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HomeMusicKevin Richard Martin: Black- Album Review & Interview Part I

Kevin Richard Martin: Black- Album Review & Interview Part I


Kevin Richard Martin: Black

Intracranial

LP | DL

Out 17th May 2024

Pre-order vinyl here

Less a jazz noir panegyric with a heartbeat-behind-the-walls pulse throughout, nor simply a homage to the memory of Amy Winehouse but more an opportunity to present ‘a sonic investigation into melancholy, tragedy and loss’, Black is Kevin Richard Martin’s heaviest album to date. Part I Interview by Ryan Walker.

Red Swallowing The Black: Asmodea

”I decided the deep probe of the track Back to Black would act as the stepping-off point into an odyssey I would never honestly have predicted I would embark on whilst she was still alive’’– Kevin Richard Martin

An artist should defy expectations. In fact, they should destroy them. The expectations of an artist’s audience and the artist themselves should be in a constant state of peril. Artists should destroy audiences. Purgatory is where the action happens. Heaven is boring. Hell is too easy. Accolades are fine, but what’s the point of being an artist if you stagnate in the prickly, warm fields of complacency, deep in the benumbing, liminal arseholes of a distant dustbowl, glistening with insect language and space ambiance, a death valley of stereotype and fairytale upon finally having your final coat of glaze and start the eventual post-plateau demise? There is no point. A once prophetic vector for how their art demands to be explored, expressed, and explained, now rendered obsolete and entertaining. That’s what subservience to expectations gets you.

In these cases, acclaim is an empty award, a ceremony of words with swollen bellies and bells on their shoes. Expectations should be treated with the suspicion of an estate agent awaiting the next sale, a hideous radius of sweat stains around each armpit, a hungry sweat worm in the concrete wasteland.

Rather, an artist should seek to exist constantly on the cusp…of what? Ready for combat. Unwilling to compromise. On the cusp of total immersion and/or obliteration and/or transcendence. Encouraging self-flagellating conflagration, keeping the ego in check by stroking its spine and watching the idea well up to the size of manic eel pressure but then condemning the deformed runt in the litter.

In this way, the artist should never be revered, or worshipped upon their pedestals, their holy platforms as a superhuman individual of an extraordinary, esteemed complexion. The artist should always be bored. Always be in sight of something to kick against. That’s what artistry gets you. A reward. A bedfellow in the shape of a muse – a lovebite sucked out of your neck during the night, a death sentence (that, in making everything appear so pointless and small, intensifies our obsession to protect life, to relish the edges, to rejoice in its noises) a life partner (as long as the album’s life extends that is), a growth against the soul, a curious, bulbous spell. Fuck the reward. Feed the muse then throw it out. The muse is a sea-nymph that will laugh as your body crashes against a cluster of jagged rocks. Mangled. The brain maimed. That’s what compromise gets you.

And besides…who are we to expect anything?

Kevin Richard Martin (AKA The Bug, Techno Animal, God, Ice) will release a new album this week. The debut release on his own Intracranial Recordings. If there ever was an album of a definitive nature that introduces a pin with the hope of putting it into (is such a thing even possible?) the career of a consistently peak-hitting, constantly shapeshifting (although the sonic tropes remain ever-intense upon each release) and frenetic, forward-facing talent, then one could argue, that piece of work it’s Black. Kevin Richard Martin’s Black.

Stripped back to his full name, perhaps a strategy of exposure away from the earthquake frequencies he usually comes loaded with as The Bug, an arsenal which includes equipment that harnesses a form of making Mount Vesuvius look like a molehill, speaker stacks on either side as though he stands in the centre of a somma-stratovolcano and dancefloors ignited then shrouded in darkness for days after the Bug kicks its hind legs and burrows itself into the ground like concave or smouldering crater in its godless, ominous wake.

A new kind of weight. It drinks you up. Black is something else altogether. The kind of Black that taps into a much darker path to best portray Amy the ghost, not Amy the tabloid target, the Camden contralto Nico. This Black hypnotises like Rothko’s Untitled (Black on Gray) hypnotises: a foreshadowing of the artist’s inevitable demise after battling mental ill-health for years, myth and tragedy embedded in the same canvas that boils cold and moves and makes a noise like a void of naked screams.

The Bug has been turning heads and the bodies within those heads inside out since his London Zoo unleashed the animals into the kingdom and came back with more than just a speckle of blood on their whiskers, the live shows are the stuff of legend, and mythology. The albums too; from the Bohren & der Club of Gore-meets- J.G.Ballard-on-Pluto of Concrete Desert album with Earth, In Blue with Dis Fig, collaborations with techno-torturer of an equally raging JK Flesh (Justin Broadrick of jesu/Final and Godflesh notoriety) more recently, the almighty Fire on Ninja Tune that saw regular accomplice Flowdan picks skyscrapers out of one’s finger and, upon using them as toothpicks, flicks them into the distance.

The Bug’s interpretation of black would be very different. An aortic aneurysm brought about by pressing one’s chest up against a supermassive black hole. The spine turned to slime before the rest of the bones vibrate and follow suit: the red swallowing the black.

”I guess the idea was to reflect the contrasts of beauty and sadness which characterised her rise and fall. Again though, I honestly don’t see my compositions as dark at all, and that was never my intention with Black. I definitely didn’t want it to be just a maudlin, morose listen. If anything, it was to reflect her raw energy, her art and her life, whilst acknowledging the fragility therein. A life so full of massive contradictions that I wanted to explore the sentiments behind the spotlight, to locate an intimacy and sensuality behind a young woman’s emotional veil. And to then reflect the unfathomable hurt, and loneliness of someone who was at the top of her game, yet was freefalling out of control in the full glare of the public eye’’ says Kevin on the album’s intentions. ”There was an overwhelming sadness in her premature demise that the big pop hits and Ronson’s overblown productions didn’t reflect or address. And I guess I thought it was valid to compose an album that was an elegy and tribute to a woman who had an incredible voice, was capable of writing inspired, extremely emotive lyrics, and who was capable of razor-sharp wit and exuberant charm, but had no support network to save her when it mattered most”.

But more than solely the artistic merit of Winehouse; contradiction personified, a far greater torrent of topics, unexpected yet still persistent to be explored, arrived upon taking the project on and persuaded Kevin to dig deeper, past the tabloids (like that’s ever a reliable source) and dig even past her corporeal presence here but adopt a more spiritually analytical, existential and empirical approach to the whole offering and see what he might find when the surface has been ruptured, when the incorporeal land beyond the land, sky behind the sky has been breached.

”All of those things I only discovered after her death, and in a way, I guess what I did was attempt to summon, or even serenade, the ghost or spirit of Amy with this album Black. And as much as the album is dedicated to the life of Amy as a fallen idol, it’s as much about my own experiences of my dysfunctional family life and self-destruction, and the magnetic void we all face at various points in our lives’’ Kevin states. ”You know, a way of facing up to the BIG questions of life through music, as the only means of therapy I fully indulge in’’.

The gorgeous Cynthia’s Passing is a thing of intense beauty that commands the eyes to be closed to appreciate the full emotional resonance of what pulsates throughout. A death within a death (Cynthia was Winehouse’s grandmother), it unveils a hauntological casino of slumbrous chord progressions circling the same spot and anchors all that is tempted to touch the other side to its pretty, illuminated edges ever so slightly shattering into granules as they dissolve into the final murmuration of life in a dark, watery and weary enclosure. Black like an Axis Q6078 security camera. Black like Malevich’s square staring you into the floor.

Elsewhere, Love You Much, Love You Much sways in the way only ghosts can. Trapped. Tripping. Tapping. A beat and a disused metro system rumbling away in the underground finding a sense of belonging for eerie palpitations of synths and otherworldly sonic experiments. Here, we witness things shaken into grains yet euphorically explode into distant galaxies of rogue melodic structures that zap the fingertips with crackles of percussive static before finally sinking into its own foetal knees in a boat. Oreless.

The influence behind this album – Amy Winehouse, her life, her art, particularly on Back To Black, was an abstruse one. It arrived out of nowhere. Or maybe it had settled in Kevin’s subconsciousness without realising; the impact of the muse taking hold of Kevin’s soul only finally hitting hard when the time was right to express that influence through this sonic album, an alternative soundtrack in slow-motion running parallel to the whirlwind that was her existence.

But when did this obsession actually begin for Kevin? ”If I remember rightly it was a couple of years ago, at about 3am in my studio, after going down a typical YouTube rabbit hole at the end of a long night, that suddenly culminated with Back To Black appearing on YouTube’’ Kevin explains. ”And on that night at that time, I had the idea of how it might be very cool to endlessly probe that song across the length of an album, as a sonic investigation into melancholy, tragedy and loss, with Amy’s life as the catalyst. Not only as an elegy for her but for me to also examine my own suppressed emotional scars’’.

”I was reminded when I saw Back to Black that night, of the impact Asif Kapadia’s incredibly touching Amy documentary had on me four years before. Initially, the idea didn’t make any particular sense, no direct logic at all, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make perfect sense, within the trajectory I had been following with my solo Kevin Richard Martin work, both thematically and musically. I remember mentioning the idea to my wife the next morning, with great enthusiasm, and her just knowingly smiling, obviously thinking that it’s another mad Kevin idea’’.

With no direct correspondence or logical connection in reality- this ‘sonic album’, this aural photobook resting on a psychic bedside table, a soundtrack to some blurry, imaginary film projected against screens in psychic cinemas, was the work of inexplicable yearning. It wanted to make itself known. It touched Kevin’s soul. Tapped against his walls. Whispered his voice across fields of time. Between the bars of 3am YouTube rabbit holes, or traversing countries, this album is steeped in feelings firmly linked to four years ago that reach forward and unfold. This idea was too much to ignore. Too much at stake to shake away as a flight of artistic fancy. It commanded Kevin to indulge in the expositions of its shadowy, seismic properties and drag them into some sort of palpable tactility. The suggestions of memories, and the utterance of emotions, called upon Kevin to be put into perspective.

The muse convinced Kevin it was worth being guided to. Eventually, it arrived with different layers concealed in the labyrinth, all constructed with the…well the constructs of this singer, this star, this ghost before our watching eyes, in the weekly waiting rooms of doom where another newspaper headline announces the death of last week’s hip young addition to the club, a club exclusive to a ‘live fast, die young’ mentality that impregnates the public opinion of them as about to croak at any given moment.

”It was strange, as during her life I had been cynical about her style and approach, thinking the voice was just cheap mimicry of previous greats, and dismissing Mark Ronson’s music was way too polished. So, I can honestly say I had no interest in her life or music before finally getting immersed in this incredibly moving docu-movie’’, Kevin explains. ”Then hearing that song, Back to Black, a few times after seeing the film, the sentiments hit me much harder posthumously due to such poignancy within the song’s doomed narrative. It was that song in particular that had me reassess her after her death’’.

Upon reassessment, a series of chambers built deep into the below-surface life, the subtext of a missing person, now resurrected to the status of self-destructive pop icon, a patron saint, retro but with a wit and eye firmly focused on the enduring, timeless tunes so resonant with the brutal hardships of being alive and falling in love right now, began to form in Kevin’s mind, revealing a much greater scale at work that Winehouse was a speck on the sun of, but obviously the primary catalyst for. Kevin realised the sheer impact of Winehouse could perform as an important drop in an ocean as deep as space and as wide as time, her presence representative of so much more than ‘just’ an album, yet encompassing a ubiquitous array of ideas about the human condition and all the myriad challenges that plague it.

”That subsequently led me to realise again how celebrity casualties can strike a chord when we least expect it; just as the passing of Kurt Cobain had previously touched me, to my own surprise, and made me re-assess an artist who I had previously little or no interest in, so the passing of Amy, had led me to question family, fragility and loss. All of which had previously struck deep, when I watched the movie on that plane, which resulted in tears rolling down my cheek during the end credits, approx ten thousand metres above ground level, cruising through the air’’.

The ways of the muse and where it takes us are often shrouded in mystique, shielded from our adamancy that everything in life has a reason behind it, it has to be fathomable because human beings like things to be explained by science, often at the expense of being taken for a ride on some potentially lifelong, affirming, and changing artistic trip. How else in Kevin’s artistic career has the muse greeted him, and how was it different this time?
”I basically realise the older I get, that my whole music life has progressed via following my own unpredictable instincts, irrational musical ideas and a constant need to push forward into the unknown, preferably without any antecedents. I guess I’m always attempting to find a sound or song or mood that I’m not hearing anywhere else. And as always seem to chase a relentless need to go in, as extreme as possible’’ he says.

”And what definitely appealed to me about this idea is that the concept is probably one that fans, and even haters would least expect from me, which was basically to go in deep on a tragic pop icon and probe the atmosphere surrounding her sad demise. I loved the idea that this album contained an element of surprise, that could raise an eyebrow, and actually also even put a slight smile on my face due to its unexpectedness” Kevin explains ”As always I follow my periodically flawed instincts as far as possible, in an attempt to aim high or fall flat on my face. And the challenge of creating a biographical audio portrait of someone I never knew, was a big challenge”.

As KRM or as The Bug, is Kevin’s desire to pin something down, the thrill of the chase  consistent, or is the approach totally different per project? ”My approach is always to chase an idea and see if I can realise that idea in any manner that does justice to the first thought’’ Kevin articulates. ”I think as time has gone on, I’ve realised that pinning down an exact idea rarely happens, and it’s where the idea randomly leads you that ends up most interesting. Because it can open up fresh channels of creativity and at best culminate in your jaw hitting the floor. It’s probably because I’m just not skilled enough to hit the mark from the get-go, and I then have to dig deeper to get anywhere near to the original idea I craved’’.

The idea of KRM as being an act of stripping back, of slowing down, of slicing off is likeable – the bass and the volume and intracranial hypertension dancehall of the Bug – but it still carries immense depth, intense weight, enticing and enveloping moments despite its beatless, ambient, uncanny form. This album is heavy. An ambient gravity. But how would Kevin Martin, who has carved out an entire career mutilating audiences far and wide through his innovative, even violent, masochistic predisposition as a practitioner of dark magic taking people’s senses to their unforeseeable extremes when he unlocks a threshold for them in the form of his temples – Orange amp stacks, turntables, smoke – conceptualise ‘heavy?’

”Hahaha. Yeah, I think I’m losing all perspective on my own artistic heaviness or what is or isn’t heavy, as someone recently pointed out to me and said exactly that on Twitter when I said that, to me, the upcoming KRM/KMRU album lead track Differ is more about kaleidoscopic beauty than an attempt to construct any form of heavy impact” Kevin states. ”Ironically this person’s comments were later proven totally right, when I played the tune live for the first time, whereby the sheer weight of it was viscerally brutal in an unexpected, great way, that my eyelids fluttered and inner ear flapped due to the massive low-end frequencies swallowing me up”.

”It was in fact ridiculously heavy, in a way I had never intended when I produced that piece with KMRU. I am definitely magnetised by heaviness in music and that feeling of being absolutely crushed or obliterated by music, as it’s all about the need to lose myself in sound and disappear within its frequencies” he adds. ”But naturally, heaviness alone can become boring and at worst just macho bullshit in caricature mode, in the worst Metal for example’’.

The orchestral jazz noir dirge of On Top of the World summons up something inexplicable from the grids of a forbidden cocktail lounge. A hauntological chaplaincy in the belly of an electricity substation. Subterranean soundscapes liquify and float upwards in spellbinding ectoplasms of dimly-lit memory. A lone string glides across the back of one’s neck and breathes a chill against it like the Northern wind kisses the commercial roller shutters of the skeletal, industrial nocturne. The same string bleats as it touches the cheek and snaps back again until the barrel it scrapes is barren of any life. A faraway piano, stuck on the same circulation of glistening-leaf notes, unfolds a somnambulant conjuration of forces estranged from known reality with a black widow dancing down it.

This album is one elongated probe, vibrating against a key vein but feeling the pulsations energetically alight at various parts of the body. The location of the damsel’s glorious phantom ashtray heart is in sight. There’s a psychic connection here, an overwhelming link between Kevin Richard Martin and Amy Winehouse based on a relationship that was non-existent, but poignant upon pulling apart the deeper meanings of her influence as a significant, seismic force of musical nature that, helped by the muse, Kevin grew fond of following.

Such an intensive period of creativity, a period where Kevin was composing a sonic portrait of someone he had only encountered vicariously, through things heard and seen (especially the former) influenced the album as being haunted by the presence of someone half-known, half-here. ”I think I was driving my family mad with how many times I would play Back to Black over the course of the next few months, in my attempt to find a meaning, path and sense of revelation in it. It became a personal obsession’’.

Yet rather than decorate the album with trinkets from the original chest, sonic signifiers spreading as dry ice would blanket a frozen lake, the album, like the decision to release Black under his own name, was stripped to spectres and built upon those supernatural mood swings and lifeforms eager to establish themselves.

Blake’s Shadow sees things floating towards the ceiling then falling back down again. A menacing, reverb-saturated bass drone echoes across planes far and wide. A phantasmagorical metre taps and trickles away. A white spike in the oceanic cosmos consumed by dense attacks of textural acrylic blackness that smell the stench of flesh from a mile off and devour it. Black like Penguin black books. Black as cancer. Black like a mechanic’s palms.

And if anything here remotely resembles what Martin does with the Bug, One Hundred Deaths is it. A sulking, skulking leviathan bass projectile flies through the air, disturbing the dormancy of all it travels above, triggering them into wild fits of tripped-out tribal beat activity and bone-breaking swell. Kevin Shields vapour guitar soundscapes spiralling down a whirlpool. Black like a train maintenance technician’s forehead and neck. Black like a barcode.

Where do we go from here? Kevin alights where the muse waves a piece of cardboard in its hand that grabs his attention, and drags him on any approaching vessel that creaks into the station, commanding him to pay attention to certain wounds that run deep enough to conceal themselves from needing tending to. But there’s still more to investigate. The memories of celebrities scratch against the walls. The spectre of Winehouse props herself up against The Hawley Arms and, when she knocks one back, exhales as cars pass in an empty, wet night.

~

The Bug | Bandcamp | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Instagram

Photography by Jun Sato ©

Words by Ryan Walker.

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