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Shackleton - Three EPs

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Artist: Shackleton

Album: Three EPs

Label: Perlon

Review date: Oct. 20, 2009

It’s funny that when this decade started, the freshest sound was an exhumation of early British post-punk. At the time, it was hard to anticipate how thoroughly it would be re-examined and reconfigured. Liars, Interpol, and the like had already completed their first recordings by late 2000, but in the context of a Bush-Gore cliffhanger and the tech bubble bopping along, it was strictly retro pose. A year later, it became the right sound at a horrible time, a soundtrack for the tense exhaustion that still hangs in the air. As the disco-punk hybrid became more pervasive, it’s a bit sad that such an originally challenging approach would soon sound hackneyed.

At the decade’s end, dubstep, not post-punk, feels destined to be the legacy of the aughts, manifesting anxiety in a way that hand-me-down anti-Thatcherism could only approximate. It’s strange that it was fashioned independently from the same ingredients as post-punk: dance, dub and street-smart artiness. It can be as jarring as anything PIL or Neubaten took on, and it’s shown the same capacity to absorb influences from all over the map, be it the heavy metal grinds of Vex’d, bop horns in Benga or roots reggae sweetness rendered paranoid by LV. Dubstep’s constraints – hits on the first and third, tempos right in the middle – have proved overly generous. It’s forward-looking in a way that no revival sound can be.

Because it’s a mostly instrumental medium, however, ascribing dubstep with political intent can be a bit of a Rorschach test. One of the genre’s less ambiguous exceptions is Shackleton. With Arab-tinged works like “Hamas Rule” and the ghostly “When I see the towers fall” mantra of “Blood on My Hands,” this DJ has been specific about evoking turmoil. Three EPs, the functional title of this trio of 12”s, is cagey about being an album, but it’s as cohesive a set as anything that’s sprung from the dubstep scene.

These nine songs form an intense hour. The clicks, the echos, the subbass – it’s like standing on an iceshelf and hearing fissures break deep underfoot. The first track, “(No More) Negative Thoughts” is shaped around a snippet of what sounds like an American motivational speaker: “Every negative thought that attempts to enter your mind ... you acknowledge it ... then you remove it.” By the next track, the stray clause of “let go,” which seems to come from the same motivational tape, is looped. It’s swamped by warped voices of muezzin. It’s not a huge leap to hear an indictment. The path to the deserts of Iraq involved a lot of burying one’s head in the sand.

Shackleton is heavy on prelude. Some tracks are half over before the basslines come in. “Mountains of Ashes” takes its time before it adds any low-end to the tabla lead rhythm. But as the sound thickens, the tabla gains both reverb and decibels, the former moving it to the background, the later moving it forward. It’s a woozy effect, the audio equivalent of a lens zooming as the camera pulls back. That kind of production virtuosity sustains the wide-open passages. This is minimalism without much repetition.

It all climaxes with “Asha in the Tabernacle,” which takes up side five. The motivational speaker returns, but this time his voice is overrun by a Sunday school choir of “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands,” warped and echoed, bathed to sound like a Soviet anthem. This clash-of-faiths vibe may seem heavy or obvious, but it’s anything but.

Shackleton’s three EPs of death disco don’t come in a Metal Box, but first impressions suggest they could end up in close company. For a decade that’s about to expire, leaving us with a mess of an estate, this is a lament that’s soothing and startling.

By Ben Donnelly

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