Album Review: Kevin Richard Martin - Sirens
Even before you’ve started listening to the album, there are a number of warning signs that try to tell you just how serious of a listen Sirens is.
Take the album’s incredibly stark cover art—a black and white photograph of an adult’s hand holding onto that of a newborn baby; however, wrapped around the baby’s wrist is a hospital bracelet.
Then there are the track titles—I hesitate to call any of these ‘songs,’ because they aren’t songs in the traditional sense of the word. They are compositions, or pieces; not ‘songs.’ Whatever you want to refer to them as, they have names like “Life Threatening Operation 2,” “Mechanical Chatter in The I.C.U.,” “Bad Dream,” and perhaps the most telling (and also the album’s first track)—“There is A Problem.”
Kevin Martin has been making music for over 20 years under the moniker The Bug—that’s probably how people know him best, as well as for what kind of music he makes as The Bug. It’s easy to call it ‘electronic,’ but it can be (and most often is) confrontational in nature and abrasive in sound.
A decade ago, Martin found himself as part of a trip-hop inspired trio, King Midas Sound, responsible for one record—Waiting for You, and one remix album that followed a few years later. The trio itself fell apart at some point in 2013, and somewhere along the way, Martin, as well as King Midas vocalist Roger Robinson, tried to record another record together, but had shelved it until just recently.
Arriving only three or four months after that King Midas Sound effort, the desolate Solitude, Sirens, the first effort to be issued under Martin’s own name, finds him working with a similar sonic palette. Known for creating a cacophony with his shattering beats and squalling synthesizers, Sirens, much like a bulk of Solitude, is beat-less—a musical choice that Martin, as a composer, uses to turn the record into a sprawling, visceral, tense meditation on the very serious complications surrounding the birth of his first child.
I made the mistake of listening to Sirens at work.
I was already having a bit of ‘a day,’ meaning my poor mental health (depression and anxiety, but mostly the depression) was becoming more of an issue throughout my shift, making it difficult for me to focus on what I needed to do.
A lot of my experiences with ambient or experimental music result in a strong emotional reaction—most of the time, I just wind up feeling really sad—I mean, like, sadder than I usually feel on what you’d consider a good day for me.
But rarely does listening to an album result in a very real physical reaction.
I don’t know what it was—if it was Sirens itself, or my mentality at the time, or the combination of both, but as the album progressed, blaring through my headphones, as I tried to focus on the data I needed to enter and ignore the co-workers that were around my workspace, blathering away amongst themselves, I started to feel ill—like, physically ill. There was this sick feeling in my chest that I could feel rising up into my throat.
I think that Sirens may be just entirely too much—especially if you aren’t ready for what Martin has created here. But even if you think you are ready for something like this—there is so much emotion buried within the haunting, and at times horrifying, layers of sound—it’s the kind of listen that takes an extraordinary toll on you.
In the same way that King Midas Sound’s Solitude was, more or less, a concept album, structured around a destructive relationship and the blind jealousy, anger, and confusion that arrives in its aftermath—Sirens is, too, a concept album or song cycle—complete with a theme Martin returns to throughout the album’s 14 pieces—and as a composer and performer of experimental and ambient music, he goes above and beyond in his efforts to place you, as the listener, right along side him in the hospital as these terrible moments of his life unfold.
Martin introduces his musical ‘theme’ almost right out of the gate on Sirens; “There is A Problem” begins with a borderline whimsical, almost innocent sounding sequence, slowly plunked out on what sounds like a marimba, echoing out into the ether. That melody is startlingly juxtaposed against a loud, dissonant, squall—like a foghorn coming to shore from off in the distance, only run through a distortion pedal.
In a sense, this serves as the thesis statement for Sirens—the theme returns throughout, but the dissonant squall doesn’t. But don’t worry, it’s replaced by much more horrific sounds that are capable of evoking an even worse feeling from the listener.
A bulk of what unfolds on Sirens is somewhat reminiscent of the incidental music created for “Twin Peaks: The Return,” meaning there is a lot of ominous wooshing that occurs as the album unfolds. The wooshing’s presence is multifaceted—first and foremost, the perpetual use of it throughout creates quite the atmosphere; secondly, it is played like an instrument, used an additional layer of sound that other things are woven around; and third, and possibly most importantly, it’s used to amplify a specific feeling—the feeling of what I can only presume is helplessness at the situation Martin and his wife found themselves in with their child.
A bit of an aside—roughly a year ago, our companion rabbit Annabell passed away. The decline leading up to her death began with these terrifying choking fits she would have—and until we had taken her to see a specialist four hours away from our home, we really had no idea what was causing them, or what to do about them.
During this time, there were two weekends in a row where there were these mid-to-late April snowstorms where the roads would be terrible, and I’d be outside two or three times trying to keep the driveway clear. Whenever the weather would become that bad, I used to worry about if something were to happen where we’d need to get Annabell to an emergency vet, how we’d do so with the roads being unsafe to drive on.
I can distinctly remember a moment, well after the sun had gone down, standing at the end of my driveway, the snow still falling, looking back toward my house, knowing that she was inside, and still not doing well, and I’d think—it doesn’t matter if the roads are bad or not, there is nobody who can help us.
Eventually you give into the helplessness, and maybe that’s why listening to Sirens made me feel physically ill. Because in all the layers of noise—all very deliberately stacked up one another, it caused me to remember a time that I’d prefer not to think about, but find myself thinking about it regularly anyway.
In all the layers of noise—I saw a slight reflection of myself, and my own helplessness.
Sirens, running roughly an hour total, is structured around two anchor pieces, sequenced near both the beginning and the end. “Life Threatening Operation 2” is the album’s longest piece, running over 10 minutes—and it’s possibly the album’s most intense; “Necrosis” (I dare you to do a search of what that means), arrives within the album’s final third, is the album’s most dissonant and ominous. The low, distended ripples of sound on “Necrosis” are the most ‘The Bug’ Martin gets on Sirens, and here, rather than merging them with skittering percussion, he allows them to cast a long, ominous shadow that tears through the listener.
As a whole—and of course a record like this is meant to be ingested from beginning to end, if you’re able to—Sirens is, much like Martin’s situation, a rollercoaster of emotion. It’s built on the give and take of these pieces, with moments full of terror and confusion, and moments that do not offer peace, or resolve, but may offer small reprieve, or reflection
Sometimes that given and take is inserted into the same track.
There is, however, minor resolve as Sirens works towards its conclusion—the events that inspired the album took place at least five years ago, and both Martin’s wife and child survived the ordeals that have been depicted musically here. Sirens as a song cycle was debuted live in 2015 at the CTM Festival in Berlin, though there are, apparently, differences between that iteration and what has now been committed to tape.
The work’s final selection, “A Bright Future,” does allude, both in title and in tone, to things eventually calming down for Martin and his family—musically, the theme introduced at the beginning of Sirens returns, though here, it is sped up slightly, with the sounds reverberating off of one another at a much higher, frenetic pace, which slowly—very slowly—echoes off into the distance after oscillating with urgency.
I think at this point, it goes without saying that Sirens is for a very specific demographic of listeners. For those who have followed Martin’s career since the beginning, they might appreciate the very specific change in sound and execution for this release; casual listeners may just want him to be caustic and abrasive, like the critically lauded London Zoo, or his last effort as The Bug, 2014’s Angels and Devils.
Sometimes, the confrontational nature of Martin’s output as The Bug is too much for me—but over the last eight years, I’ve really come to appreciate a number of things that a capable composer can do with instrumental, ambient, and experimental music. Sirens is obviously not the kind of record you should put on in the background while you’re preparing dinner or cleaning your home; maybe it was my mistake for listening to it while I was attempting to drown out office small talk and concentrate on the small amount of desk work I have at my job.
Sirens, in the end, is a collection that might be unaware of what it is capable of—or maybe Martin knew just what he was doing, and what kind of visceral reaction something of this nature would cause his listeners. It becomes less about being an album or an album, or record, or whatever, and more of an immersive experience that shatters your senses while running its course.