I recently learned that Kevin Martin’s first release as The Bug, 1997’s Tapping the Conversation, was conceived as an alternative soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s psychological thriller The Conversation. I was not at all surprised that The Bug’s musical origins lie in film scoring. Whether he’s remixing the Beastie Boys or collaborating with noise-jazz outfits, Martin’s music is highly cinematic and ghoulishly eerie. The key to his cinematic style is his mastery of musical atmosphere: each track is like a scene, each scene a snapshot of a bass-ruled dystopia where meticulously produced, sprawling synths and exquisitely timed samples prey on the mind of the listener.
So what exactly is the atmosphere on Angels and Devils? Roll Deep rapper Flowdan sums it up perfectly on the final track: “Dirty? Fuck that, it’s murky.” Murky is the perfect word to describe the sound of this album, especially in contrast to “dirty,” a word that gets thrown around like confetti in the arena of modern electronic music. The sounds on Angels and Devils are not dirty; you will not find the grinding, industrial basslines that dominate hard EDM on this release. Rather, they’re viscous and expansive, shadowed and layered so you can’t see more than a few feet in front of your face. And out of the murky waters of the Bug’s meticulous production emerge the album’s eponymous angels and devils.
The title of the album hints at its dualistic themes. “Angels” refers to the first 6 songs, which feature vocalists such as Liz Harris of Grouper and Inga Copeland of Hype Williams. These songs immerse you in dreamy soundscapes of synth pads and white noise, disarming you with their tranquility. Like the sirens of greek myth, the vocalists on this side of the album lull you into a false sense of security and irresistibly draw you in.
On the last track of the angels side, musician/yoga teacher Gonjasufi’s detuned murmuring sends a chill down your spine, letting you know that things are about to take a turn. Then veteran Bug collaborator Flowdan explodes out of the gate on “The One,” and the devils side of the album begins. Suddenly the songs are vicious, hard-hitting, and sinister. On “Fuck a Bitch,” Death Grips’ MC Ride provides ferocious vocals over a gleefully malicious beat. On “Fat Mac,” Flowdan spits bars of pure dread over distorted cacophonies that cut suddenly to deep-space expanses of ambient sound, giving you just enough time to gather yourself before launching you right back into chaos.
There is a sense of spectral whirling through liquid gulfs of infinity, of dizzying rides through reeling universes on a comet’s tail, and of hysterical plunges from the pit to the moon and from the moon back again to the pit…
H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Despite the contrasting themes and emotions on the album, everything is tied together by The Bug’s production. Angels and Devils is, at heart, more a producer’s album than a musician’s. The melodies are simplistic and harmony is almost nonexistent, but Martin works his hardware and software with the finesse of a first-chair soloist in a national symphony orchestra. The soundscapes are vast and vivid. The synths and samples are layered and precise. Ambient background noise and spacious reverb give the music a near-physical presence, as if it’s sharing the room with you rather than simply vibrating your eardrums. These elements all combine to create a dark, brooding, and (dare I say it again) cinematic atmosphere that is so tangible you can almost reach out and touch it, and which bridges the gaps between angels and devils, chaos and tranquility, minimalism and excess. Angels and Devils is an album of contrasting extremes. There is, however, one extreme that the album maintains throughout: it is extremely good.