Dean Blunt

Black Metal

As Hype Williams, Dean Blunt and collaborator Inga Copeland seemed to take delight in puzzling listeners and interviewers alike with their hazy textures, foggy live performances and shared stories – thought to be mostly lies – of their meeting at Oasis’ infamous Knebworth gig and Copeland’s strategy of releasing music through USB sticks hidden in apples on the Brixton Market. Indeed, watching Blunt at Corsica Studios a couple of months ago was a testing experience, as he stalked the pitch-black stage accompanied by a bodyguard, before punishing the audience with ten minutes of remorseless strobing and meandering sub bass. The problem with all of this though, and perhaps an error being committed in this very piece, is that Blunt’s penchant for evasive, prankster behaviour has always somewhat overshadowed, probably through no direct intention of his own, just how singular an artist he is.

Following the retirement of Hype Williams as a project, Blunt immediately set out on his own course with a series of releases eventually building to 2013’s first solo full-length The Redeemer. It was an album that did away with much of the reverb and mystery shrouded in the music of Hype Williams, though was certainly not a straightforward affair either. A more direct effort than past material, thanks to its illusory melodies and upfront tales of heartbreak, it somewhat opened up the stung character behind those previous interviews in which Blunt seemed intent on revealing as little as possible.

The Redeemer still teetered, however, on maintaining a sense of distance from the listener owing to the relatively fractured nature of its sequencing (at 19 tracks, very few clocked in at over the three-minute mark) and Blunt’s curious approach to sampling (the assorted sounds of traffic on ‘The Pedigree’, a spoken word segment from Puff Daddy’s ‘Victory’, and direct elements of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Daddy’ on ‘The Redeemer’). Ultimately, many ideas trailed off into nothing and so it just fell slightly short as a candid break-up album or a piss-take of the format, whichever it was supposed to be.

As a preview to his Rough Trade debut, Black Metal, Blunt released two clips online entitled ‘Trident’ and ‘Trident Pt. 2’. Both, be it visually or vocally, openly tackled issues of gang violence in Hackney and Tottenham and the role of the Metropolitan Police’s now defunct Trident programme in the turf wars. The tracks marked Blunt’s most upfront offerings yet, but importantly act as a suitable accompaniment to Black Metal, for this latest full-length effort sees Blunt mostly dodge the detached missteps of the past. Ratcheting up the glimpses of honesty found on The Redeemer, it is his most transparent collection to date.

During a chaotic appearance on Hyperdub’s Rinse FM show back in July, Blunt said that the concept of Black Metal was based around the idea of "how in America, the black man uses existing white images and claims them as his as a form of empowerment." He named Kanye West’s Yeezus as one particular example, for a lack of progression. Blunt went on to say that "the real progression is something that is undefined," and yet it now seems a somewhat ironic, slippery statement due to Black Metal‘s very obvious stimuli. For much of the album’s first half, Blunt intriguingly repurposes much of the jangly ’80s indie commonly associated with past, mostly white Rough Trade signees (most obviously ‘100’ samples one-time Rough Trade act The Pastels’ ‘Over My Shoulder’), while stamping his own authorial eye all over the music of that scene and time.

DIY drums and quaint violins kick things into motion on opener ‘LUSH’, Blunt assuming the role of scornful crooner repeatedly commanding that his subject "stay out of it" with tellingly acerbic diction. Blunt serenades his way through the majority of the album’s first half, yet still maintains that deep, imposing tone to his vocal that can be found throughout his recorded body of work, making for a bizarre dichotomy in which delicate melodies sit alongside Blunt’s frank, derisive exchanges ("the bullshit got too long" on ‘100’, "so how you gonna help me?" on ‘BLOW’).

The play-off between Blunt and regular collaborator Joanne Robertson is a key aspect of Black Metal‘s charm. On ’50 CENT’, Robertson is present as a means of directly undercutting Blunt’s statements, responding over and over "I cannot believe you", affording each the opportunity to retort the other. ‘MOLLY & AQUAFINA’ is a cutesier entity with Robertson’s "la la la" sitting atop a delicate plucked acoustic guitar. The daintiness of it all is in stark contrast to French Montana’s ‘Ain’t Worried About Nothin” from which the track’s title and the pair’s meditative "I don’t worry ’bout nothing" is derived. That phrase’s repetition seems to come from a position of pure hedonism, their vocals wavering between childlike naivety and sinister delusion in those trouble-free words. It is that odd, entranced ground that the two seem to occupy as well as the title’s direct hint to a state of ecstasy that prevents the track from falling into slightly trite territory – certainly the ability of both to come so close to that pitfall and yet produce a resulting sound so simultaneously eerie and warming is a remarkable skill.

The knowingly-titled ‘FOREVER’ follows, the centrepiece that Black Metal‘s two halves are built around. This is perhaps the most singular hark back to the trickster in Blunt as sombre brass, stuttering drums and a saccharine piano line build sluggishly, filtering out Robertson’s honeyed vocals in the third minute and continuing on relatively unabated for a further ten minutes. The titling on Black Metal is another calculated instance in which Blunt appears unable to submit himself to unqualified sincerity. ‘HEAVY’ is in fact punctuated by soothing, coloured synths that almost bring to mind shoegaze. ‘PUNK’ is one of the album’s least busy moments, just repeated, almost oppressive snatches of bass guitar accompanied by Blunt’s ever-raspy utterances: "Feds are closing in on me / Everybody knows it’s me." ‘COUNTRY’ contains some of the most frenzied sounds found on Black Metal, a two-minute instrumental of harsh synths, untuned bass and even the volume adjustment sound effects from a MacBook – a long way from the Southern drawl of its title genre.

‘X’ comes in the aftermath of ‘FOREVER’ and sets into motion the hostile mood that permeates Black Metal‘s remainder. Another marathon at nine minutes, the untuned strumming of a guitar eventually gives way to a brusquer Blunt. Where there was contempt in the first half, it always seemed to stem from the position of ‘wronged lover’. ‘X’ is, however, more hostile, particularly in the recurrent, veiled threats of "you’re fucking with a holy man." The aforementioned ‘COUNTRY’ is austere in its cacophony of noise. ‘HUSH’ contrasts Blunt’s cutting rap with saxophones reminiscent of a 1940s film noir soundtrack. Bringing matters to a head, ‘GRADE’ is a looming, cinematic piece, the requisite epic to act as end credits and round up the array of sensations on offer throughout Black Metal.

What makes Black Metal so remarkable is that, on face value at least, it leaves behind the pretensions that have cut him off in the past. There may be caveats to his revelations, but those are fortunately subtle enough to balance both aspects of Blunt’s image: the one of non-committal joker and the other, most importantly and most visibly, of earnest lyricist. Strip away the peculiar MacBook sampling and eccentric, accompanying messages, and left behind is an expressive writer and producer responsible for some truly enthralling and sensitive work – a vein that Blunt will hopefully continue to pursue.

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