with kode9). He finds faults on all sides of arguments, attacking both the selfish oppressors who would deny people opportunity for improvement and the head-in-the-clouds liberals who don’t understand the problems they are trying to solve. ‘Look at the state of your own home!’ he chides, with genuine bile and justified rancour. Eventually, he arrives at the crucial question that sums up this album’s sustained mindset: ‘How did we get here and where do we go now?’

Yet it’s Martin’s pitch-perfect production, bolstering the sense of anger, frustration and confusion in the vocal performances, that makes ‘London Zoo’ such a well-realised document. The music lacks melodic and harmonic sophistication – but the sheer relentless force of its rhythms make it compelling. The sounds that Martin conjures are appropriately doom-laden – with a plethora of clanks, gunshots, echo-laden percussive hits and colossal deep bass pulses.

‘London Zoo’ achieves what Bloc Party’s ‘A Weekend In The City’ only tentatively hinted at – a bleak, angry and downright terrifying vision of modern London in terminal decline (‘the people are turning so mad, the place is turning so bad…the streets are filled with blood red’). Is life in this bustling, diverse and brilliant city really this oppressive? Maybe it is for many people, in ways that I can only struggle to imagine.

Perhaps ‘London Zoo’ can be criticised in much the same way as I approached a stylistically different but thematically very similar album – Chris T[T’s ‘Capital’. It is perhaps guilty of being more than a little negative and charmless. Yet my concluding remarks about ‘Capital’ erred towards the generous, in that I accepted why the current climate makes it difficult to avoid an apocalyptic, downbeat tone and that maybe such fiery urgency is necessary in order to create something positive. Maybe it’s simply not the job of rappers, producers or songwriters to offer solutions – here Kevin Martin’s extraordinary cast seem to aim more at simply documenting their fears and experiences. By way of some levity, there’s a sense of personal angst as well as anger here – the performers occasionally questioning their own sanity as well as the world gone mad around them.

This is an outstanding record that deserves to be spoken of in the same breath not just as musically similar works such as Massive Attack’s ‘Blue Lines’ or Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye’ but also with the classics of questing social consciousness – Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’, Stevie Wonder circa ‘Innervisions’ and, perhaps most potently, Sly Stone’s articulate paranoia on ‘There’s A Riot Going On’. Was this simply too confrontational and unsettling for the Mercury judges? Maybe it can be argued that Burial has already crafted a similarly uncomfortable portrait of urban claustrophobia without deploying the armoury of language and rhetoric. Nevertheless, ‘London Zoo’ is heavy, portentous and vehemently dystopian and it must not be ignored.

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