Shackleton settles upon a sound that epitomized emerging dubstep as much as it transcended genre limits.
In retrospect, the original dubstep movement was always more of a loosely aligned confederation of independent artists than a clearly identifiable sound. These days, nearly all of the first-wave dubstep’s brightest luminaries tend to be defined as outliers, suggesting that perhaps the center of this seismic revolt in the UK “hardcore continuum” was, appropriately for such a despondent form of music, a supermassive black hole of sub-bass. Just as Mala carved out a niche for heavily dub-indebted bass weight and Burial mutated dubsteps’s streetwise darkness into grayscale tech-soul, so too did Sam Shackleton quickly settle upon a sound that epitomized emerging dubstep as much as it transcended genre limits. His careful threading of samples of chanting vocals, brittle woodwinds and mallet percussion, all subsumed under perilous, dank pockets of bass-weight negative space, placed him in a lineage of future-primitive artists such as Coil and Muslimgauze as much as it did anyone spinning records at FWD>> in its heyday.
By the time that Shackleton entered the 2010s, original dubstep had largely faded as its harsher and more commercially successful variant began to spread over the Atlantic. Having symbolically shuttered his own label, Skull Disco, Shackleton moved on to ever more ambitious projects, from an all-originals Fabric mix CD to a collaborative LP with dubstep pioneer Pinch. His most experimental release came in the form of Music for the Quiet Hour / The Drawbar Organ EPs, a box set of three 12″ vinyl and one CD. The former consisted of the EPs built around the use of the titular instrument, a device that predated modern audio mixing techniques with analog sliders for volume control. Shackleton’s music always relied on a feeling of ancient, primitive orchestration to achieve its timeless sound, and the Drawbar Organ EPs are a testament to his belief that the most cutting-edge music coming out of the UK’s ever-shifting electronic scene has roots far deeper than most think to acknowledge.
Opener “(For the) Love of Weeping” could almost pass as a Skull Disco classic, with its wide gulfs of bass space at the center of a composition of clattering percussion and distended vocal samples, yet where Shackleton’s earlier cuts emphasized gaps and negative space, here one can hear a step up in his polyrhythmic complexity. Though heavy, bottomless drones gurgle at the center of the track, the emphasis is placed not on the bass but the interlacing lines of percussion, synthesizer and vocals that form a suspended web above it. “Test Tubes” is all scraping metal and artificial nature ambiance over a digital fog that obscures any solid ground. Handclaps sound so elastic that you can hear sweat spraying off of each hit. The organ is woven subtly throughout the mix, used to provide pulses of grim mood as a foundation for Shackleton to deepen his already dense array of percussion and synthesizer effects.
Remarkably, the EPs show the producer finding ways to alter his core style in ways that update them for the post-dubstep fallout without ever sounding like they are following trends. “Seven Present Tenses” sounds like a cyberpunk future extrapolated from the hellish ancient cult societies that Shackleton conjures elsewhere. It twinkles and beeps over low chords that grind away in the distance, as catchy as it is discomfiting. Likewise, “Wish You Better” mutates the core Skull Disco elements into something closer to disco than nearly anything that appeared on the label. Bright percussion gives a rhythmic underpinning to hisses of white noise. “Katyusha” finds Shackleton expanding his pseudo-mythic sound to craft future-primitive tribal music. Flutes pierce the space between thickly layered handclaps and drum-circle percussion that regularly drops out to make space for organ chords or percolating bass. About halfway through the 11-minute odyssey, the track breaks into bright, repetitive keyboard patterns that sound like Philip Glass being remixed into a club banger as hi-hats and laser-beam synths dart around it. Shackleton was already one of the most forward-thinking talents of the 2000s electronic scene, but these EPs find him moving fully and completely into a sound without peer, ignoring the UK’s turn back toward house and techno with an unclassifiable, timeless signature.
The CD, meanwhile, contained “Music for the Quiet Hour,” a 65-minute composition that, if anything, makes the Drawbar Organ EPs look relatively quaint by comparison. Divided across five tracks, the gargantuan suite slides through movements like a symphony, not so much using leitmotifs as taking an element from one track and radically mutating it into a new, distended form on another. The ambient howls and isolated click track of “Part 1” opens up into groaning noise that dumps into a flurry of percussion under female vocals in “Part 2.” The second track’s sudden brightening into shimmering chimes only precipitates an even greater fall into ominous drone and shrieking noise that dump into sine wave fluctuations where the earlier vocal sample gets dragged into the faint buzz of an insect. Apart from Vengeance Tenfold’s occasionally on-the-nose spoken-word apocalyptic pronouncements, “Music for the Quiet Hour” lets this mounting compositional tension convey all of its dread. As the music sidewinds, diverts and collapses in on itself, the overriding logic of the piece shines through, the ultimate reflection of the cancerous, Lovecraftian shapes of Zeke Clough’s cover art that always adorned Shackletons sleeves. The producer has gone on to ever richer sonic explorations, but it is “Music for the Quiet Hour” that marked the true dividing line between his outstanding early work and the truly singular music that he has only deepened in the intervening years.