‘If you’re going to go in a different direction, you may as well take the plunge with both feet…‘ – Neill Dougan on The Bug‘s Angels And DevilsAs restless souls go, Kevin ‘The Bug’ Martin makes lauded renaissance men such as Damon Albarn look like hapless stick-in-the-muds. Throughout his career, under various pseudonyms, Martin has dabbled in industrial noise, dub, grime, hip-hop and – on his outstanding previous release as The Bug, 2008’s London Zoo – a particularly scabrous take on dancehall, ragga and dubstep. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised that, on Angels & Devils, Martin has switched things up once more.
In his pre-release press, the Berlin-based producer has evoked Bowie’s Low as a touchstone, and this makes sense – like that album, Angels & Devils is split into two thematically distinct halves. While the album’s second half is reminiscent of London Zoo – frantic, bass-heavy ragga enlivened by a host of guest MCs – the first half sees a real departure, as scattershot breakbeats are replaced by a brooding, menacing electronica.
From the off, it must be said that the results of this split approach are decidedly mixed. It’s no doubt unfair to constantly compare an artist’s latest work with their finest efforts (even the Beatles didn’t make the White Album every time), but in comparison with the riotous opening salvo of ‘Angry’, ‘Murder We’ and ‘Skeng’ from London Zoo, the first half of Angels & Devils – glacial, gloomy and meditative – is a tad underwhelming.
‘Void’ is a menacing-sounding opener – all rumbling bass, mechanical hiss and a spectral vocal contribution from Grouper’s Liz Harris (which, in truth, is so barely-there that it could be dispensed with and few would notice). In fact, it would fit in seamlessly on any of Massive Attack’s post-Mezzanine work – that is to say, it’s dark and ominous, but hardly compelling – and the same could be said of much of the first half of the record. ‘Fall’ is a taut slice of crepuscular, sludgy electronica that doesn’t particularly go anywhere – you keep waiting for it to kick off, but it never does, despite the best efforts of Copeland on vocals. The bass fuzz and synth-stabs of mid-tempo instrumental ‘Ascension’ are agreeably filthy but don’t quite get the pulse racing, and it doesn’t help the flow of the album that the very next track ‘Mi Lost’ is extremely similar in pacing (indeed, ‘Mi Lost’ is one of the biggest disappointments on the record: Israeli singer Miss Red appears on the track, having previously appeared with The Bug on 2012’s scintillating ‘Diss Mi Army’ single – but sadly, this latest effort completely pales in comparison to that earlier clamorous collaboration). ‘Save Me’ is a mixed bag – it features a great, mournful synth melody and some amazingly cavernous-sounding, echo-y snare hits, but is also notable for Gonja Sufi doing his by-now standard ‘anaemic moaning’ shtick on vocals, the appeal of which has begun to wane, to these ears at least.
One track on the first half of Angels & Devils that can be said to be an unalloyed triumph is ‘Pandi’, wherein Martin removes almost all beats and extraneous elements, leaving an experimental keyboard piece that is deeply creepy, morbid and funereal. If you’re going to go in a different direction, you may as well take the plunge with both feet, and this is where ‘Pandi’ succeeds where much of the first half of the album stutters. This isn’t to say the opening segment of Angels & Devils is bad, as such; it’s extremely well-executed for what it is. It just isn’t particularly thrilling.
Thankfully, the pace picks up considerably as we enter the album’s second half, which is, frankly, utterly superb. Comprising six brutal, uncompromising slabs of noisy, dirty dancehall and grime-influenced hip-hop, which are elevated further by some stellar contributions from a range of guest vocalists, this is The Bug doing what he does best, and it’s an absolute riot. As ‘The One’ clatters in on an outrageous ragga beat, the effect is like flicking a switch from dark to light, with Flowdan reprising his role on London Zoo, offering a rapid-fire chat in his inimitable dread style before the song dissolves into a cacophony of industrial noise. Indeed, Flowdan is a star of the show on the second half of the album, popping up on two more tracks: the brilliantly foreboding ‘Fat Mac’ – which recalls ‘Skeng’ from London Zoo in its air of barely-concealed violence – and closer ‘Dirty’, which sees the album out over a blaring, rowdy synth riff and skittery beat.
‘Function’ – perhaps the closest thing on the album to dubstep – is another highlight featuring Manga’s quickfire vocals over a truly insidious, brassy riff, a throbbing sub-bass line and snare hits in the chorus that sound like guns firing. ‘Fuck A Bitch’ is a murky slab of electronica, which – complete with MC Ride of Death Grips bellowing angrily gnomic lyrics – is as unsettling as its title suggests. Continuing the theme of profanity-filled song titles, the hilariously bawdy ‘Fuck You’ is brilliant, Jamaican MC Warrior Queen delivering a lewd litany of what she looks for in a man over appropriately throbbing, fuzz-synth backing and a reverb-drenched, dubby beat.
Martin’s desire to change things up and not repeat himself is certainly to be admired. For all that, this is very much a game of two halves and the decision to strictly delineate the album into distinct thematic segments (rather than intermingling the two sets of tracks) arguably backfires. That said, the incredible second half of Angels & Devils is worth the admission price alone. Long may this restless soul wander.