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V/A - Soundboy Punishments

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Artist: V/A

Album: Soundboy Punishments

Label: Skull Disco

Review date: Nov. 27, 2007

Over the last several years, Shackleton and Appleblim have been running the Skull Disco label, hosting nights at the Forward Club and, cranking out a series of genre-defining 12"s that have defined the darker, more ethnic-tinged experimental edge of dubstep. This two-CD set serves as a summary of their aesthetic so far, collecting 18 of those singles, plus the album-stopping, 18-minute Ricardo Villalobos remix of "Blood on My Hands." Together, these cuts encompass a stark, dreamlike nexus of pre- and post-industrial sounds, hand-drums and camel bells living in the same space as synth washes, explosive blots of bass next to Arabic chants.

Shackleton's tracks are, in general, sparser and more percussive, built around weight-shifting, body-moving rhythms and drones. His "Hamas Rule," which opens the first disc, envelopes serpentine drum cadences and snake-rattling tambourine rolls in velvety darkness, broken only by occasional reedy sustained notes. As music, it is restrained to the point of abstraction, all beat, with nothing else to hold onto. And yet it's deeply sensual; hips move, shoulders shift almost involuntarily. With "Hypno Angel," a haunting female voice (North African perhaps) keens over complex, hand-slapped percussive rhythms. It's totally primitive at its core, yet rumbling with nearly subliminal bass tones and shot through with careening, dive-bombing arcs of synthesized sounds.

Appleblim, by contrast, seems less rigorously minimal, and more prone to extended washes of sound and altered vocals. His "Gold and Silver," coming late on the second disc, juxtaposes hard electronic snare beats and buzzing ominous synths with a woman's otherworldly voice. "Mystical Warrior," too, is haunted by echoing, not-quite-human voices that float over ominous beats and computer-generated blips and bleeps. Both Shackleton and Appleblim seem to be concerned with the intersection of the sensual and the spiritual. You can dance to most of these tracks, yet there's a mystical quality wrapped into the beat.

Shackleton's "Blood on My Hands" closes out the first disc, leading immediately into the Villalobos remix of the same cut on disc two. Together these two tracks are the clear highpoints of the whole collection. Shackleton's version is a loose retelling of the 9/11 disaster, a murmured "When I see the towers fall, fall," rising over eerie tones and an insistent hand-drum rhythm. It has an elegiac feel to it, leaving lots of space between phrases, so that we can consider, on our own terms, how to think about the song and the event it commemorates. It's a mesmerizing cut, as moving as anything on the compilation. The Villalobos mix is even better, with Shackleton's voice intensified a little, the drum rhythms echoed by a percolating electro-beat. It becomes less about 9/11 and more about mortality in general, the impermanence of even the most solid things and the persistence of the human spirit. "Flesh is weak, forms break down, and cannot last forever," Shackleton observes, not mourning death so much as looking beyond it. (Shackleton talks about this whole spiritual element of his work, as well as a lot of other interesting stuff, in an WFMU interview that you can hear here.)

By Jennifer Kelly

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