Music For The Quiet Hour / The Drawbar Organ EPs
, May 16th, 2012 08:21
Where do you go from zero? Mirroring the demise of Skull Disco and the depraved sketchings of Zeke Clough's artwork, Sam Shackleton's music committed a gruesome and protracted suicide over the course of his label's final releases, self-eviscerating in perversely gratifying slow-mo. By the time of Soundboy's Suicide Note at the end of 2008, little was left save dry bones, musty air and tortured babbling, like psychic residue left stubbornly clinging to his music's withered corpse.
Surgical instruments wiped clean, so to speak, the next stage for Shackleton has been to slowly breathe colour and life back into his music. The results have audibly pushed further into a remarkable self-generated space. Three EPs bore some of the hallmarks of his adopted Berlin home, contrasting an unusual depth of field with crisp percussion pushed hard to the fore. From there his CD for Fabric - a document of his live set - further saturated the mix, and his chops as composer and arranger were laid bare in collaboration with Pinch. 'Rooms Within A Room', from the duo's album released through Honest Jon's in December last year, was an astonishingly sophisticated piece of dance music: out of its Russian doll-like structure whirled several distinct iterations in a scant five minutes, a rare compositional move in a field where far fewer ideas are frequently stretched out over far longer periods of time.
Less than six months after that album's release, all of these developments culminate in Sam Shackleton's most ambitious piece of work to date. Music For The Quiet Hour/The Drawbar Organ EPs landed a surprise on the doorstep a few weeks ago, three LPs and a CD boxed in a typically retina-scorching set of artwork from Clough. It's taken this long just to get a handle on the tracks contained within, which draw from every period of his production career but pack the midrange still tighter: between your usual Shackletonian staples (psychotic looped chatter, punishing bassweight) weave cartwheeling organ figures, whooshing spy drones and angry hornet buzz. Across the nine tracks that make up the three Drawbar Organ 12"s, nearly every inch of space is filled with something. The overall impression is of a lamp shone directly into the darkened corners of Shackleton's music, casting all its hidden detail in sharp relief.
That's thanks largely to the presence of the titular instrument itself. The drawbar organ's runs of thick, impenetrable notes, rich with stacked overtones and near-imperceptible dissonances, prove an ideal foil to Shackleton's characteristic sprays of non-Western percussion and penetrative sub-bass frequencies. That's partly an aesthetic thing: there's neat symbolism in his choice of instrument, an old and very hands-on method of synthesis that in most peoples' books would be considered obsolete due to advances in modern technology (not to mention the Hammond organ's dubious associations with the wild excesses of seventies prog). There's something similarly archaic or old-school about Shackleton's overall approach, both the man himself - ever the well-dressed, traditional English gentleman, a comparative rarity in dance music circles - and his music's morbid imagery and skeletal rhythms. The organ's funereal chords, evocative of church services - where its monstrous resonance is meant to generate shock and awe in the presence of an all-powerful deity - couldn't seem better suited to his music's grave concerns.
It's clearly been playing on his mind for a while, too - he raised the subject in an interview with Wire at the end of 2010. "Me and my wife, it sounds so un-rock & roll to say it, we went to a church organ recital about two months ago," he said. "It always makes me laugh, as if sub-bass was some kind of modern thing. Those guys in the church have been listening to sub-bass since years ... When I was in the church and listening to this organ recital, I was thinking, 'You know what, if you came from the sticks, and you came to the big city for the first time in your life, before people had real means of powered transportation ... [hearing the organ] must have been mindblowing'."
Indeed, there's something monolithic about the Drawbar Organ EPs, where melody saturates the midrange and glues everything into place. However, the organ is used with surprisingly versatility - these tracks expand significantly on the drones of Three EPs tracks like 'Moon Over Joseph's Burial', at times conjuring up an entire imaginary orchestra's worth of instrumentation. Notes often arrive in clusters - arpeggios that soar through long parabolic arcs between conga hits, or repeated motifs that cluster around one another, locking to a Reich-ian common pulse for a while before shifting out of phase again. They often make for some of Shackleton's most melodramatic and claustrophobic music to date. 'Seven Present Tenses' is as hammy as they come: it plays out like your stereotypical haunted house music, notes stacking up in harmonic minor sequences, clattering drums suggesting a runaway ghost train. In lesser hands its overtly showy nature might be considered a negative; here it serves to highlight the exaggerated theatrical humour that's always been present in Shackleton's music. (This is, after all, a man who once raised a ghost choir to sing a horribly distended version of "He's got the whole world in his hands" on a club techno track.) Elsewhere, a lighter touch keeps dancefloor momentum intact, with the breakneck pace of tracks like 'Katyusha' and 'Test Tubes' softened by thin wisps of marimba, woodwind and, across the former's eleven minute length, cheekily jaunty flute figures.
It's telling that the set's other disc, Music For The Quiet Hour, is the first of Shackleton's solo releases that he's self-described as an actual 'album'. It makes sense, given Shackleton's penchant for stretching his music out into longform (especially live), that he would choose to put together something like this: an unbroken hour of music, presented in five movements and bound by a characteristically apocalyptic narrative. Where the Drawbar EPs squeeze all the air out of his music, Quiet Hour's stretched structure allows for more space, slowly escalating from zero, passing through a prickly web of dissonant arpeggios in movements two and three, and eventually slowing to stasis. The dancefloor's been left behind almost entirely here. Although the same hallmarks remain they're assembled in different ways: sub-bass is a grounding heartbeat pulse, earthing the music; higher register percussion recedes into the mix, replaced with static and synthetic struck melodies; Vengeance Tenfold's 'the end is nigh!' narrative is delivered - appropriately - in reverse. The entire hour unfurls with uneasy grace - it's forced to battle through great walls of distortion, spiraling melodic loops again recalling Steve Reich, and in its fourth movement, 21 minutes that flit from scorched-earth ambient to muffled techno pulse.
So especially in light of Quiet Hour, it would appear that Pinch & Shackleton formed a vanguard of sorts. These recent recordings highlight Shackleton's strong alignment with British industrial music. One of the most rewarding aspects of that lineage - which began with Throbbing Gristle, before blossoming outward into Carter Tutti, Coil and their modern descendants - is its deep grounding in, and concern for, matters of the body. That manifests both in their musics' physical effect upon listeners, and its preoccupations: meditative and altered states (drug induced and otherwise), sexuality, neurosis, the inseparable connections between body, mind and sense of self. Having been infected early on with the dub virus, and thus bathing dancers in wave after sensual wave of body-bashing bass, Shackleton's music has been addressing similar ideas for quite some time. But over the last three years his polyrhythmic live sets have sharpened into unerringly effective instruments of domination - I've witnessed him send a peak-time Saturday night fabric crowd into frothy, flailing fervour - and his tracks have come to display a particularly British set of characteristics: by turns earthily witty, fatalistic, earnest and cynical, but always touched with an undercurrent of optimism.
So these latest recordings bring to mind Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson and Jhonn Balance's work as Coil. They've started to bring all of the above traits, which were heightened to skin-prickling, erotic intensity in the best of Coil's music, to the table. Pockmarked with chimes and the striking of various instruments meant to aid meditation - calls to secular prayer and contemplation - they ripple through the body via sub-bass, forcing physical submission and locking body rhythms directly to the surrounding earth and air. Far from the toxic lure of the church organ, this subtle, very British mysticism feels instead part of a far deeper and longer push to reclaim notions of spirituality back from organised religion, and ground them in earthly, bodily, biological reality. And in a modern world designed especially to part self from body, reinforcing the Cartesian duality in the service of hyper-capitalism and impulse control, who better than Sam Shackleton to take up that quest?