If you have any experience of his back catalog, it should go without saying that Dean Blunt‘s debut album for Rough Trade bears no resemblance to what we would commonly recognize as black metal. Blunt trades in subverting expectations: As half of the London-based duo Hype Williams, he developed a psychedelic, outsider take on hip-hop, grime and U.K. funky, its sensibility adrift somewhere between the art school and the ghetto. Now solo, his productions blow away a lot of the smoke, reaching instead for a heavy, nocturnal soul consumed with black identity, urban living, and matters of the heart.
Black Metal feels difficult to pin down in any precise way. Across its 13 tracks, you can hear the production toolkit of grime and hip-hop, the hallucinatory atmospheres of labels like Not Not Fun, and in Blunt’s sonorous croon, the cold romantic reckoning of the blues. On “50 Cent,” he and new collaborator Joanne Robertson — who fills a similar role to Blunt’s former Hype Williams partner Inga Copeland, simultaneously mouthpiece and foil — trade lines over a plodding beat. “Try to go but I can’t relax,” he sings. “You’re back again, you’re back again,” she counters. Meanwhile, perhaps as a nod to Black Metal seeing the light of day on Rough Trade, there are intriguing echoes of British indie of a 1980s vintage. The sparkling lead guitar ruminations of “Blow” and “100″ nod to Felt or the Durutti Column, while Blunt even hinted in a recent, rare interview with the Wire that one track here samples Scottish indie-pop icons the Pastels.
If the first half of Black Metal feels unusually focused, “Forever” — a somewhat monotonous 13-minute centerpiece marshalling clacking drum machine and lonely blurts of saxophone — ushers in a comparatively erratic second half. In places, it’s compelling. “Punk” is a loping dub rhythm over which Blunt muses on woman trouble, from his fear of commitment to the aftermath of a disastrous night out: “Drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks/ Then I’ve got to hold her head.” Elsewhere, it can be challenging: “Country” is a blaze of digital synthesis throughout which we can hear the telltale blip of the volume being adjusted on a MacBook; “Mersh” is brackish hip-hop, claustrophobic in its burnt-out sparseness. Yet there’s something oddly captivating about Black Metal‘s unwillingness to conform. As “Grade” spins out a climax from droning synths and squalls of free sax, Blunt layers on the menace: “Look at me, look at me/ Badman wanna be me.” On this evidence, no one is even close.