You may have caught Blackhaine on the cover of Crack Magazine, or modelling for Vogue Italia. He’s a multidisciplinary artist – a dancer, choreographer and MC – recently involved in the choreography of Kanye’s West’s DONDA performance in Chicago. I first came across him performing in Manchester Collective’s Dark Days, Luminous Nights film.
Blackhaine, real name Tom Heyes, is from Preston and cuts a striking figure: tall, pale, imposing. The ‘haine’ is a nod to the French cult-classic film La Haine, a story of inequality and anger amongst the youth of Paris’s banlieue. It means hate in French and Blackhaine’s music does feel dark: it flits between drill, punk, ambient, industrial and noise, without ever quite settling. He has just released his second EP, And Salford Falls Apart.
The first track, Saddleworth, opens with eerie ambience, becoming harder as it develops. Blackhaine has been associated with the White Hotel ‘scene’, something that is no doubt true and useful to an extent – And Salford Falls Apart was launched at the nightclub and released on the affiliated label HEAD II – but that misses something important. The EP sounds as much to me like Winter Hill as it does Salford. It sounds like Saddleworth, like the M62 at night.
His first release, Armour, was soulful at times and its songs more conventionally structured. The end of Saddleworth feels different: harder and more desperate. Less like sleeping pills and more like rage. There are layers of vocals, echoing and repeating. I do dirt in Berghaus / Skin hang off my North Face.
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The listening experience is unsettling, Blackhaine confronts images of everyday life with a destabilising anger. A criticism of social realism is that it can end up naturalising and so tacitly accepting ‘cold, hard truths’ that it takes for granted – like austerity, or racism. But with Blackhaine this is not the case: in the anger and uncertainty there is a desire for change.
In this hotel room / Screamin’ out when my body twist in pain he says on Hotel. And it’s back from the dead / To be with me in this strange place. When Blackhaine dances he looks possessed, almost haunted, and his body twists and contorts in an explosive mix of compulsion and repression.
The North West has been hit hard by cuts over the past ten years and beyond, especially outside the big cities. Child poverty in Blackpool sits around 30 per cent, and in some wards it is as high as 55 per cent. Blackhaine’s music is about these places – Blackpool, Preston, Salford, Saddleworth – where many people are struggling. It’s present in his dancing: Blackhaine’s body literally struggles, as if the desire to move freely is being caged and restricted, fighting to get out.
Rigor mortis in my cradle while you rocking me to sleep, he spits, referring to the post-mortem change that occurs in dead bodies resulting in the stiffening of muscles. You can see the resonance: pale and convulsing, as if the body is refusing to die, unwilling to succumb.
It’s a lyric that also appeared on Blackpool from his first EP. This cross-referencing between songs and other works happens throughout And Salford Falls Apart. In every song there is a reference to the track that preceded it. Like a recurring dream, nightmare or trauma, there is a sense we have been here before.
Life and death are thinly divided: Never know, you never know / One day you here and then you go. On the cover of the EP, a hospital monitor shows the name ‘Heyes, Tom’. The events which led to this photo are never clearly referred to, but death feels near throughout.
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The titular track, And Salford Falls Apart, places the listener in a bleak hotel room, somewhere in the North West. I’m Jarrow broke / In a hotel room that’s wrapped in smoke. Jarrow is a town between Newcastle and South Shields, famous for the Jarrow Crusade of October 1936, in which around 200 men marched from to London in protest against unemployment, poverty and deindustrialisation.
The darkness in Blackhaine’s music is not nihilism. These hills keep suffocating me / Suffocating / Suffocating. When he shouts these words you can feel him resisting, fighting.
I’m Jarrow broke is shouted again, drowned out by helicopter-like pulsating static. It’s a line that makes more explicit the politics of Blackhaine’s lyrics; his music is a product and an exploration of life on the margins, of social and regional inequality, and of being suffocated. More than that, and like the Jarrow Crusaders, it’s about responding to those conditions, refusing them, wanting them changed.
In the last song on the EP, Let Me Know, the chopper noises are back. It sounds like you’ve got a police helicopter flying over your head. Drowning / Rolling – Blackhaine’s voice is hoarse and these words occur over and over accompanied by a heavy beat. Drowning / Rolling. Unsettling and powerful, full of a strange yearning, this feels like a fitting way to end.
And Salford Falls Apart by Blackhaine is released on Head II. Consider buying the album from one of Greater Manchester’s independent record shops or from the artist’s Bandcamp.
Joe Ronan is Head of Editorial at Salt Magazine and is from South Manchester. He is interested in books, music and how the internet is changing culture. He also writes about sport. Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeRo99.