Joseph Burnett On Shackleton's Sferic Ghost Transmits
, February 2nd, 2017 11:45
In Sam Shackleton's latest offering, Joseph Burnett finds a record occupying two spaces simultaneously – pushing both the legacy of Coil's post-industrial pagan folk tradition and testing a sense of "what might have been" for mid-to-late 00s dubstep
In 2015, German producer and Ostgut Ton founder Nick Höppner released an album of deep techno called Folk. Whilst the music was an interesting exercise in motorik trance, the title suggested a broader implication for electronic music: that it in essence represents a musical movement that brings people together in a shared idiom of storytelling. It may operate at a more liminal, even physical, level than the songs of, say Woody Guthrie or Sandy Denny, but it taps into a similar collective consciousness (and we can point to the countercultural aspect of the eighties rave scene as well). Höppner wasn’t really saying anything radical, however. Long before his album, the emergence of electronic instruments allowed esoteric, folk-inspired artists from German band Sand to UK post-industrial pagans Coil to delve deeper into the recesses of primeval traditions. And of course, the combination of electronica and folk could be seen as the musical DNA at the heart of the hauntology movement pioneered by Demdike Stare and the Ghost Box label.
Sam Shackleton’s recent output therefore pursues the line of a robust continuum, but his evolution is intriguing on a personal level. His earliest releases in the mid-to-late-noughties were indebted to – but certainly not restricted by – the dubstep trends of the moment, but over time his music has got more rhythmic and more expansive, culminating for some in last year’s Devotional Songs and its melange of angular minimal electronics and psychedelic world music flourishes. Critics immediately reached for Coil and even Current 93 as reference points, and this hint of occult folk was only further underlined by the length of the pieces and the presence of Ernesto Tomasini on vocals.
So has Shackleton become an electro-folk artist in the Coil mould? Only to an extent. His latest release, Sferic Ghost Transmits also features a vocalist, Vengeance Tenfold, and a more spacious use of synths than on his earliest work. I mentioned seventies German weird geniuses Sand earlier, and the moody, fuzzy synth opening to ‘Dive into the Grave’ sounds like it was sampled from their seminal ‘Helicopter’ track from their no less essential debut album Golem. Vengeance Tenfold has the deadened morosity of a John Balance, with less hysteria, and track titles such as ‘Five Demiurgic Options’ and ‘The Prophet Sequence’ suggest the kind of cultural diet that Demdike would appreciate.
But such arcane textures go hand-in-hand with Shackleton’s expertly-honed sense of composition and rhythm, and the aforementioned ‘Dive into the Grave’ is, despite ghostly vocal samples to go alongside Vengeance Tenfold’s ominous call to “Die before you die” and an array of sonic details such as chimes and organ, a track that could easily work on the dancefloor. It canters forwards on a flurry of toms, its relentless pace akin to Can at their most motorik, but with a synth/bass blend that is pure techno, even building up to a kick-and-snare pound that could easily drop into a fresh wave of hypnotic beats. Instead, the pace shifts downwards, the vocals taking the forefront of matters over ambient synths, but the club space of Shackleton’s beginnings is never far out of reach, another one of the album’s many ghosts.
Still, Shackleton’s is a broad palette, and on ‘Before the Dam Broke’ and ‘Five Demiurgic Options’ he turns his gaze eastwards, with chiming gamelan patterns and clanging gongs. On the latter, these recede into a gloomy dark ambient morass of distant voices and mutated synth over looped drum machine beats, whereas on ‘Before the Dam Broke’ insistent pads form a bedrock for Vengeance Tenfold’s mournful croon or circular rapping and Vangelis-esque synth surges. It’s practically sci-fi of the most dystopian variety, a gradual build up to match the track title’s portentous warning. ‘Spheric Ghost / Fear the Crown’ also features rustling chimes, this time initially alongside a choir and synth tones that seep into the mix like puffs of gas. These make way for industrial clatters and clanks over a minimalist ambient techno beat and ever-more-frenetic pads. Ambient, techno, traditional musics, even the ghost of dubstep future all contribute to Shackleton’s dizzying arsenal of sonic weaponry, but never once does it seem to be getting away from him, even as the track breaks the 15-minute mark. More than any of the weird song titles, oblique lyrics and nods to devotional traditions, this is what marks Shackleton out as a producer in control of his vision.
So, the question still stands: is Shackleton part of a broader picture of electronica working as a form of folk music, as Nick Höppner suggested? Hell, not long ago I was staking electro’s claim as a new, more exciting, form of black metal, so anything’s possible. But, as with all artists gifted with unique forms of inspiration, Sam Shackleton is tough to pin down. There’s certainly a moment on ‘Spheric Ghost / Fear the Crown’ when, with a scattergun of righteous techno beats, he deftly interrupts a grim, dark ambient moment featuring Vengeance Tenfold growling incoherently over his own looped chants that works so perfectly it feels like the piece is being beamed out of a dark pagan ritual taking place in a Berlin nightclub. And it’s of little doubt that the progress in technology has opened up wide avenues for artists like Shackleton (but also Demdike Stare, The Focus Group, Pye Corner Audio and the plethora of artists on the Folklore Tapes label) to create music that seems to patch directly, via a synth or laptop, into the dark void of history. And of course, Coil (and Sand, and a few others) laid the groundwork for this way back when. Equally, whilst Vengeance Tenfold’s lyrics are often elliptical, even unintelligible, the entirety of Sferic Ghost Transmits is smothered in a fug of tension and disquiet, even when those snares and kick drums whack into gear, which may not be political in the manner the folk of Woody Guthrie and Ewan MacColl was, but still carries an echo of our troubled times. So, in many ways, yes, Sferic Ghost Transmits is a pagan folk album, and Shackleton can take his place alongside a number of those artists mentioned.
Sferic Ghost Transmits, however, evinces the possibility of much more – as if Shackleton is deliberately teasing at the edges of genre conformity and then retreating elsewhere. I’ve noticed this on quite a few modern electronica albums: a sense that the artist involved is setting up those of us stuck in “definition limbo” for a fall. The endless shifts in tempo and texture on Sferic Ghost Transmits play to similar lines. Short closer ‘The Propher Sequence’ starts out promising to be, of all things, a synth-pop sashay in the grand style of new wave but quickly dissolves into a dense, morose dark ambient ballad.
Like Kuedo and J.G. Biberkopf last year, is this Shackleton trying to pierce the veil of dubstep’s legacy and see where it can go next, especially if paired with a singular vocalist (he’s no Balance, but Vengeance Tenfold is quite a striking singer. And no-one can match Balance, in fairness)? The power is in the mystery. Shackleton has both left the dancefloor behind and stretched its boundaries into new territories. He’s both embraced folk’s arcane promise and shied away from delving headfirst into Demdike/Ghost Box hauntology. In that respect, his new trajectory just might be the closest we’ve come to an echo of Coil’s post-Love’s Secret Domain soundworld. Which could just mean Sam Shackleton is a standard-bearer for something a lot more intricate and esoteric than words like “folk”, “electronica” or “techno” could ever encompass.