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Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Blackhaine – Armour II
Jon Buckland , June 9th, 2022 09:53

Jon Buckland gets to grips with Blackhaine's new album; an audio constellation of symptoms relating to precognitive trauma and terror. Homepage portrait by Timon Benson and Luc Jones

The Canadian experimental folk musician Clara Engel describes their process as “not writing the same song over and over so much as writing one long continuous song that will end when I die”.

North western rapper Blackhaine appears to be taking a comparable approach.

I first stumbled across his work at The White Hotel (a fertile home of creativity in Salford that has helped propel Blackhaine, Iceboy Violet, Rainy Miller, and many more into underground prominence). Experimental band Bomb Sniffing Dogs posted about a mid-lockdown screening of the film Any Body Can Be President (In The Play School Of The Damned) at the key Salford venue. Convulsing against electricity wires on a grey rooftop an hour or so in, Blackhaine appeared like a burst-bonce Rubber Johnny wrenched from his chair. It stuck out like a pair of hammered thumbs from the rest of the footage and I couldn’t help but wonder – who was this man and why was he so intent on inflicting injury upon himself?

Born in Preston, based in Salford, Tom Heyes cuts an imposing figure: a tall, pale skinhead with a baseball cap often pulled down tight over his eyes. There’s something of Scott Walker in how he wears it, the height of the peak shifting depending on how trusting he seems to be of you. Sometimes, at shows where everything is being put on the line and the crowd are open and receptive, the cap even comes off and it is in these moments of vulnerability that Heyes makes his hardest impact.

But, to get there, first you have to go through the wringer with him.

Armour II is that wringer. Whilst this EP is less blown out than predecessor, And Salford Falls Apart, there is still a rage at the heart of it. Here, however, that fury is angled internally rather than at the listener. Venomous bitcrushed power electronics are replaced with pensive drones and booming kicks. Whether it’s mangled piano clinks adorning the forlorn line “I already know where my grave is” on ‘Pavements’, down-tuned strings adding a cinematic bent to the climax of ‘Waiting Room’, or the paranoid thickets of deep bass creeping out like a sluggish ferry turning in an underground tunnel during ‘Stained Materials’, the production from Heyes’ former classmate Rainy Miller is lean, potent, and focused. It creates space for vocally spat malice and allows for sonic growth far beyond speaker-busting distortion.

Miller also appears in vocal form on ‘Faith’ and the aforementioned ‘Pavements’. His digitally enhanced voice so reverb swaddled on the former that it’s as if a ghostly choir has filled the wings of a cathedral. Which brings us to the guest spots on Armour II: it is studded with stars. There’s the manipulated soul of Moseley cooing amidst bass thuds and burrs on ‘Armour Freestyle’, fourth track ‘Prayer!’ features the layered pipes of Iceboy Violet, fresh from their Vanity Project, combining with alternative R&B royalty Blood Orange. Their smoothed voices merging with choral synths to hang in the air like resonant angels.

But it’s Kinsey Lloyd’s placid spoken word on closer, ‘Waiting Room’ that is the pick of the bunch. His voice juxtaposes the frenzy of Heyes whose own words race, tumble, and collide. Falling over one another like untrammelled thoughts. The glassy piano accompanying Lloyd’s gentle tone soothes the disquiet. “Ingest, rest and digest”. He brings the existential threat down to a tranquil reality, his words acting like a dose of Tramadol rounding off the fizz of an MDMA spree and submitting to eye-darting sleep.

So what is it that’s driven Blackhaine into such a berserk state that he requires this calming presence?

Clues are littered throughout the lyrics. The opener has barely begun before we hear “I was dreaming I was dead” and this is soon followed by, “I’m looking in my peripherals, in the back of the club with some criminals”. And then lines such as “Got this thing in my side” and “I prayed don’t go”, during ‘Prayer!’ give us an idea of the overwhelming fear, threat, and despair that throbs at the heart of Armour II.

It’s the finale ‘Waiting Room’, however, that contains the most concerning material:

“How many times I rehearsed watching you die just to realise it’s still pride”

“I put my knife in this child”

“Turn an ambulance into a hearse, from this life what I deserve”

It is violent gangster rap stripped of its glory. It’s a confessional. A desperate man baring his soul through trauma and guilt.

This passage of grief can be tracked back through Blackhaine’s flurry of releases:

Armour – Denial. An attempt to act as if everything could still be fine.

DID U CUM YET / I’M NOT GONNA CUM – The shift from denial to anger.

And Salford Falls Apart – Continued anger, blistering rage.

Armour II – A many-faceted journey through bargaining, depression and acceptance.

From rapping over Raime instrumentals on ‘Moors’ through to the recent collaboration with Varg 2™, Heyes’ prose is elliptical. It’s told in snapshots, like barely-recalled snippets of lost nights, and starkly delivered in staccato bursts that are equal parts William Bennett and Unknown T.

Spectres of his language repeatedly loom across each release: the M6. Blades. Drugs. Suffocating. Falling. Drowning. Hotel Rooms. Nameless women. Flake. Saddleworth. Salford. Preston. Blackpool. Falling apart. Being something. Car crashes. Trauma. Suffering. Grief. Criminals. Punctured lungs. The back seats of cars. Ribs. Hills. Armour. Panic and pain.

Initially it reads like the paranoid partying of lowest ebb Danny Brown, locked in a downward spiral unable to fight the lure of drugs as his sole source of happiness. Yet repeated listens reveal a vast canyon beneath the surface. Clutched-at memories fall through scrabbling fingers. These fragments are puzzle pieces over which Heyes pores, trying to make sense of it all. Like Guy Pierce’s character in Memento, scars and recollections are jotted down and penned into bars rather than tattooed onto arms.

In a similar manner to The White Hotel’s literary namesake – the cult 1981 novel by D.M. Thomas – the crescendo of ‘Waiting Room’ slots all of the puzzle pieces into place. It lays bare the reality that all which came before was a response to an event that, from our perspective, had not yet happened. PTSD from a future horror. Heyes dreaming that he died foregrounds this final revelation. And this is where his friends and collaborators come in. This EP is a form of therapy forged out of friendship and creativity. You get the impression that Tom Heyes needs his pals around him. They help him focus, encourage him to work through his anguish, and help soothe the tumult when it all gets too much. Armour II ultimately tells us that, if he wasn’t doing this, he might be gone.

The cap is well and truly off.

Armour II is out now