Kevin Martin's previous album as the Bug, 2003's Pressure, was a vital, visceral blast of digital dancehall and exploratory dub; 2008's London Zoo is darker, grittier, tougher, and all the more exhilarating for it.
The basic template is similar: rough-hewn electronic productions that are rooted in dancehall and hip-hop but don't feel remotely conventional, laced with hard-hitting toasts and vocals from a bevy of sharp-tongued guests.
But Zoo ratchets up the intensity in both sound and substance, creating a striking symbiosis of sense and sonics wherein the dread and righteous rage expressed by the vocalists are equally evident in Martin's furious, foreboding beats and basslines.
In both regards, London Zoo is an extremely potent, relevant record for its time, capturing an energetic spark that feels tied to the creative renewal of dubstep (a genre that Martin may have helped to germinate, and which in any case scarcely existed at the time of the last Bug album) as well as the tormented spirit of a city ground down and galvanized by recent socio-political developments, both local and global.
Look no further than the opening lyrical salvo -- "So many things that get me "angry"" -- from veteran British reggae MC Tippa Irie, who rails about everything from suicide bombers to global warming to Hurricane Katrina over a kinetic ragga thump.
As insistent as it is, "Angry" feels practically mild (and certainly peppy) in comparison to much of what follows: the ferocity of Warrior Queen (the doggedly propulsive "Insane," the hypnotic, bass-blasted "Poison Dart"), the apocalyptic, steely-eyed R&B of Ricky Ranking (ominously funky "Murder We" and solemnly soulful closer "Judgement") and, especially, the grim, severe tracks which feature Flowdan of the grime collective Roll Deep -- the dread sermonizing of "Jah War," the industrial menace of "Warning," and the utterly bone-chilling "Skeng." Such is the album's strength -- the power and inventiveness of Martin's productions, the astuteness and aptness of his guest selections -- that any one of these tracks could be singled out as a highlight.
(And the remainder aren't far behind; the washed-out calm of "You & Me" and lone instrumental "Freak Freak" do offer a respite of sorts, as they're merely spooky rather than gut-wrenchingly tense.) Taken as a whole, London Zoo is simply a masterful statement, and one that cries out to be heard: as intense as it is, it's hardly inaccessible -- hooks abound in the vocal contributions and Martin's grooves, while sometimes discordant and oppressive, are never less than riveting.