Formerly one half of Hype Williams – the notorious, now-defunct experimental pop duo with a well-publicised penchant for the far-fetched, unlikely and hard to believe – Dean Blunt is an artist as elusive as he is divisive. The pair of albums he released in 2013, Stone Island and The Redeemer, speak volumes: the former was self-released on a Russian website; the latter consisted of gloomy samples and downbeat R&B. Some thought The Redeemer one of the best albums of the year, others suspected the whole thing was a piss-take.
Black Metal is Blunt’s first release on Rough Trade. The artwork matches the title, and the entirely capitalized tracklisting seems to suggest that one should expect the unexpected. 50 CENT, 100, HEAVY, X, FOREVER, PUNK and COUNTRY are as much hashtags as they are song titles, but opener LUSH is actually functionally labelled: lush strings join reverb-heavy, vaguely Britpop-like guitar to form a heady sound. But there is an immediate looping sensation that can’t be ignored, and, as is the case throughout the LP, the percussion tracks sound as if they’ve been sourced from a wav repository – or an entry-level keyboard – and set to repeat. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily.
There’s a similarly jangly feel to 50 CENT (said nobody ever), as well as Blunt’s ubiquitously homespun-sounding vocals. His spoken style may be just as much a necessity as an artistic choice – and there are moments when his deep timbre actually brings Leonard Cohen to mind – but this slightly-too-lackadaisical number is not one of them. “Why want a girl doesn’t want me back?” he begins, a startlingly high-pitched voice responding: “I cannot believe you.” At this stage, she’s not the only one.
The melancholy BLOW follows suit in a more endearing fashion – the acoustic riff and self-pitying lyrics painting Blunt as the angsty teenager – before the bar is belatedly raised as the subtly dramatic 100 offers rich, deep layers of sound that call The Goldberg Sisters‘ best efforts to mind. The beauteous MOLLY & AQUAFINA then approximates The xx unplugged, all minor-key introspection and deceptively involving slowcore melodies. It’s a pairing of tracks that seem to benefit from greater production values, but it’s also, unfortunately, Black Metal’s high watermark.
FOREVER, the album’s crux, starts promisingly. Lo-fi percussion meshes with barely-there keys and nebulous vocalizations, the resultant noise compelling yet seemingly unfinished. One suspects there’s a great song in there somewhere, but Blunt belabours the point, dragging his idea out to an unsustainable 13 minutes. In fact, close attention is required to recognise the segue to X, the nine-minute follow-up in which a droning synth continually hums behind apathetic, intermittent fret wanking. In fairness, a few more layers are introduced after three minutes, and a relatively sensory experience ensues – but the damage is already done, patience eroded because most of the preceding 20 minutes should have been consigned to the cutting room floor.
Vacillating quality levels continue: PUNK’s dub bass is an immediate improvement, its organic beat and subtle acoustic flourishes standing out, but COUNTRY is the somewhat embarrassing sound of somebody going apeshit with synth voices. As the sax licks of the slickly composed HUSH come and go in just over a minute – an undeniably brilliant minute – it’s starkly obvious why Blunt divides opinion.
In short, it seems that there’s a fine line between not caring what anybody thinks and putting out material that is objectively sub-par. Album closer GRADE sums it up: buzzing tones intermingle like Flash Gordon incidental music and the saxophone returns melodically at first, but then in starts and screeches. It feels intentionally obtuse, Blunt’s motivation perhaps bleeding into his lyrics: “Look at me, look at me,” he implores, but that ship has long since sailed for what is surely one of the year’s most frustrating releases.