Free Radicals is THUMP's column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they're meaningful.
The air was so thick with artificial fog and evaporated sweat that you could choke on it. The house lights were turned bright, but aside from a gently swaying silhouette, Dean Blunt was all but invisible for the 45-ish minutes of funhouse grime, distended folk-rock, and Reichian phase shifting he delivered from the stage. He smoked cigarettes, identifiable only by outline and the stale smell they imparted. He started the performance with a single looped vocal sample—"The white man, I say to you over and over again"—for what felt like an eternity, seemingly antagonizing the mostly young, white crowd that gathered for his performance in Bushwick.
When it ended, he brushed past me and walked straight out the door of the performance space, vanishing into the cool air of a Brooklyn night in March. Dean Blunt doesn't like dealing with the sorts of people who come to his shows—or so he's said—so he just bounces as soon as he can. Blunt's not at home here; nor, as the album he released this April on Hyperdub suggests, does he really feel at home anywhere.
The music he's released under his own name—and along with Inga Copeland, as part of defunct cult favorite Hype Williams—has largely been fractured, disorienting, and hard-to-pin down, both thematically and sonically. (To wit, even the most legible of his releases, 2013's The Redeemer, cloaked its narrative of a failed relationship in mystery: was this a study of the "breakup album" as a pop musical trope, or about the dissolution of his beloved band?). Blunt's New York appearance came in the weeks leading up to the release of BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow, his first album with Babyfather, a trio featuring Blunt and two previously unknown figures, DJ Escrow and Gassman D. Given that this is a Blunt effort, things remain fuzzy—there's a press photo that purports to feature the three members of the group together, and Escrow is credited with monologues on a few tracks, though details are scant as to what the other two players actually did, or whether they exist at all.
Still, behind the confusing circumstances is a set of themes and fixations that's clearer than anything else he's released to date. Blunt—who's a native of London's Hackney neighborhood—foregrounds the Union Jack on record's cover. The first mantra on the record is a sample of a Craig David award show speech: "This makes me proud to be British." DJ Escrow goes on long spoken word excursions, meant to mimic the fluttery, stream-of-consciousness vocalizations of a pirate radio broadcast. Throughout, the songwriter, once content to deal in ephemeral beat work or affected folk recordings, dives wholeheartedly into the UK's most vibrant cultural export of the moment: the gruff and gritty atmospherics of grime. This is a record constructed in seeming tribute to the culture that birthed it: Britain as a national entity, as well as microcosmic Britain that gave rise to the particular set of musical reference points the album is quoting.
But the album's presentation of British signifiers is a little more complicated on closer inspection—everything seems a little warped, a little worn, a little worse for wear. The British flag that appears on the cover isn't just a flag, but the paint job of a hoverboard, with the vast expanse of a nighttime landscape behind it. It's high gloss and high drama—rather than an image of intense national pride, it's goofy and overwrought, as absurd and contextless as the latest meme that Tumblr users have decided to run into the ground. At various points on the album he drives the Craig David sample past its breaking point, repeating the phrase for minutes at a time. It has a bludgeoning effect, semantic satiation by way of "The Song That Never Ends." And if you listen to just these tracks ("Stealth Intro," "Stealth," and "Stealth Outro") for long stretches of time, the phrase quickly loses its meaning.
Aided occasionally by famous friends like Mica Levi and Arca, Blunt's grime mutations, too, feel more on the verge of dissipating into the ether than erupting into thunderous celebration. He treats that genre's emphatic, staccato vocals and shapeshifting beats—or the drawling cadences of Atlanta, where he's said he occasionally lives (See the wonderfully dead-eyed "20 bands/20 bands/20 bands" refrain on "Meditation")—not as forms worth rallying around, but as tenuous conventions on the verge of dissolving into abstract word soups or viscous synthesizer stews.
The record pushes nationalism past the limits of coherence, using humor and absurdity to highlight the fallibility of patriotism in the modern age. In doing so, it poses a question common to so many young people in the modern era, as the United States' electoral politics spirals further into disarray and the UK considers its place in relation to the rest of Europe: should you be proud of where you come from?
Some will want to look at Blunt making a hip-hop album about his home and use it to pin some sort of biographical understanding upon him—to read BBF as some sort of meditation on the intersection of blackness and Britishness in 2016. But like the songs themselves, Blunt's performance of self is slippery. This is, after all, the man who once sent a stand-in to an NME award ceremony in 2015 to utter the requisite acceptance speech: "I finally made it." Instead of revealing himself, he disappears into the haze, and suggests that this award, like anything you can glean from his records or interviews, will not define him.
Around the same time that Blunt issued BBF, Inga Copeland, in a strange confluence of circumstances, also released an album fixated on the ephemeral nature of place. Under the moniker Lolina—the third she's adopted since parting ways with Blunt—she crafted her second solo album, Live in Paris. It should be noted that the title is something of a misnomer. Copeland's disorienting album—first released as a video file, but due for a vinyl release in June—was not actually captured live. There's crowd noise at the end of the first track, but it suddenly speeds into a delirious blur, divorced from the physical space in which it was presumably recorded. The is the first indication that all is not as it seems. Buried in the record's press release is the boring truth: the album was recorded, not in Paris, but in a studio in London.
This sleight of hand is consistent with statements Copeland has made regarding her own relationship to geography. The Estonia-born producer is nominally based in London, but she's rejected the banner "Londoner" in conversations with journalists, arguing that to accept such a designation "becomes borderline nationalist or patriotic." The music similarly eludes definition, flitting between styles and themes in a gleefully post-modern blur, advancing in a series of songwriting half steps that includes, at various points, nursery rhyme chanting, burned-out acid squelches, and harrowing spoken word. If there's a person behind this music, she's hard to make out. After all, the album's opener's refrain sets the tone for the rest of the album: "You're such an amazing liar." With its shimmering synths and acrobatic vocal lines, Live in Paris comes off like a punk assertion to be whatever it is you want to be, even if that requires concealing the truth.
As with BBF, this record acts, first and foremost, as a rejection of the idea of a coherent geographical identity—but it's also a rejection of the idea of a coherent self, and by extension, a rejection of the way the music industry operates, or at least the music journalism industry operates. There are no easy answers, no obvious narratives. Even the facts where and when the album was recorded are rendered shaky and unsure. What a press release could tell you about a person, Live in Paris implies, doesn't really matter. It's what's inside that counts—not that Copeland has much interest in revealing that, anyway.
Even less biographical info is easily gleaned about John T. Gast, a mysterious producer who's credited on Blunt and Copeland's 2012 collaboration Black Is Beautiful and a track on Copeland's Because I'm Worth It. He hasn't really done any interviews, but live dates suggest—unlike some of the figures in Blunt and Copeland's periphery—that he is in fact a real person. Over the last few years, he's spent his first couple solo releases charting liminal spaces: the dividing lines between wake and sleep, house and techno, dancefloors and other darkened rooms. His Planet Mu debut, 2015's Excerpts, was a crowning achievement of somnambulant techno, with BPMs creeping in the sub 100 range. It was a dim and depressing record, seemingly from and for nowhere.
In a bit of synchronicity, Gast also recently released a tape called Inna Babylon that's concerned, in part, with his own sense of place. On the Bandcamp page for the release, Gast tags the patois-titled tape with the banners "folk" and "United Kingdom," suggesting that the music contained therein is in some way related to his purported country of origin. But much like Copeland and Blunt's work, the statement he's making is diffused by the abstract nature of these recordings. There's hints of grime and garage, but these pieces are even more slight and ephemeral than Mumdance and Rabit's spectral forays into those genres.
The slow thunder of "Jah Guidance" works like ghostly dub, and the pitched jitters of the following track, "Babl Callin," feel like one of Aphex Twin's more club-worn releases. Gast vaults through the annals of UK club history with ease, demonstrating he's familiar with the vocabulary of each, but leaving lines unfinished or tossing in subtle static as a way of subverting the sounds that preceded it. He's paying tribute to his own musical heritage, sure, but he's just as keen to rip it up and head for realms less traveled. Like Copeland and Blunt, he's found a way to express his affinity for the place that made him, while still suggesting that it can't wholly define him.
There are parts of these three records that are hard to pin down, wholly inaccessible to those not present for whatever studio in-joke birthed them—for example, the inclusion of a random teen's phone number in the middle of a track, as Dean Blunt did on "Prolific Deamons." But in this inscrutability there's a hint of real people behind the haze. These are artists that define themselves in negation, resisting the idea that it's possible to derive a clear, marketable, digestible narrative about a person from a birth certificate, or a lyric, or the phrase "UK-based." Nothing's that simple. Gast, Copeland, and Blunt made gnarled, wooly, difficult records because finding your place in the world isn't simple, either.