Outside of dance music, Sam Shackleton isn’t quite the household name the aforementioned form would have him be, but even beyond the British producer’s ties to rarified strands of bass music he’s become a shorthand for an oily shade of taciturn, world music-informed beat-oriented weirdness. On their mega-long debut earlier this year, London dubstep collective, LHF, sounded like they’d stumbled across Shack in Dubai and Demdike Stare might be scary, but Shackleton sounds like he’s been to West Africa while the British duo has only had nightmares about it. 2010’s Three EPs served as a hard-lined, spiderweb-meeting-at-the-middle, Shack-purified debut and last year’s excellent collaboration with Pinch, simply titled Pinch & Shackleton, helped massage Shackleton’s aesthetic touchstones into something altogether approachable; as if Rob Ellis had been helping the Berlin-resident with some assimilation initiative to come out of whatever darkened, tangled mystical hovel he usually resides to smile at all the shiny people (without too much success, thankfully).
Music For the Quiet Hour/The Drawbar Organ EPs box set adds to the flagship material released on Shackleton’s own label, Woe to the Septic Heart, from earlier this year with three new 12″s forming their own ten-track, hour and ten minute bushwhack chronicle (The Drawbar Organ EPs) while supplying another self-contained, conceptually-minded sixty minutes (Music For The Quiet Hour). Both ends of the set are Shackleton, but Shackleton in an overzealously exploratory yet patiently methodical mood. No one’s ever called Shack economic in regard to track lengths, but Drawbar boasts an 11-minute cut while Quiet Hour builds up to its longest 21-minute one. It’s probably best to approach Quiet Hour and Drawbar as their own separate documents. They do share cool, low-lit, sparsely populated atmospheres, but each works within its own preconceived conceptual perimeters and Quiet Hour is a much more experiential and ambient affair.
The Drawbar Organ EPs solidifies itself around the titular Italian drawbar organ, sliding along warm, fermented bass tones and malformed night-ghast analog timbres while shuddering, shadowy synths play like swooping nightmares around a crush of isolated percussion. Drawbar is more recognizable as Shackleton than Quiet Hour, but even within the context of “beatmaker” the Englishman is playing a different game here than he has in the past. These tracks are more patient and still part of a larger structure. It’s easy to feel like a traveler listening to The Drawbar Organ EPs, the monochromatic topography constantly animated into smoking dream shapes as you float along a thick, quietly ravenous current suppressing a chorus of moaning and rumbling voices beneath its surface.
Tracks like “Seven Present Tenses” with its globular hand drums and “Powerplant” with its wailing, crumbling vocal sample are less concerned with kinetics than they are tension and trembling muscle tissue despite holding fast to familiar Shackleton aesthetics and atmospherics. “Touched” hangs back, its constant quivering hi-hat waiting fearfully for a finality that never comes while ringing Asian percussion flourishes hover like throbbing, plasmic balls of light in an eclipsed, rusty darkness. “Test Tubes” is astonishing, building from quieted apocalyptic daybreak – muted, cancerous sun leaching light instead of emanating it – into a complex manifold of organic percussion loops and a forest-dense layering of vocal samples and asymmetrical synthesizers. At one point a helium-voiced vocal crops up to hang out like an indigenous extraterrestrial cooing out of sight, obscured by blunted, burnt treetops. Drawbar shows a kind of harrowing, skeletal long form complexity, built from the first minute of a track to impact the last. The songs here are similar to Burial’s “Ashtray Wasp” from earlier this year – the kind of thing you have to just hold your nose and hope for the best as the scope is beyond immediate comprehension. It certainly pays off. Shackleton has really outdone himself.
But as satisfying as The Drawbar Organ EPs would be on their own, Music For The Quiet Hour is something else altogether. Shackleton’s fingerprints are further submerged and instead the production operates on a more micro/macrocosmic level. Comparisons to Demdike Stare or Zoviet France come easily for its blurred allegiances to sprawled, evil-hued ceremonial ambient music and serpentine techno structures. But there’s a grander, more operatic vision at work on Quiet Hour. Shackleton employs vocalist Vengeance Tenfold to work some spoken word recitations of a pro-music, dystopic tribal future’s downfall across five tracks – five parts of a single composition split only, I assume, for convenience’s sake. The sixty minutes barrel through pulsing inverted drone to digital noise to jumpy, minimal organic dub techno. Shackleton’s sensibilities are all here, but structurally he’s working in a realm where any sense of a familiar Shack-centric form gets squashed and dusted.
Part’s “1” and “2” move at quietly breakneck speeds, jouncing around organ0-synthetic percussion warbles that burst into a raw blackness like seizing sun flares before settling into throbbing, unconscious ambience, percussion beaming in out of the oppressive low end. Tenfold delivers his first raspy sermon after a cascade of white noise and stillness before the track lifts off again. “Part 3” is Quiet Hour‘s staunch mid-section, playful, hangnail samples and religious vocals pushing upward before giving way to more menacing ambiance. “Part 4” is the piece’s assentive 21-minute climax where Shackleton works like he’s trying to claw his way out of some crumbling, echoing metropolis, the sounds of oppressed cultural artifacts battling with deep-seated mechanical stanchions. The track sets a curiously muted pace for its first half, weaving a matrix pattern of course changes before descending into an extended wavering quiet while Tenfold exposes institutionalized conspiracies. Everything quietly blows back up again with “Part 5”.
Music For The Quiet Hour/The Drawbar Organ EPs find Shackleton broadening the genre of one he’s occupied over the past half decade or so and shrugging off whatever loose ties he’s had to bass and techno. The set can be scary and unpredictable in a way that’s almost alienating, but there’s something inviting about the unfamiliarity of it all. This music awards curiosity, and, for those more exploratory listener’s, the promise of what’s around the next bend is a thrill unto itself. The set might get a little long in the tooth, even in its individual parts, but on both parts Shackleton is treading fresh ground in a whole different solar system than the rest of dance music and all its various eccentrics.