Despite the similarities between noise and heavy music, the pairing of the Bug’s Kevin Martin and Earth’s Dylan Carlson still makes for a bit of a curious contrast. The UK-born Martin traffics in chest-compressing beats, drawing on a lineage spanning from dancehall through grime and dubstep. Earth, meanwhile, is a Washington state doom band that trudges with an ambient, codeine-hazed pace. In other words, this electronic collaboration, Concrete Desert, is one man’s looming sonic claustrophobia versus another’s sprawling open space.
But dig into the nuances of their catalogs—like the sparse first-half of the Bug’s 2014 album Angels & Devils, or the low-end of Earth’s heatstruck churn on that year’s Primitive and Deadly—and it begins to make sense. Forget genre or even structure: Martin and Carlson value pressure. They revel in the attack and release of slow-building drone grooves and the contrast between thumping bass and a floating tempo. Concrete Desert sees them finding common ground, though there’s more debt to minimal, tense electronic music than dust-bleached rock. The beats themselves are sparer than most of what you’d expect from a producer like Martin, who is so steeped in dance, and Carlson adds a pensive quality, showing what Martin can build when he makes music to stop moving to.Concrete Desert leaves space for the sounds to sink in, and you can really absorb the individual qualities of both artists. The album feels crucially airy—not breezy, but rather a stinging dry heat. A few songs let booming basslines take on the role of Carlson’s droning riffs, or echo them, like the tense “Snakes Vs Rats.” Given room to wander, the feedback and reverb become instruments themselves. Lower frequencies heave like rusted cellos on “Broke.” And a decayed quality brings out the static in the beats on “Don’t Walk These Streets” and “Hell A.” When the songs really take advantage of the record’s dynamic—ambient contemplation jolted by a rattling bassline or scalpel-jab guitar strum—the idea of this music as a doom-metal dubplate sinks in. On a track like “Agoraphobia,” the lowrider subs are laced with guitar echo, and it feels less like a meeting of bass music and drone and more like bass music as drone.
If the album’s title weren’t enough, Martin has stated that Concrete Desert is a specifically Los Angeles kind of album, and not just because it was recorded there, in Daddy Kev’s studio with DJ Nobody at the console. Even if all the words are in the titles—“Gasoline,” “City of Fallen Angels,” “Other Side of the World”—the music itself is laden with a Brit’s half-awed, outsider take on L.A. It feels a bit like the sonic equivalent to English punk iconoclast Alex Cox turning to the grimier outlying regions of L.A. to depict a lawless and unpredictable concrete landscape in 1984’s Repo Man. (Concrete Desert’s spiritual resemblance to the film’s score doesn't hurt, either.) It’s neo-neo-noir music that draws you into its discomfort. If its vast expanses leave listeners vulnerable, at least there’s more space to let yourself roam.