Album review: Blood Wine or Honey – ‘DTx2’: a melting pot of Afro-jazz, punk-funk and bass bring the weird colours for a wonky party

The Breakdown

DTx2 is a really varied and far-ranging album, and if you had a record shop or record library, twould be difficult to know where to shelve it; and maybe that's the point. It's pretty jazzy, but more in an Afro way; it's pretty experimental, in quite a punk-funk way; it's oftentimes very world groove, but in a really outwardly exploding way; it's properly old-skool pop, in a prankster way; it grooves, in a weird way. Never mind the kitchen, it's an album you'd probably find holding forth in the corridor at parties; or, eyebrow arched, a fine, fine drink to quaff, standing behind the hatstand, wearing a bear's head or something. Damn intriguing.

BLOOD WINE OR HONEY call their particular thang hypno-tropicalia, and it certainly is that; and whoah! so much more. Much more

Based in Hong Kong, the core intelligence behind Blood Wine or Honey is the duo of James Banbury, on synths, bass, percussion, and cello; and Joseph von Hess, who brings the vocals, clarinet, sax, and percussion; also calling on cast-iron collaborators, such as ZTT and Art of Noise conceptual prankster Paul Morley, and KT Tunstall.

Their explorations of a retro-futurist dance music somewhere in orbit take in post-punk, tropical polyrhythms, Afrobeat, electronica, chanting, no wave, funk …. jeez, so much. And they really make it these influences sing the song they want. And their wont is often itchily, compelling oddball. And if you part the fronds, there’s a fair dose of political manifesto, the band looking to dance their way out of the privations of our times.

They issued this statement about this period in their work, lockdown, DTx2 the record, making Dionysian play as the virus sweeps: “’During These Difficult Times’. A clause so commonplace it’s a sardonic refrain. The hard times become the norm; the sentiment is redundant.

“This album is a mode of expression in a tight space – Hong Kong. The city is a limited but not limiting zone, a small world encompassing an infinite Mandelbrot set of Ballardian high-rise and hidden activity.

“It’s not a ‘lockdown’ album. In Hong Kong we’ve never been truly locked down, but shut in; isolated in a wider sense, provoking us to look outside the two-person bubble and enlist some unexpected collaborators.

“We discovered, fittingly, that DTx2 encodes all sorts of things: it’s a human enzyme, a protein coding gene; a make of Yamaha electronic drums from 1996; a model of underwater drone.

It feels like everything has already been said, but in the small spaces between all the monumental tropes there is, perhaps, room for some interstitial fauna; some remaining species of idea worth talking about.

“There’s a tone of agoraphobia, rather than fear of small spaces. It’s dancing inside a wardrobe, a furtive, prohibited kind of fun.

“No one is supposed to be really having a good time. Things are very serious but there is life in small stories, stories in our small lives, our intricate journeys, reflections, interjections, modes of travel, heavy hold-baggage and carry-ons.”  

Blood Wine or Honey, photographed by Manav Shankar

“Mystery Operator” is a low-key and gentle (-ish) ease into the trip, deep house by way of punk-funk, the smooth melodic bliss of the former parleying for terms with the jerk and rouse of the latter, percussively. The seal is set by declamatory vocal styles, full of the crisp precision of a London accent; Albarn meets Mick Jones meets Dury (either vintage) meets the Daniel Miller of “Warm Leatherette”. But there’s more layered in with precision and thought; clicky bass, a woozy backing chorale. Hot Chip’s cousin with the nicked Suzuki and stall at the market who lives for the dancefloor. You think you have the measure of the tune and you sooo haven’t, as it breaks down to a second passage that’s wonky rave-funk, bass a-slapping and cinematic.

Jean Daval, maybe better known to the musical cognoscenti as Preservation and who’s worked with Mos Def, MF Doom, RZA, GZA, Raekwon and more, was asked aboard to lay down some beats for “Messenger”, which he duly did, which were then reflected back at the world through James and Joseph’s mirror crack’d; the result being a crisp electrofunk sway, as with the opener lyrically treating of alienation, detachment: “There’s nothing more lonely than a room / Nothing disconcerts me more than when we Zoom.” Add in a tickle of leftfield sax, a chatter of busy sequencers and those crisply London vocals, and if you’d found this on 12″ crate-digging in Soho marked “Scarce ’79 UK post-funk” you’d have it away. I’m gonna be controversial here, and say I’m getting Landscape, circa “Einstein A Go Go” – totally in a good way.

“The Fragility” wiggles its toes in the waters of syndrums, last heard, bar Khruangbin, back in headier late Seventies days used with such aplomb, and is tailor-made for a low-ceilinged basement after the correct amount of shots. The lyrical spill is stream-of-conscious, post-The Streets (or should that be pre-?) and captivating. Underworld as soundtracked by Monsieur Barson from Madness, it’s shadowy and excellently wonky pop.

The duo call on a blue-chip songwriting star for “Attraction”, that accolade going to KT Tunstall, whom the band are old friends with. She drapes her fine voice in a swooping hook over a groove that’s part cinematic funk, but wild and untrammeled around the edges, grandstanding with weird licks and runs; a Bond theme for a fractured dream. Flutes hum and drums busy with bounce and a little spicing of wonkiness.

“Riot Bard”, a digital only track, fair hurries forward on spoken-sung propellers, Latinate shuffle and robotic squeak; a chase sequence that makes you want to swing your shoulders that’s interjected with fine woodwind skirl from a North African souk.

Neighbourhood Recordings’ composer Kamal brings the neon Afro nous to the single “Testing Time”, in cahoots with the soulful tones of Zoë Brewster, something of a scion of the Nineties’ Hong Kong scene. It’s properly a standout track, a deep groove of Afrobeat, chunky bass, ever shifting rhythmically, Zoë leading a chant of “Why can’t you be / Happy for me, happy for me?”, all wrapped round in Seventies’ funk synth, cool jazz chords, trippier electronica; and it packs a personal-political punch, as she launches a soulful tirade: “We did not foresee / The petite bourgeoisie / Would be so deadly / In their polity / Their ambiguity”. It’s a trip, an odyssey of hot movement, drawing together the strands of so many musics. If they were cutting that record for the Voyager satellite now, what better illustration of so many musics of Planet Earth could you find?

The accompanying video – and that odd gem you can watch, as is traditional, down by the sales kickers there – was created and directed by young Hong Kong animator Wyatt Lau Tsun Wai and reveals Zoë, Joseph and James as plastinated deep fakes, avatars of themselves in the control of the song.

And so, as is muchly a thing in these times of vinyl revival, the return of the two sides, we move into a deeper phase of the record, a more hallucinatory, looser state.

Another digital-only track comes in “I Shall Rush Out As I Am”; sorry, wax heads. It features guesting groove from Janice Lau and former ZTT label boss Paul Morley – y’know, the guy who brought us The Art of Noise (and there’s more than just guest appearance common ground with that band, I think, in their hyperactively idea-laden groovy pranksterism). The track is based on the words and the spirit of sci-fi writer, satirist and radical feminist Joanna Russ and presents as a crisply delivered polemic, Janice spilling forth a manifesto in sultry cut-glass over a sheared jazz-funk, all bass harmonics and mild skronk. “We’re all screwed,” she intones as percussion itches. James Chance, A Certain Ratio, Pigbag, The Flying Lizards, all inform an off-kilter cracker.

The final trio of tracks all stem from the fifth letter. “Embers” hovers into view on Far Eastern flute and complementary strings, a temple ball of meditative melody that abrades and scours and thrums towards Tim Hecker as it wears on. I wasn’t expecting that. “Embrasure” segues in, and stays with the flute, although it takes a more African twist and crumbles before a muscular jazz break, picking up companions in shape of some deep bass, morphs gently into conscious electro circa maybe ’78. And yup: I wasn’t expecting that either.

“Echt Embrace” comes as a third phase, big, big beats leading you on into the kinda world Jimi Tenor has been visiting of late, a shimmy of the hips, North African intervals and melodies ladled on generously as samba percussion shuffle and throaty synth bass propel you on. And: fin.

DTx2 is a really varied and far-ranging album, and if you had a record shop or record library, twould be difficult to know where to shelve it; and maybe that’s the point. It’s pretty jazzy, but more in an Afro way; it’s pretty experimental, in quite a punk-funk way; it’s oftentimes very world groove, but in a really outwardly exploding way; it’s properly old-skool pop, in a prankster way; it grooves, in a weird way.

Never mind the kitchen, it’s an album you’d probably find holding forth in the corridor at parties; or, eyebrow arched, a fine, fine drink to quaff, standing behind the hatstand, wearing a bear’s head or something. Damn intriguing.

Blood Wine or Honey’s DTx2 will be released digitally and on vinyl by Bastard Jazz on June 25th and is available to pre-order now at their Bandcamp page.

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