King Midas Sound: Solitude

Kevin Martin’s music has always pursued extremes. Throughout projects like the Bug, Techno Animal, and God, the veteran UK producer has taken up diverse genres—jazz, metal, hip-hop, dub—and set out to push them to new levels of heaviness. That’s why the unveiling of King Midas Sound felt like a surprise. Debuting in 2008, Martin’s new group drew on the influence of reggae and its romantically inclined British offshoot lover’s rock, weaving a misty urban soul not a million miles from Massive Attack. It made you wonder: Was Kevin Martin mellowing in his middle age?

Solitude confirms that this is not the case. King Midas Sound’s fourth album feels like a plunge into the abyss. Without exaggeration, it is one of the bleakest testaments to heartbreak in the annals of recorded sound. Its atmosphere resembles that of a collapsed star—black, isolated, unfathomably dense. These 60 minutes pass like a dark night of the soul, stretched out to eternity.

Yet Solitude is not a heavy album, at least not conventionally so. Here, King Midas Sound—now boiled down to the core duo of Martin and vocalist Roger Robinson—shuck off old genre signifiers, drifting into territory more abstracted and amorphous. There were signs of this on King Midas Sound’s Edition 1, a 2015 collaboration with the Austrian ambient musician Fennesz that sometimes verged on the incorporeal. But Solitude goes further still. Martin’s production here has the quality of dry ice, a pale fog disturbed only by the rudiments of rhythm—the clack of a wood block, or the dull crack of a snare. Absent entirely is the Korean vocalist Kiki Hitomi, previously the third member of the King Midas Sound project, although in context it’s hard to imagine what role a second voice might have played on an album that draws its power from such stark isolation.

Really, Solitude is all about Roger Robinson. An English-Trinidadian poet and playwright, Robinson has for the last few decades been one of the key documenters of the black British experience. His voice has a rich, earthy grain that imbues his words with deep gravity. Here, though, Robinson stands vulnerable and exposed. Solitude traces a narrative of sorts: the collapse of an all-consuming love affair and its apocalyptic aftermath. “You Disappear” sets the scene. There’s a ghostly clamor of strings, descending tones drip like rain on a windowpane, and Robinson muses on the way things once were. Like Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” it is a vision of a life of comfortable domesticity that has withered. “We float through different parts of the house like a chess game,” he intones, gravely. But he and his lover are merely going through the motions: “For all our efforts, the fire would not burn bright.”

A sense of world-weariness hangs over Solitude, but signs of past passion dot the record like scorch marks. On “Zeros,” Robinson recalls the couple’s fiery bond, forged in opposition to the world: “We were unhappy with everything except each other.” On “In the Night,” he tries to fill the void with frantic action; he craves the taste of raw meat, does push-ups in a public toilet, travels to the Scottish Highlands and bellows his former lover’s name into the wilderness. But it is all for nothing, and gradually, isolation takes hold. “Too much time on your own makes the eyes look hollow,” he mutters on “The Lonely.”

On “Who,” he turns sleuth, sifting clues to his new lover’s movements (“I knew she booked a flight to Jamaica… I got a letter about inoculations… I wonder who’s she’s sleeping with now?”). At moments like this, Solitude feels like a challenge—as if he’s daring you to turn away, to treat him as a pariah or a leper. Still, the power of Robinson’s words and the poetry of his phrasing keep you locked in his orbit. Towards the end of the record, Robinson’s voice disappears from view for protracted periods, as if receding into Martin’s impenetrable drone; a sort of sonic analogue to photographer Daisuke Yokota’s striking monochromatic cover art. On “Missing You,” he remains silent—either stoic, or simply absent—and here, Martin’s music strikes a rare note of beauty, sounding a somber elegy.

When making a record like this, many artists would be tempted to toss in some pitch-black humor. But there is not a glimpse of levity here, save perhaps for the record’s release date (giving Solitude as a Valentine’s Day present might be a bold way to kill off a relationship for good). Solitude is the sort of record it’s hard to recommend wholeheartedly. Certainly, some—even those who have found pleasure in its makers’ earlier work—will find it too severe, too unrelenting. But Kevin Martin has long made it his mission to go deep and dark, and Solitude goes deeper and darker than he has ever gone before.

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