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Three Songs No Flash

An Explorer Of The Northern Gothic: Shackleton Live
Daniel Baker , June 8th, 2011 05:39

After a night at the Highlife 1st Birthday Apocalypse in Glasgow, Daniel Baker muses on the mysterious experience of seeing Shackleton live. Picture by Tjeerd van Erve/Gonzo (Circus)

There has been a point in every Shackleton set that I have witnessed where I realize that I am becoming increasingly dissociated. Not from the music itself. Not from all the forked percussive intensity, nor from seabed ripple rangoli bass weight. But rather from the event itself, from my own experience of it. Somewhere along the line, I lose track. The absurdly declarative tabla loops and incisive shards of pure texture rear up and induce a mild form of synaesthesia. The brain descends into liminal shape association and abstracted referencing. This ain’t some hippy gibberish bullshit, mind. Far from it. Rather, it is evocative of ritual, an unintentionally esoteric idiosyncrasy. I tend to put it down to how far Shackleton has managed to create an atmosphere in which he can detach himself from hype. For he has now surely isolated himself from the hyperaccelerated croneyism of the UK bass milieu to which he has always paid only qualified, tangential lip service.

These days, his performances are more redolent of an anti-dogmatic and spiritually complex strand of peculiarly English radicalism. These things are inherently subjective, but my own little timeline of heroic anglocentrictiy might arbitrarily stretch from John Donne through to Coil and Aphex Twin via William Blake. Shackleton’s music shares with these rosetta stones of iconoclasm a syncretic approach to process that forges smouldering new identities. Let’s face it: the oft mentioned dub science and avant techno impulses so routinely touted upon his emergence are no longer useful (or particularly interesting) reference points. As he takes to the stage at the Art School tonight, the headline act of the Highlife's first birthday celebrations, it's almost as if technology has finally caught up with a latent subcultural mindset. Specifically, the aspirations of the groups who envisaged a heathen blend of ethnic fusion and industrial modes from the dawn of the 80s. What’s most striking though, is how much more humanity, how little self awareness there appears to be in the evolution of the Shackleton fable.

This isn’t merely a more refined plundering of 23 Skidoo's genre touchstones. The set up is streamlined, Shackleton working his own mixer to maintain control of deceptively unassuming sections, all of a sudden wrenching out a concrete caterwaul or triggering a shift in tone. The control of FX is spartan, tactile. A wee nudge of a reverb tail here, an increased clarity of snare hit there. The sheer obsessiveness of his attention to rhythmic detail, ravishingly captured on his recent Fabric CD, is cross-bred with an anti ironic emotional investment. Maybe it's the earnestness of this tunnel vision that conjures up in my head a vision of Sleazy Pete and John Balance, approving apparitions looking on during the service.

But where Coil's magick – beautiful, powerful stuff as it was - was hewn from pagan conceptualism, Shackleton manages to evoke ceremony through the simple detachment of his routine. Naggingly, for someone who has emigrated several times and employs such a culturally diverse range of source material, I can't dislodge my knee-jerk positioning of his skittering body music as quintessentially northern English. Down-pitched, lurking with the downtrodden. Doff a cap to normality but seamlessly interweave mythos and tweak the collective folk memory. What sounds like desiccated fragments of ‘Hypno Angel’, one of the standouts from the Fabric set, here rub up alongside familiar motifs, recognisable as the constituent parts of tracks from his back catalogue, intimate yet entirely other.

In the early to mid 90s this odd semi-genre of fiction infiltrated the mainstream, perhaps reaching its apex with transmission of The League Of Gentleman (and necessarily caricaturing itself in the process). Retrospectively it seems like a proto-Ghost Box northern gothic, deeply suspicious of adulthood and the more insular aspects of life in market towns. It often involved the exposition of sinister, magical or cultish practices rumbling below the postcard vistas of deepest Lancashire. It depicted submerged, sinister practices woven into the fabric of the landscape, villages as secretive places masquerading as modern but psychically untouched by time. CBBC does The Wicker Man, essentially. A new generation was exposed to the visionary novels of Alan Garner, with a BBC adaptation of Elidor arriving a few years after the terrifying Russell T Davies-penned Century Falls. These fictions induced an intense anxiety in me as a kid. These places were on the outskirts of Manchester, my home town. I travelled to them to play obscure junior football teams, on school trips, to visit family. I can't shake these semi-repressed memories as Shackleton layers elements onto and around each other, settling momentarily into the propulsive floatation device of Fireworks. It's like he's mainlined the mise-en-scene of those suspicious sandstone hinterlands. It's always just about to get dark, everything is in transition, a kind of flux that is so subtle and unnerving that it's possible to imagine becoming corralled into its primitive customs with the rest of the believers.

There have been a lot of esoterically inclined electronic records of late that I have been particularly taken by - Konx Om Pax's Display Copy and Hyetal's Broadcast especially. They both appeal largely due to intensely patternistic motifs and odd cyclical quirks of programming. But those efforts are retreats into qualitatively better worlds, child universes that resound with pitch bent bitstreams. Neither push such an authentic form of symbolic mystery as Shackleton does tonight. Those drums. Seriously. Trademark Middle Eastern salvage jobs and raga drones, so crisply realized. The physicality of the solar plexus kick drum punch makes submission inevitable. Significantly, he does things with percussion patterns that are not, on first hearing, particularly showy. But his embellishments whizz around the mix like flies unnoticed around a pint glass at the dawn of summer. Unhurried, omnipresent templates. Dissipating patterns, signifiers that meld into each other or plateau out into a new direction. The result could be an anaesthetic if it wasn’t for the ritualism. It's so possessed of its own ecosystem that when he drops the familiar clipped incantation of ‘Deadman’ ("“Everyone starts from point one") it's almost like you have been jerked out of prayer, back into the real world.

A Shackleton set harnesses oblique reference points, beautifully organic in its own evolution yet paradoxically shrouded in alien emblems. But none of this is to the detriment of functionality. This is a custom with a practical, physiological use. Despite proceedings being brought to a close just before Fortified take over the Art School for a Swamp 81/Outlook Festival showcase, there can be little doubt that Shackleton's excommunication by choice still yields quintessential club music. The sound is so overpoweringly propulsive that all its myriad forms of experimentation are to be considered after the fact of the dance. I'm not sure music this streamlined has ever made me want to lose it quite so publicly. When it comes down to it, beyond me attempting to cast elements of tonight’s set as ancestrally post-Industrial, the form of ritual it is gesturing at most completely is still the rave, the ultimate example of a multicultural British synthesis. The reaction tonight is rapturous, if slightly stunned and tinged with the immediate worry of having to negotiate the real world once the lights come up. The man himself seems genuinely delighted by the response. For over an hour this evening, typecast methods are ignored and the hidden reverse is exposed.

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