The Bug: “London Zoo”
Babylon was the name of an ancient, pagan kingdom known for its evildoing, its cruelty and its decadence. In the Old Testament, Babylon is often invoked to represent evil itself, the height of human depravity– a thread that is carried over even into the New Testament, where Babylon is employed once again in the Book of Revelation as a symbol of all God’s enemies. It’s such a powerful symbol that it’s been carried over into a number of other cultures and traditions, being invoked in the Civil Rights movement, science fiction novels, and even Rastafarian music. Indeed, Babylon is among the most commonly employed symbols in all of reggae, as it is not only a potent and meaningful shorthand for evil itself, but it also suggests a certain hope, even in the midst of troubling times– after all, the Bible may present Babylon as a kingdom of ultimate wickedness, but it hastens to add that, in the hands of Almighty God, Babylon’s destruction is certain. Its days of evildoing are numbered, the wrath unleashed upon it immeasurable.
Kevin Martin, a British producer who records under the alias The Bug, has another name for Babylon– London. On his third Bug album, London Zoo, the dancehall visionary proves that the Babylon mythology is as powerful and pertinent today as ever. And of course it’s no wonder that the symbol carried over from reggae into modern-day British electronica; The Bug splices together such underground dance idioms as grime, dubstep, dancehall, and avant hip-hop– genres that can all be genealogically traced back to reggae– into a thick, thumping musical fog that transplants the entire reggae mythos and Babylon symbology into futuristic, experimental dance music.
And make no mistake: Though the beats here are hot enough for any club, the clattering production and desperate, paranoid lyrics are clearly the stuff of edgy, politically-charged art. This stuff may fit under the “dancehall” genre, but if it does, it’s a dancehall somewhere in Hell. How fitting that this album was released in the same summer as The Dark Knight, another piece of pop art that tackles the problem of evil head on, with fascinating and sometimes disturbing results. But if that film balanced its darkness with moments of levity and blockbuster action sequences, London Zoo might prove slightly less accessible; here, music and lyric alike are black, black, black, unrelenting in their steady march toward oblivion. There are a few moments of humor along the way, and the quality of these productions proves that art can turn even the darkest subject matter into something beautiful, but this is still a nightmarish album, perhaps the most harrowing descent into madness since Radiohead’s Kid A. To its credit, though, this album ends on a much more hopeful note than that one– the closing song, a gospel-tinged, dirge-like epic called “Judgement,” opens up the darkness and lets just a sliver of light in, not unlike the long-standing Rastafarian tradition of Babylonian imagery.
And Babylonian is a good way to describe these songs, though of course this is a 21st century Babylon. A host of talented MCs and singers provide the words here, and they prove more than capable at matching Martin’s thunderous, clanging sense of madness and despair. Tippa Irie opens the album with a stinging indictment of America’s response to Hurricane Katrina, but that’s a bit of a red herring; the album is about neither Britain nor America, but about the problem of evil as it grips the whole of humanity. Ricky Ranking unleashes a furious, storming tirade called “Murder We,” Flowdan offers a weary but stirring “Warning,” and Warrior Queen thinks the whole world has gone “Insane,” even copping a bit of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” suggesting that evil and suffering have been around, well, at least since the 1980s. That’s a theme that recurs throughout the record– evil as madness– that suggests not a sudden Apocalypse but rather a slow spiral into Hell.
Each of the featured performers stands out with their own character and distinct voice, but there’s no escaping the feeling that this album was meant to be taken as a piece. Martin’s production– lean, direct, relentless in its harsh, cacophonous beats– keeps things moving forward toward a conclusion that seems inevitable, and yet, when it finally arrives, “Judegment” turns the whole album onto itself and suggests an alternative path with its whispers of hope and redemption. It’s what makes the idea of Babylon such an appealing (and true) one– no matter how wicked things become, no matter how utterly insane, Babylon will always lose in the final count.
Just about every track here could be employed on the dancefloor, but as pure headphones music goes, this is art that requires effort on the part of those seeking to understand or benefit from it. But with repeated listens, the layers of darkness here begin to stand out as orderly, meaningful, evidence of beauty and truth springing forth even from the midst of chaos. And so while it’s not easy to listen to, it is an immensely rewarding and effective album; perhaps no record in several years succeeds so well, strictly on sonic terms, in capturing the state of a corrupt and decaying world, circa 2008. Another London production, The Good the Bad and the Queen, might offer some analogies, but ultimately this is music that stands on its own– harrowing and exceedingly disquieting, but also inspiring in its forward-thinking creativity and mastery of craft, and utterly brilliant in its achievement.