Wednesday, November 21, 2007
There’s something relentlessly fierce about the Shackleton sound, especially live. It’s totally no compromise, from the lack of breakdowns to the constrained sound palate: pitchbent sub, sharp percussion, jabbering just-out-of-earshot vocals and occasionally the odd synth/riff, but little more. If it had been made in the 80s, people would have drawn parallels with Thatcher’s Britain and seen punk style anti-establishment undertones. But in these apolitical times, it just seems like one man’s determination never to concede an inch.
Shackleton’s sound pushes my pleasure/pain boundaries, gets my head moving as fast as my feet and leaves me with a deep sense of respect for what he’s doing, though I do feel that sometimes I can reach an exposure limit with it. An hour long live set was full on.
On his recent Mary Anne Hobbs mix, he was described as someone who operates ‘on the fringes of dubstep.’ and perhaps in practical terms, it’s true. But yet Sam’s approach is totally central to everything that dubstep can and should be, and every new producer coming into the scene should watch how Shackleton developed his sound.
Firstly he spent time, like any enthusiast, down at the front of his chosen club by the DJ booth, which as symmetry would have it, was Plastic People, the very booth he’s now performing from. It’s said that the track that seemed to leave the biggest impression on him was Mala’s “Conference,” perhaps the Hatcha anthem during the era that his headlining FWD>> sets shaped dubstep as we now know it. Built from rolling congas and bongos, you can imagine this as a starting point for the Skull Disco sound, a kind of seed from which his untamed jungle grew.
But then Shackleton did what pretty much everyone in dubstep who wants to produce should do. He began to imagine the next step and the one beyond that. He asked himself, ‘how can I make this mine?,’ rather than Mala’s. He mutated “Conference,” rather than cloned it, and developed his own sound that you can now clearly hear as unique to him. Now I’m not saying this is easy to do, but it’s something everyone should be aiming at.
Recently here’s been a few people suggest that Shackleton isn’t dance music. I disagree. It’s just not DJ music, and that scares and confuses DJs. To me, a good selector shouldn’t be afraid to edge roll a tune: your selection as a DJ is just as important as your ability to make two tracks not sound like a horse galloping for ten seconds. And with DJs rewinding every other track right now, who cares if the next one is faded in if the last eight were pulled up?
A man who knows a few things about no compromise is The Bug, as his recent interview on the Boomnoise and Poax show will attest. While I liked the first Bug album, over the years a lot of his stuff has been either slightly too hard, industrial or noisy for me, but recently he seems to have found a perfect balance between impact and depth. And while I’ve seen him perform a few times, this was definitely the best I’d heard.
The Bug has a very refreshing attitude to DJing. Using Final Scratch, he loads up either riddims he’s made or ones that fit his style from, in this case, grime, dubstep, hip hop, dancehall or dub, and lets them off. When their impact is waning, he’ll make no attempt to beatmix, instead either hitting soundeffects or doing a spinback of the track, before rolling the next riddim. As I say, it’s refreshing, coming across like The Bomb Squad were doing his segues.
Some of the tracks he opened with hinted at real gems, including two Spaceape vocal tunes, including Cult 13’s “Wickedness” that set off my “what the...?” alarm. Others, over the physical Plastic People soundsystem, illustrated a wonderful sense of raw minimalism, such that the few elements that were chosen, and where they were placed (esp. if you can ‘read’ beats), had fantastic impact.
But this was just the beginning. Soon added to this rich mix came four very different MCs, that represent different sides to The Bug’s sound. First there was Ricky Ranking, an old school sing-jay in a reggae tradition. Older than the other MCs, he sang short, sweet, repetitive refrains over different riddims, ephasising respect and unity. Warrior Queen, all sassy and sexual-aggressive, was exhilarating as ever. Then in came Flowdan and Killa P from Roll Deep, all gruff grime menace, with a dancehall edge. Ricky and Warrior took the mics into the crowd in front of the DJ booth, and with crowd forming a tight circle around them, there was a glorious dissolution of the artificial barrier between the performers and audience. Who would have thought you could have caught a wiff of Carnival at a Wire night?
In many ways, the difference between the performers’ styles and fashions was visually manifested by their attire. Warrior Queen wore a tight but, with little tassels, teasing outfit. Ricky Ranking was sporting his reggae traditions loud and proud, with a Bob Marley t-shirt and Jamaican colours woollen hat. The Bug wore a simple black t-shirt that bore an inscription like “Killer” or “Terror” that was suitably uncompromising but yet also tells you how nice he is in person. Just as their vocal styles contrasted with Ricky Ranking, Flowdan and Killa P’s attire reflected their new school LDN road style, with Nike sportswear the look, in Flowdan’s case what seemed to be the Brazil away kit.
The visual attire metaphor even stretched to Kode9 and Spaceape, who headlined the night. Struggling through early technicals (the speaker next to them kept cutting out thanks to Plastic People’s mixer), Kode9 took to his live set rocking his favoured Sun Ra t-shirt like the experimental, scene-agitator he is. Spaceape followed Ricky and Warrior deep into the crowd but his clothing conspired against him. Standing in a part of Plastic People’s dingy dancefloor that had no lighting, the black MC, wearing a black hat, black coat and dark jeans was absolutely invisible, even from a vantage point of under two metres away. I could say it added to his sense of post-modern mystery, but a little bit of atmospheric lighting wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Still, it’s not up to Kode and Spaceape to bring the lighting to gigs, let alone a new mixer and despite these technicals, they soldiered on to give London the first glimpse of their evolving live show.
By contrast to Kode’s DJ sets or their combined studio work, the live set has its own unique feel. With Spaceape handling vocals, Kode works of Ableton, triggered by a MIDI controller, run through a mixing desk that adds in additional, analogue effects. At one point I thought I saw him preparing an analogue radio (Music Concrete!!) but didn’t see it used in the live set (Plastic People is below ground).
Unlike the Bug’s use of pre-recorded riddims, Kode’s live set works off collections of loops and sounds that can be selected or removed. Glancing at the laptop screen, there looked to be between 6 to ten sounds per section, which reflected what was being heard, namely a stripped back version of their studio sound (I can only speak from personal experience, but most tracks I’ve worked on, excluding vocal parts, use around 20-25 channels). Clearly there was a kind of sound density versus live flexibility trade off going on, but with Spaceape’s vocals providing constant arrangement variations, it worked.
Most of the tracks took an electronic, synth lead feel, abandoning any of the uses of samples heard on his album. They evolved as live, raw club tracks, liberally spiced with pitchbent, high synth melodies and perhaps a touch of the influence of skwee?
The set climaxed with an amazing synth excursion that seemed to build on some of the ideas in “Magnetic City,” the cut from Box of Dub 1 that, as with much of Kode’s stuff, I really didn’t get at first but came to understand as an exercise in evolving variations. As synth fluttered and ruffled like long flags in the wind, you became enveloped in the arrangements.
As the perfect coda to the night, as I drove I put on Quest’s “Forever.” God damn it’s epic. Warm, passionate, gentle, groove lead and catchy as fuck. Perfect for the nightdrive home from some visionaries in the venue.
For a full Shackleton interview click here. For some of my thoughts on live sets, click here