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Dean Blunt - Roaches 2012-2019 Music Album Reviews

The singular experimentalist’s first official solo compilation traverses the universes that make up his discography, rejecting genre and attribution in an album-length argument for mongrel pop.

Dean Blunt started the decade challenging small audiences and ended it collaborating with A$AP Rocky and Panda Bear. At the same time, he created a body of work as distinct as it is varied, inventing a niche somewhere between post-punk provocation and dub experiment. As a semi-public figure, Blunt is restless and acerbic, willing to change allegiances at the drop of a hat and pull stunts that are simultaneously thrilling and idiotic. He sent an impostor to collect his NME Award, sold a weed-filled toy car on eBay, and released unlistenable noise as Babyfather. His propensity for gags can make it easy to dismiss the rigorous craftsmanship of his work. Yet Blunt sculpts infinite soundscapes littered with indecipherable messages; his songs are simultaneously archives of past genres and transmissions from the future. This ecumenical approach and DIY prankster spirit animates his latest release, Roaches 2012-2019, a collection of solo and collaborative pieces from the past decade. Blunt’s first official solo compilation rejects genre and attribution in favor of nuance and theme in an album-length argument for mongrel pop.

The YouTube one-offs and previously unreleased tracks collected here traverse the universes that make up Dean Blunt’s discography. Unlike fan-made compilations or those Blunt has leaked via WeTransfer, this compilation, released through his World Music label, serves as an official archive and survey of the work he’s made in the past seven years. Album opener “Felony” and the bristling “Acts of Faith” take their cues from the cinematic string and beat structure of solo releases like 2014’s Black Metal and 2013’s The Redeemer. The smoldering duet “Neva,” which pairs Blunt with singer Poison Anna, recalls Blunt and Inga Copeland’s broken ballad “The Narcissist.” The tragic street narrative and thudding goth-rock sample in “Trident 2” wouldn’t sound out of place on Babyfather’s 2016 album BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow. The numbered “Benidorm” tracks are short, experimental sound samples that bring to mind the instercials on 2012’s Black Is Beautiful, while the “Nitro Girls” songs with Joanne Robertson mimic the stripped-back acoustics of the pair’s recent collaborations. Taken together, they form a miniature history of Blunt’s development, a survey of the many ad-hoc genres he’s created over time.
Steeped in post-punk and reggae, Blunt uses both genres to convey his particular desperation. “Prayer 2015” is post-punk taken back to its reggae roots; Blunt creates a dub version of Shellac’s “Prayer to God” by muting Steve Albini’s vocals and keeping the propulsive rhythm section of the original song. Adapting the technique of a Jamaican dub producer like Big Joe, he strips the song to its essentials, using the remaining foundation as a backdrop against which to modulate and delay his voice. Limited by his vocal range and distorted by reverb, lines like, “Here is my prayer to the one true God” gain added urgency as they fall in time with the militaristic march of the drums. In his monotone ad-libs, Blunt acknowledges the song’s debts to previous genres: “Here is my prayer… Jah!”

When a speaker on “Sicko freestyle” says, “We made a culture, niggas,” it could be the manifesto for Blunt’s approach: If black music underlies all pop music, then is any part of pop off-limits to the black artist? If all cultural gradations are artificial, then why maintain any separation? It’s this sense of possibility that frees Blunt to fragment Prefab Sprout’s “Cue Fanfare” into the mumbled “Lit freestyle,” which sounds as though it were taken from the same Babyfather recording session that produced “Skywalker Freestyle” out of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.”

Blunt’s fascination with reimagining the past has been present since the start. You can hear it on “The Throning,” a 2010 single by Hype Williams (a group then composed of Blunt and Copeland). It starts out as a vaporwave cover of Sade’s “The Sweetest Taboo,” then morphs into hazy techno reminiscent of Carl Craig’s More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art in its final 30 seconds; it’s both pop parody and pop devotional. Depending on your viewpoint, Blunt is a charlatan or a perpetually dissatisfied perfectionist. Roaches offers a map of the roads he’s taken and a peek at those he didn’t: On “N Then She Said I Need to Tell U Somethin N Dont Hate Me for It...,” a seven-minute dirge filled with MIDI harmonica, we get a glimpse of Dean Blunt the prog-rock frontman. Steeped in personal and musical history, the collection is as conflicted as its creator. It’s simultaneously political and apolitical, conscious yet contemptuous of race, focused and impatient. Roaches 2012-2019’s series of artifacts contains Blunt’s vision for the future.
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