Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Bug - London Zoo

Black Romantics dream of the end of the world.

In his 1948 essay 'La Lampe Dans L'Horloge', Surrealist André Breton wrote: "Do not numerous studies in the course of contemplation, establish that for a century [Romantic poets] - and consequently the most acute modern spirit - have drifted towards the temptation of the end of the world? In fact there can be no doubt whatsoever that the state of mind of men like like Nerval, Borel, Baudelaire, Cros, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, whose sensibility, for the most part, has conditioned ours, was governed by the old Manichaeanism and Sade." Breton cites Baudelaire, who dreams of a Pompeii-like catastrophe: 'To amuse myself I calculate to myself ... whether a prodigious mass of stone, marble, statues, and walls crashing down together would be stained by the multitude of brains, human flesh and broken bones." (sourced here).

Not only the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum influenced Baudelaire's cataclysmic calculations: the Romantics employed secularized extensions of Christian thought, of which the apocalyptic theme of the end of the world figured importantly. The French poets mentioned by Breton, but also British poets such as William Blake, appropriated Christian imagery of the apocalypse, like those from the Book of Revelations, and re-used these images in their poetry. Of course, only the decline of the Church since the end of the Middle Ages made it possible to reduce the Apocalypse to an object of aesthetic contemplation. Where Christians read the Revelation to John as describing not the end of the world but on the contrary, the new creation of a new world, the Black Romantics saw the Apocalypse as a seductive yet ruinous and blood-spattered sacrifice of civilization. Theirs was an Apocalypse without a Kingdom Come.

In a sense, Kevin Martin - the mastermind behind Yardcore and Dubstep outfit The Bug - is a contemporary Black Romantic. Where the Black Romantics appropriated the Apocalypse of nineteenth-century Christians, Martin appropriates the Apocalypse of the Rastafarians in his most recent album, London Zoo.

Rastafarians, being - admittedly unorthodox - Christians, draw their inspiration from close reading of the Bible, particularly the first books of the Old Testament, the Psalms, the first pages of St John's Gospel and the Book of Revelations. Occidentalist milleniarists, they believe that the final Judgment of God is imminent, and that it will bring the downfall of the hegemon, of western capitalist civilization and all its institutions. Rastafarians represent the hegemon as 'Babylon', the biblical 'whore' which symbolizes luxurious decadence, filthy fornication and bloodthirsty evil. For Rastafarians, Zion - their Kingdom Come - is to be found in Africa, and more specifically in Ethiopia, the land of their Messias, Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.

The Bug's recent album London Zoo paints a picture of London as a city where the Apocalypse is already taking place - and there will be no Redemption: global heating, incompetent government, crack addiction, capitalist greed, youth gang violence, hurricanes, unbelief, collective insanity, corruption, terrorist bombs, are at once symptoms of London's decadence and punishment for the corrupt, faithless Londoners. The Dancehall Noir of the track "You & Me" (featuring poet Roger Robinson) tears pages out of J.G.Ballard's novel The Drowned World, which paints a picture of a world in which the polar ice-caps have melted and caused worldwide temperatures to soar, leaving the cities of northern Europe and America - and specifically London - submerged in exotic, haunting tropical lagoons. London is Kevin Martin's Babylon, and listening to The Bug's latest album is watching Babylon teeter, ready to fall.

Kevin Martin casts London's Pompeii-like decadence in Rastafarian language, yet without doubt he does not subscribe to the tenets of the Rastafarian faith. Like the Black Romantics, Martin is able to use the imagery of Babylon only because the Rastafarian faith has little or no hold on his psyche. For it's aesthetic effect, London Zoo is paradoxically dependent on the attraction, on the fascination exerted of the terrors of the Apocalypse. Armageddon produces "...a delightful Horrour, a terrible Joy (...)" (John Dennis, 1688). The aesthetic of London Zoo is similarly structured to that of the Black Romantics.

Kevin Martin is not the first musician to present London as a city where the Rastafarian Armageddon is already taking place: Mark Stewart and the Maffia's 1983 album 'Learning To Cope With Cowardice' is an obvious precursor. In fact, that album's review by David Stubbs in the February 2007 issue of the Wire, could very well describe London Zoo: "The title track creates instant unease through its easy interplay of rough, Industrial Techno, funk noir, dub and plundered hiphop rhythms, all collapsing into one another like new buildings. Fires of reggae righteousness roar like bonfires amid the urban chaos as Stewart (...) pours conflagratory scorn on a sick, corrupt and fearful populace, torching the veneer of their illusions." Here, it should be noted that Mark Stewart's inspiration for this album came from Romantic poet William Blake's vision of London as a sacred city, simultaneously Babylon and Jerusalem. However, London Zoo is an album that is somehow more triumphant, heroic, muscular in tone than that of Mark Stewart, which is altogether more raw, more bleak, shattered-sounding.

From a theoretical point of view, Stewart's bleakness is perhaps preferable to Kevin Martin's attitude. Nevertheless, I absolutely love London Zoo and personally prefer London Zoo to Learning To Cope With Cowardice. Why? Perhaps it is only because I am too young to fully appreciate Stewart's album, as I have few memories of it's socio-political context - it came out before my time, as they say. But there is also the matter of Mark Stewart's vocals: they are a taste I've never quite acquired, and they are at their most grating in Learning To Cope With Cowardice. On London Zoo on the other hand, the vocals are a boon. The contribution of the MC's - such as grizzled Tippa Irie, gruff Flowdan, dread Ricky Ranking and the viper-tongued Warrior Queen - is more successful integrated into Kevin Martin's music than in his earlier work with MCs, such as Techno Animal's 2001 Hiphop-influenced album The Brotherhood Of The Bomb and The Bug's 2003 album Pressure. Furthermore, technological advances in electronic music mean that The Bug's London Zoo is an album of luxurious aural subtleties - there's simply more sonic terrain to explore.

Probably, preferring London Zoo to Learning To Cope With Cowardice is in poor taste. If so, I am guilty. I feel London Zoo is perhaps the best album Kevin Martin has made since Techno Animal's magisterial 1995 album Re-Entry - which is an album which I would take with me to the proverbial “desert island”. London Zoo comes with the highest recommendations.

Post scriptum

I am in no way implying that there is no reciprocal relationship between Martin and his Rastafari-oriented MCs, that Martin is only taking from them. Perhaps the MCs are taking something from Martin that is similar to that which Aimé Césaire took from André Breton?

Here is a YouTube video to one of the most successful tracks on the album, Poison Dart (feat. Warrior Queen).

You can find a Kode9 remix of the entire London Zoo album here.

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