Brothers in Arms
The Twisted Journey of Justin Broadrick and Kevin Martin
Metal dudes can get away with anything. When people assume you’re monosyllabic, you’re freed from expectations. Pick under metal’s scab from the late ’80s through the present and you’ll find adventurousness that rivals (or shames) any book-learnin’ genre. And few have twisted metal—or “extreme music,” if you must—into more warped shapes than Justin Broadrick and Kevin Martin, two British blood brothers who have spent nearly two decades fucking around with the variables of volume, weight, distortion, and speed.
Straight out of damp wool Ipswich in northern England, Napalm Death was heavy metal’s final destination. Drummer Mick Harris pumped his legs like cartoon locomotive pistons, and the rest of the band played thrash riffs with the looseness of punk. A song over two minutes long was a Wagnerian epic. Seventeen-year-old Broadrick’s debut on record—the first side of ND’s 1987 debut, Scum—double-boiled metal down to its essence: blurt, repeat. Broadrick left before Scum was even released, disillusioned with drunks shouting “faster!” as the band exploded the four-second-long “You Suffer” over and over again. With bassist Ben Green and a drum machine, he formed Godflesh, which flipped Napalm Death inside out—1990’s Streetcleaner crawled abjectly on its belly as if in penance.
One of the first people to book Napalm Death (and then Godflesh) in London was Kevin Martin, a serious-looking metal fan who played a nastily corroded free-jazz sax and never met a genre he couldn’t smack into submission. He called his demonic big band God, playing the late electric recordings of Miles Davis like they were metal records in situ, with sour brass arrangements designed to scald the rafters of the dingy industrial toilets God performed in. For lovers of bass and bother, the meeting of Broadrick and Martin was as full of portent as Lennon finding McCartney at a skiffle show. They called their new partnership Techno Animal, which had less to do with Kraftwerk than the rotting rabbit robots of Survival Research Labs’ Mark Pauline.
Throughout the ’90s Broadrick and Martin formed a musical double helix. A full accounting of their aliases would double the length of this article, but in brief: Ice (Broadrick and Martin, malevolent trip-hop), Final (Broadrick, dark ambient), the Sidewinder (Broadrick and Martin, sawtooth electro), Curse of the Golden Vampire (Broadrick, Martin, and Alec Empire, digital hardcore), Tech Level 2 (Broadrick, industrial jungle). Martin also worked as a music journalist, and, somewhat amazingly, Virgin Records U.K. allowed him to curate a series of genre-dissolving compilations like Isolationism and Macro Dub Infection, all long out of print but worth searching out on eBay. And there was always Techno Animal—the crepuscular beats of 1992’s Ghosts, the endlessly revolving mastodon grooves of 1995’s Re-Entry, the scorched-earth hip-hop of 2001’s Brotherhood of the Bomb.
The link between the duo’s projects, Martin’s compilations, and even his journalism was the collision of rhythm and texture—or, to be more blunt, of bass and noise. The connecting tissue was Jamaican dub, which put a premium on bass and stretched everything else—drums, guitars, voices—through a prism of echo and reverb. Listen to classic dub from artists like Linval Thompson or the Heptones and you’ll feel as warm and comforted as when you’re listening to a side by Al Green. But Broadrick and Martin—along with artists like Mark Stewart, Adrian Sherwood, and many others, mostly white—heard the combination of bass, volume, and extreme effects as a route to disorientation. They weren’t the only ones: Arguably, the Butthole Surfers took the combination further than just about anyone. But the deep identification with Jamaican music—however tweaked the end result—is a uniquely British phenomenon.
Lots of people were obsessed with dub in the ’90s, artists as disparate as the Beastie Boys and Tortoise and Fugazi and a million jungle and trip-hop producers. People have moved onto other musical crushes in the 21st century, but even if the terrible twosome has gone solo (Techno Animal has been amicably iced), Martin at least has stayed faithful to the lure of Jamaica. Recording as the Bug, he has taken a hatchet to ragga dancehall.
The new Killing Sound (Rephlex)—released under the name Razor X Productions—collects Martin’s earliest forays into dancehall S&M alongside a handful of new tracks. Originally released as a series of extremely limited 7-inch vinyl singles, just like the Jamaican tracks they were patterned after, these records are a splash of rubbing alcohol on an open wound. The staggering rhythms of ragga—built on a seven-beats-to-the-bar pattern that always sounds like a lurching head nod—become pugilistic, walloping the body with kicks and snares. Martin’s toasters acquit themselves as well as anyone could be expected to when confronted with backing tracks that do their best to throw the MC like a wild horse.
The exception is Cutty Ranks, a dancehall legend who expressed such confusion over Martin’s music that he offered to pay for a “real” ragga rhythm out of his own pocket. Ranks’ “Boom Boom Claat” is the only track on Killing Sound where the MC sounds as serrated as the music (though Rootsman’s death-metal grunting on “Killer” comes close). As violent as anything Martin has done, Killing Sound passes the baton of musical extremity from the guitar players to the beatmakers. Listening to tracks like “Killer” and “WWW,” you catch a glimpse of a world where Jamaican chatters are interviewed alongside Glen Benton in Terrorizer.
Broadrick is likewise pushing back the boundaries of metal mag coverage, but instead of Caribbean rappers, it’s pasty English shoegazers. Godflesh hung up its hoodie in 2002, following a string of albums greeted with shrugs even by fans. By that time Broadrick had already begun work on what would become his new (more or less) solo project Jesu’s self-titled debut album. Released in 2005, Jesu seemed on first blush part of something Broadrick has never indulged in—a trend. Acts like Pelican and Isis were combining the swirling noise of shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine with metal, bleeding out MBV’s hot pinks and reds until they went gray and slate blue. The result was one of those oxymoronic genres, “ambient grunge.”
Jesu went deeper than the others, or wider, or just more. It reunited Broadrick with his drum machine, retained the filling-loosening bass, and was even kinda hooky despite being mostly swelling and ringing guitar feedback. The new Silver EP (Hydrahead) is more up front than its predecessor. The vocals bob on the tip of the noise breakers rather than getting swallowed by the wave. The drums, occasionally played by a real human, drive the songs rather than bobbing like buoys. This is not to say Broadrick has taken to writing radio hits; Silver is still gloomily majestic mood muzak. Perhaps the cover says it all: a barren tree nearly swallowed by silvery mist. Spring is springing all over town right now, but in Broadrick’s world it’s always the first day of winter. C’mon and get unhappy.
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