A promo shot circulated for June’s Long Distance Open Water Worker showed Jamie Roberts shrouded in darkness, hunched on the edge of a foggy Scarborough Harbour, after which the opening track was named; it was a perfect embodiment of the murk, mystery and tension that defined that record. Upon first listen, the impression is that for the follow-up Roberts, more commonly known as Blawan, has whipped round in suitably dramatic fashion, only to be wearing a novelty Scream mask and brandishing a toy pistol. Beyond the opening cut, however, lies a warped nightmare of noisy, clattering 4/4 which sits somewhere between the vocal-led tech nuggets Green Velvet was churning out in the early 00s and the more unorthodox sounds of Madteo’s Bugler Gold, Pt.1, which served as Hinge Finger’s inaugural release earlier this year. It seems that Joy Orbison, who helms the label alongside The Trilogy Tapes’ Will Bankhead, has a predilection for a certain strand of techno that is as progressive in composition as it is effective in a live setting.
When taking into account the lead cut on this EP, “effective” is perhaps an understatement, just as if you were to call “Swims,” the aforementioned Mr. Orbison’s collaboration with fellow British producer Boddika, “catchy”; or to label Girl Unit’s “Wut” as “upbeat.” Blawan is no stranger to the whim of the notoriously fickle British club-goer, who picked up on last year’s “Getting Me Down,” a song that Blawan himself considered “filler for a set,” and elevated it to breakthrough hit status. But the reaction to that looks tame in the face of the firestorm surrounding “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?” From the first moment that question was publically posited on a Boiler Room stream — complete with chanteuse du jour Grimes flailing her limbs in the background like a hyperactive child — it left an indelible mark on the underground electronic scene with every DJ worth their salt clamoring for an advance, only further exacerbated by rabid consumption of every YouTube rip available.
Much like 2011’s ubiquitous earworm “Swims” or 2010’s positively ecstatic “Wut,” “Bodies” wastes little time with pleasantries, unloading only a mere 40 seconds of artillery fire by way of introduction before the opening salvo relents and the sample is deployed; thereafter it becomes abundantly clear you’re working with a bona fide club smash. The sample itself is taken from The Fugees’ “How Many Mics,” where a cast-off line by Pras Michael is twisted out of shape into a guttural rasp, neatly complimenting the off-kilter rolling bassline and hefty knocks. Once the initial impact of the killer hook has subsided, what sets the track apart are the flourishes of B-movie sound effects — streaks of black tear across the mix while budget funhouse screams rise and fall from the swamp. It walks a fine line between menacing and slightly camp, but this marks both the beginning and end of any silliness, the curious opening to a very unsettling rabbit hole.
Blawan truly excels at packaging compact amounts of weapons-grade dancefloor TNT, so the decision to place “His Daughters” second is totally unexpected and, at first, faintly off-putting. Taking a sharp left-turn away from the well-worn path of club fire, the same gurgling machinery that textured “Bodies” is brought front and center, with no real backing beyond tape hiss and analogue dissonance. It’s akin to leaving a packed, sweaty venue and finding a 28 Days Later situation; the faint whirr of helicopter blades can be made out overhead as mist drifts across an abandoned industrial wasteland, with little recognizable point of reference to be found. It’s extremely unnerving, reminiscent of the most arid and bleak material found on Oneohtrix Point Never’s Rifts, and only in the second half, with the addition of some deep keyboard notes in the mix, do we get close to anything resembling conventional form. While it is a perfectly perfunctory mood-setter, ratcheting up the lingering sense of dread and allowing Blawan to showcase his ability to go beyond the usual confines of a 4/4-time structure, it feels superfluous to have an atmospheric interlude on a four-track EP, and was perhaps something to save for a full-length.
Fortunately the two tracks on the flip find common ground between the yin & yang of Roberts’ creative output. “His Money” creates a counterpoint to “Bodies,” not only peppering the same screams found on the opener but returning to “How Many Mics” for his sample. However, whereas the nagging refrain on the former remains in relative statis throughout, here Pras’ voice continues to deteriorate as the track progresses, devolving into a feral growl until almost all distinction in the original line is smudged, adding to the confusion and disorientation. “And Both His Sons,” meanwhile, heralds a brief respite from the horror, adding a layer of polish to the muted, dirty drum programming. That said, this is hardly a Disclosure track — after all, the man has “KICK DRUM” tattooed on his knuckles and shows no sign of abating now from his reputation for beats that feel like hammer blows to the sternum. “And Both His Sons” is perhaps the most evil track on the entire EP, as the breathing time it affords the listener while the vocal snippet drifts out of view is little more than a dummy tactic before the beat returns at double-time, hurtling forward with intensity and a renewed purpose to terrify. It is nosebleed techno of the highest order, and lends itself more to a peak time airing at migraine-inducing volume in famed Berlin mecca Berghain than headphone consumption — indeed, the claustrophobic production can be pretty tough on the ears throughout — but is, for lack of wider verbosity, totally bitchin’. As the driving rhythm starts to wind down, one final synth line, terse and uneasy, pans across the channels before coming to a juddering halt, leaving the EP on a typically uncertain and unnatural note.
Jamie Roberts’ production chops under both his Blawan moniker and his Karenn collaboration with fellow sonic auteur Pariah are clear for all to see. While the aesthetic presented on this release lacks subtlety and there is a clear line of continuity drawn throughout the 21-minute EP by using brushstrokes largely from the same palate, the tracks on offer do differ quite considerably from one another, and its to his credit that he can both shape those parameters to work within and find a way to push the boundaries and keep his output refreshing. The hype surrounding “Bodies” reached fever pitch this summer and some will find the material that accompanies it here alienating, but the seemingly insurmountable task of following it with three alike bangers was never Roberts’ intention: as his rise to prominence began with the assistance of labels such as R&S and Hessle Audio, both key players in the musical landscape that followed dubstep’s accession into the mainstream and subsequent collapse of popularity in the underground, here he actively seeks to challenge his audience’s preconceptions of techno, elevating it beyond a mere bedfellow to bass-heavy genres and re-establishing it as an entirely valid form of electronic music that fully deserves the resurgence in popularity seen across the UK in the past 12 months.
But perhaps that’s reading too deeply into it — this is music for the feet as well as the head, after all. Taken as a complete package, His He She & She is sequenced like a night out gone awry: the initial crapulous excitement quickly turns ugly; amidst the darkness, indistinct voices and uneasy noises begin to swirl around like debris in a dust cloud before the whole thing collapses inwards, sinking into a bottomless K-hole. Imperfect and a total headfuck, sure, but one providing more than enough adrenaline to keep people returning time and time again.