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Tunes of Negation
Reach the Endless Sea Joseph Burnett , October 23rd, 2019 09:34

Shackleton returns – under a new 'Tunes of Negation' moniker – and it sounds like nothing else on earth, finds Joseph Burnett

Sam Shackleton has always stood amongst the myriad producers that gained fame and attention in the wake of dubstep’s mid-2000s emergence. Take ‘Moon Over Josef’s Burial’ or ‘Asha in the Tabernacle’ from 2009’s 3 EPs: the diving bell bass at the time favoured by so many of Shackleton’s contemporaries is largely circumvented in favour of a more brittle, expansive sound whilst the percussion owes less to UK garage and more to polyrhythmic textures from Africa and Asia.

From that release-onwards Shackleton’s music became increasingly disorientating, edging away from the dancefloor (where it possibly never really belonged) into more abstract, formalist territory taking in a wide array of influences. In many respects, Reach the Endless Sea, the first release under the Tunes of Negation moniker, represents something of a culmination for this esoteric journey, at least until the next one.

Which makes the fact that Sam Shackleton has obfuscated himself behind a pseudonym all the more intriguing. A name like Tunes of Negation suggests a merging with the very music he is creating and as such these five tracks are some of the most immersive electronic-that-is-more-than-electronic music you’ll hear. Shackleton’s progression towards extended electro-acoustic pieces was already in evidence on Sferic Ghost Transmits, his 2017 album with vocalist Vengeance Tenfold, as was the increasingly esoteric nature of the sonic environments he creates. From the bizarre artwork and title to the washes of organ, chimes, synths, vocals and effects that make up Reach the Endless Sea’s five tracks, this is Shackleton toying with both the afterbirth of dubstep and the long-established parameters of progressive rock.

Opener ‘The World is a Stage / Reach the Endless Sea’ pairs Shackleton with Heather Leigh whose operatic vocal turn throws down a gauntlet of gravitas on proceedings. Her wavering, effects-touched voice evokes Buffy Sainte-Marie’s on the latter’s seminal Illuminations album, and there’s a similar quasi-religious undertone to the words Leigh sings. Her voice ghosts along on a bed of organ swirls and tingling chimes before percussionist Takumi Motokawa kicks up a storm of gagaku drumming over seesawing synth lines and clanging bells. The overall atmosphere is that of a sacred event, a summoning of spirits or a clamour to unseen gods. If you’ve ever wondered what Yes would have sounded like had they teamed up with This Heat rather than the Buggles (and who hasn’t), ‘The World is a Stage / Reach the Endless’ might be a close approximation.

Reach the Endless Sea has – perhaps unintentionally – tapped into an eddying trend in underground music that is reaching towards what trumpeter and ambient composer Jon Hassell called the ‘Fourth World’ way back in the 70s and 80s. Avoiding the trappings of ‘world music’ pastiche, ‘Fourth World’ suggests a pathway out into the stars and inwards into the psyche, creating a sound world where reality and imagination collide. ‘Tundra Erotic’ takes up this tendency, whether by design or accident, as minimal wooden percussion and hand drums form a slender bedrock for drifting organ and synth drones and disembodied vocalisations, as if Shackleton and his crew are imagining the musical tradition of some far-off planet. The hand drums pick up the pace with motorik insistence and the whole piece slips into an almost mantra-like state of hypnotic repetition. ‘Nowhere Ending Sky’ is more exclamatory, as sampled voices deride humanity’s inability to connect with its own emotions and a sinister sci-fi synth melody (à la Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien soundtrack) leads into a cascade of deep vocal sighs. It’s an immense composition, as befits its title and its evocation of deep space. Or is it of the depths of the human brain? You decide. Reach the Endless Sea continues this progression into outer/inner depths across its hour-long duration, the exploratory visions of Hassell and Ash Ra Tempel refracted through the electronic language of twenty-first century technology.

An album as dense, varied and mysterious as Reach the Endless Sea will mean different things to different people. It’s a journey and an experience, something to surrender to or pick apart depending on your character and emotions. At key moments, such as the brief but stirring industrial techno midpoint of ‘Rückschlag / Rising, then Resonant’, Tunes of Negation hits pure transcendence. This album sounds like little else out there right now. Strap in to fly towards the stars that sit in your mind’s eye.

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