It’s been six years since The Bug’s third album London Zoo came scuttling out of the UK capital’s underground like a toxic avenger, tearing strips off its enemies with a lethal blend of righteous indignation and street ferocity while channelling the goriest shades of dancehall, grime and dubstep. Six years is a long wait for the many fans The Bug has picked up since London Zoo, but two EPs and a number of 7” releases have helped pass the time. Most importantly, the years of anticipation have been vindicated by its full-length successor Angels & Devils, a superb follow-up that consolidates his strengths (bass menace, punk energy, unimpeachable vocal freelancers) while pushing into subtle new territory. Kevin Martin, The Bug’s creator, curator and co-ordinator, might have made us wait for more than half a decade before making his next big Bug statement after London Zoo, but hoo boy, what a statement it is.
London Zoo was a work of vicious contrasts, hopping nimbly between anti-authoritarian rabble rousing and grime’s violent posturing. It was the kind of album where Tippa Irie’s screed against the US government’s inhumane neglect of post-Katrina New Orleans could sit alongside Flowdan and Killa P threatening to “down some pricks with a M-1-6” on “Skeng”, the album’s scariest and most savagely vital cut. On Angels & Devils, recorded in Martin’s new Berlin base, he formalises this schizophrenia by effectively splitting the album in two, leading with six nuanced, ambient numbers before swinging the bass hammer with breakneck force for a relentless second half.
Withholding The Bug’s familiar pleasures is a gutsy move for Martin, who could have easily opted to sprinkle the big bass beats more evenly for a more reassuring experience. The Bug is not here to reassure you, though, and Angels & Devils’ slow-build turns out to be a triumph of middle-finger sequencing, pushing the new ideas to the front of the queue and providing an anxious prelude before all hell breaks loose. While London Zoo’s urban nightmare was a wall-to-wall affair, Angels & Devils’ armageddon gets its very own countdown.
It wouldn’t have worked if the album’s opening tracks didn’t stand up so strongly in their own right, striking a beguiling balance between vulnerability and litheness, incorporating the album’s most left-field contributors in the process. Grouper’s Liz Harris layers spectral vocals over subterranean opener “Void”, while Inga Copeland dispassionately observes urban decay on “Fall” and Israeli dancehall MC Miss Red proves the perfect foil for the twitchy, sharp-elbowed “Mi Lost”. Martin also uses the album’s first half to showcase his considerable production chops on his two instrumentals – “Ascension” pulses with ballistic hiss and a low-end growl that oozes 21st century dystopia, and “Pandi” crushes Oneohtrix Point Never’s drone cathedral into a cement mixer to create something at once beautiful and eminently suitable for soundtracking some glossy, blood-soaked giallo horror film. This album’s first half might be the angel to the devil that follows, but the more elusive soundscapes hide a heart as hard as any fiery grime stomper.
And then, just the opiate-addled crackle of the Gonjasufi-featuring “Save Me” fades out, the dam breaks. In some style. London Zoo’s MVP Flowdan cuts in immediately on “The One”, referencing “Skeng” with the 1-2-3 conceit of his blazing central hook, as if we needed a reminder of its brilliance. He’ll reappear twice before the album’s done, over the bowel-loosening distorted bass of “Fat Mac” and on streetwise closer “Dirty”, and each time he demonstrates why he’s The Bug’s Sgt. Fury, its regular rager-in-chief. And this time round Flowdan’s Roll Deep squadmate Manga gets in on the action, bringing hyper-speed rhymes and some rare flashes of humour (“I’m nang at punchlines,” he declares after some particularly tangy Zoolander-based wordplay) to the hysterically noisy “Function”, perhaps the track most likely to achieve grime breakout status. The foul-mouthed “Fuck a Bitch”, meanwhile, meets and exceeds every possible expectation of a collab between The Bug and the now-defunct Death Grips, MC Ride’s pummelling vocals matching perfectly with Martin’s irresistibly filthy beat. And thank the bass gods for the return of regular contributor Warrior Queen, as engaging and viciously imaginative as ever on scrub-baiting anthem “Fuck You”.
Martin and his eclectic crew had a hell of a job to follow up London Zoo. Given that album’s well-earned reputation as a genre-defining fusion of Caribbean and Croydon styles, simply re-hashing its glories would never have been enough. It’s to his credit, then, that Angels & Devils does such a stellar job of blending the old and the new, and has the stones to shove Martin’s sinuous new ideas to the forefront. It’s that courage and singularity of vision that makes The Bug stand triumphantly apart.