Musical chameleon continues to defy easy classification with his latest, the misleadingly titled Black Metal.
Nearly everything written about Dean Blunt tends to focus on his strict refusal to apply genre tags to the music he makes and the all-around confounding nature of his chameleonic approach to the creative process. More times than not, the term “maverick” can be found somewhere in close proximity to any mention of his name. While this tends to make it difficult to quickly slap an easily identifiable label on Blunt’s recorded output, it seems to be the whole point of his often-baffling aesthetic choices, causing listeners to rethink the whole purpose of generic classification.
By titling his latest release Black Metal, Blunt sets up listeners to have their expectations defied. Surely he wouldn’t willingly engage in such a polarizing left turn into a genre with ardent, often borderline militant defenders, simply to make a point? From the opening strains of “Lush” (which employs a Big Star sample, of all things), it becomes immediately clear that the album title is yet another diversionary tactic, showcasing the futility of attempting to label collections of notes and rhythms with an overly simplistic, immediately identifiable moniker.
Ultimately, Black Metal plays to Blunt’s staunch refusal to apply genre labels to the music he creates, shining a light on the arbitrary nature of labeling music in general, proving them to be no more than quaint, outdated notions of how we talk about music and even the creative process. It’s a reductive approach the too often minimalizes or even trivializes the work itself, distilling wildly eclectic mixes of sounds down to an oversimplified quick hit that helps ease in the comprehension process.
By titling his album Black Metal, he almost defies critics and listeners alike not to talk about the fact that nothing here is even remotely close to the titular genre. In fact, no analysis of the album (including this one) would be able to fully overlook the misnomer and discuss its real or imagined implications.
Furthering that notion, stripping the album to its elemental parts and parsing out individual tracks for those who consume their music in bite-sized portions rather than as a cohesive whole, Blunt gives us “Punk” and “Country”. Like the album’s title, these two tracks have absolutely nothing to do with either genre save the fact each are made up of a series of notes and rhythms. When played a certain way, however, we begin to make assumptions based on the style of music and, in the process, ascribe a specific genre classification to the music.
Here, Blunt chooses to somewhat lackadaisically slap these decidedly un-punk/country tracks with misleading titles to show that ultimately these are simply made-up words applied to types of music that, when stripped of context, do no better a job of describing the music when applied incorrectly as when used in the “appropriate” context. With this genre subverting and skewering of expectations Blunt seeks to move past the notion of genres, much as Throbbing Gristle did with their landmark industrial masterpiece 20 Jazz Funk Greats which, like Black Metal, featured nothing of the sort.
This subverting of expectations only goes so far, however. In order to make a fully compelling statement you need the material to back it up, moving past vague generalities of why you don’t subscribe to a particular notion while simultaneously fully embracing it. Blunt does offer a fairly solid case in favor of discussing music without the restrictive trappings of genre tags, but not everything here works. Moving from melancholic singer-songwriter material in a decidedly C86 vein to post-rock to elements of free jazz and finally abstract electronic music, Blunt keeps the listener guessing. The irony in the intent however is that each track essentially functions as its own genre exercise, applying established sonic templates that are easily categorized.
But this contradiction, too, seems intended as the dialogue ultimately centers on the music itself, requiring established identifiers to be applied in order to properly define the intent behind each track. Or at the very least any easier way of discussing the music itself without listening to it.
Much like David Bowie’s Low, Black Metal loads the front half of the album with its more immediately accessible pop-leaning material before devolving into sprawling electronic compositions that focus more on sound and feel than form and structure. Utilizing Big Star and the Pastels as source material for two of the first half’s tracks seems a puzzling move given Blunt’s track record as a purveyor of fractured R&B and hypnogogic pop (despite his own personal distaste for the term itself). But Black Metal serves as a sort of dismantling of the ghettoization of contemporary pop music and its attendant expectations, refusing to adhere to any one style throughout, instead exploring the possibilities affording by the music itself.
“Molly & Aquafina” is a maudlin slocore ballad that relies heavily on atmospherics and its sparse arrangement to cultivate a very specific sort of sadness, one to which Blunt’s voice isn’t altogether suited, despite his best efforts to the contrary. Abruptly clipping his syllables, Blunt sounds like Tom Waits with the rougher edges having been sanded down, recalling the latter’s earliest recordings. Performed as a duet with a far more adept female vocal counterpart (who sounds like Cat Power via the Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris), Blunt’s vocal shortcomings possess a roguish sort of charm.
At over 13 minutes, “Forever” draws a line between the album’s accessible first half and it’s more complex, experimental second act. Here a wordless vocal figure serves as a transitional element before the electronics fully take over, drums clattering, repetitive piano lines crisscrossing one another. While never truly building to anything massive, its hypnotic, repetitive quality occasionally broken up by additional elements serves to lose the listener in the sounds, helping to reevaluate and reposition focus from the largely traditional pop song structure of the first half to the more sprawling, idiosyncratic material on the album’s second half. An errant saxophone arrives around the halfway point to inject additional life into the track, breaking up the repetition, further altering the track’s direction. Almost perfectly divided, the vocals return in the track’s final third, albeit briefly, having ceded control to the slow crawl of electric chaos. Here the horn remains, a duet partner for the electronic apocalypse. There’s a certain sadness and desperation in the track that, given its length, becomes oppressive in the best, most depressing kind of way.
“X” largely continues the trend set out by “Forever”, a low sustained synth tone rattling ominously below a skeletal guitar figure. When placed in context with the remainder of the album, it, like its predecessor, has the feel of two dissimilar projects placed together to create one unique whole showcasing the duality of the performer. Ultimately, the album’s second half proves slightly more compelling given this sonic diversity, giving it a slight edge over the more structurally simplistic first half.
Like a convoluted senior thesis that possess a kernel of a great idea surrounded by a great deal more circular logic, Blunt’s Black Metal is essentially enjoyable when taken at face value, but tends to fall apart under closer scrutiny. Its subverting of and refusal to uphold expectations, however, continues to make Blunt a compelling and relevant figure on the musical landscape.