Dean Blunt appears to be an artist in hyper-control of his output, not only creating music but also constructing new expectations as to just what ‘creating music’ has to mean. This is not the same hubristic Kanye model of progress that pushes boundaries with force and spectacle, rather Blunt seems in possession of an immensely nuanced awareness of our zeitgeist, and through this knowledge is able to dismantle it. It is this quality that has seen his name become synonymous with boy-cried-wolf antics, seemingly set to deliberately confound and frustrate the corners of the music industry desperate for marketable soundbites. In an interview with the Guardian last year Blunt dropped so many red herrings, all the while courting sincerity, that the best the feature could manage was to dub him a “prankster with a message”. Yet his work on Black Metal proves how much further his work is prepared to go, and how little light the word ‘prankster’ can ever hope to shed on an artist so many steps ahead.
At first Black Metal allows a rarity his output to this point has seldom afforded his followers: comfortable purchase. The first half of the album pairs his solemn vocals with a wash of familiar reverberating guitars. At least on one level, these openers provide honest balladry, cigarette burnt lamentations from the concrete jungle. Yet the lyrics roll with a deeper fatigue. His vocal tone seems to carry the weight of dissatisfaction, an apathy with relationships in part, but more specifically the socio-cultural landscape within which he finds himself. 50 CENT is one marked highlight of this opening stretch. Echoed by Joanne Robertson, Blunt’s vocals are sombre to the point of threatening, as if pulling the listener’s ear to his lips, only to whisper ‘fuck off’.
And then, with his help, that is exactly what we do. Not content to express the ache of modern living through reflection, the second half of the album is a contained explosion. The turning two tracks, FOREVER and X shatter just about everything the album has built to this point. Away from the terra firma of the initial ballads, Blunt exercises just about every available muscle to charge his discontent. The guitars stay, but they are atomized and flooded with muddling jazz instrumentation, and cloud-like synths. Percussively this closing half refuses to behave, clattering excitedly and forcing build after build. The consistent is Blunt’s voice that remains dignified and wearily resolute. He calmly rises and spits on X, “she ain’t ever coming back”, against a backdrop of improvised piano and celestial organ-like synth. Then the track breaks again, to a spoken word, “until this life is over, get money rolling over”. The synth grows tired and discordant before sliding out of life, the track ends. These are real stories, only we haven’t been told them like this before.
Tellingly Dean Blunt’s interview with the Guardian from 2013 is catalogued in their hip-hop section. Disquietingly, in the same interview Blunt is quoted as saying, “All I can say is the same kids asking for me to sign their records be the same kids holding their girl tight when I used to walk past them, and that's a joke I'll never stop finding funny." Many components of the record seem set on highlighting, and then absolutely obliterating, the expectations set for black musicians. FKA Twigs made the staggeringly obvious, but perfectly profound point, that once people had seen pictures of her they began to describe her music as ‘alternative RnB’. Dean Blunt calls tracks 50 CENT, calls his album BLACK METAL, and drops nigga like ODB. Yet these nods to hip-hop culture serve only to reinforce their complete inapplicability, threaded across a record that shares more aesthetics in common with Under the Skin than it does Yeezus.
It is an overwhelming record in the smallest details, finding pathos in attitude and longing in spite. The songs are personal, yet surreal, mapping terse conversations onto sparse landscapes. In short, it is gloriously unsettling. Ultimately the conversation now rests with us, can we receive this as an album rather than a gimmick. It’s victory will only be complete when we allow it to exist as an odyssey, not a prank.
Words : Angus Harrison