The Drawbar Organ EPs/Music for the Quiet Hour

(Woe to the Septic Heart!; 2012)

By P.M. Goerner | 26 May 2012

For the longest time I thought Sam Shackleton’s (now obvious) nom de electro-plume was actually a reference to early 20th century Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton, known for leading the infamous Nimrod Expedition to the then-furthest extremes of Antarctica and for then escaping from the failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition that followed. Beckoning arctic backdrop? Seemed perfect as a touchstone for the barren and imposing climes Shackleton the producer has become known for traversing. His tunes, at once spacious and deeply personal, seem to reach out and grasp at the very surfaces of those open expanses, pulling them inward and around like necessary blankets. And in that purified mental space he finds a freedom of individuality only the detachment of the wilderness can lend, while sub-bass snakes through endless, reflective microcosms full of extreme-adapted creatures whose weird calls echo through caverns, deserts, tundras, and many more of the both physically and mentally challenging landscapes of our planet. To call him a “wandering spirit” doesn’t even come close to characterizing the producer’s hunger for adversity, or the apparent fun he has in showing it off. It’s almost as outdated a reference as ol’ Ernest in the wake of the transition from discovery to the Discovery Channel, but I can’t resist: dude is officially the Bear Grylls of modern techno.

But I think it’s been long enough now, and there have been enough baffling attributable successes, for us to be able to reasonably say that not only is there no one making music like Sam Shackleton, but that it’s not possible for anyone else to wrangle the DNA-specific machinery necessary to do so. His tracks are just that fully defined by personal peculiarities. Shackleton’s unique take on modern post-dub techno generally eschews the whole obligatory protocol of nodding to established styles and methods for the sake of the associations often necessary to establishing a producer’s intentions or context, instead banking on the uniqueness of his highly sculpted sound. And though Shackleton’s downright iconoclastic personalizing of so many styles seems to break each of the seven habits of highly appealing electronic music again and again with every release, he consistently remains one of the most lauded producers on the radar. With the recent release of the colossal Drawbar Organ EPs/Music for the Quiet Hour collection on the producer’s own Woe to the Septic Heart! label, Shackleton has seemingly upped his game in all respects.

Everything that makes Shackleton’s sound a singular one is on proud display through this extensive compilation of new material, recorded since he ended a respected imprint (Skull Disco) and began the new one in 2010. Dividing the box set into the more fractured EPs collection and the labyrinthine, hour-long collaborative piece Music for the Quiet Hour, Shackleton’s trademark irreverence materializes into a sort of gleefully perverse deconstructionist roller coaster ride. Just about every aspect of these confounding tracks, from sample palette to unpredictable structure, can be readily described as unusual or offbeat. Foreign percussion whirs in and out of distorted time amidst bursts of dissonant vocals and something like an orchestra of seasick xylophones, mapping trails of bone fractals as they organize only to tumble slowly back into piles or be strewn haphazardly across empty expanses. Through it all, a self-obsessed sense of ironic humor makes everything about these tunes that at quick glance seems affronting instead surprisingly inviting. The cutting strokes of Shackleton’s scalpel often take on a gruesome playfulness that doesn’t read as the typically cheap aggression of popular bass music, or as the manufactured malice of dimmer-switch darkness, but rather as a natural menace, like the observed mechanisms of a wild animal.

Within the EPs collection, tracks seem both gracefully unified in their specific makeups and incredibly varied in mood and execution. “Touched,” one of the simpler tracks with its once-shiny arps and wow-ing chords rusting in a midnight mist, is every funky club banger dissected, bandaged, and irreverently anatomized under the Giger-ish microscope of an alien scholar. “Seven Present Tenses” moves like a high-speed elevator through Robinson Crusoe’s jungle treehouse, and may force me to open a nightclub called Robinson Crusoe’s Jungle Treehäus. The dollops of oozing chords on top of “Dipping” play the perfect evocative foil to plinking percussion, and in my only notable qualm so far, I choose to rechristen “Wish You Better” as “Raindance of the Electric Shavers.” In short, it’s just like that time I went dutch on a first date to Chinatown, where everything to poke and prod about Shackleton is packed neatly in a perfect buffet of mystery.

A collaborative piece with fake nu-emo band/actual vocalist Vengeance Tenfold, the unhinged Music for the Quiet Hour takes a decidedly more atmospheric turn and stands as the most ambitious composition of Shackleton’s recorded career. Leaving most traditional percussion behind and employing an ethnomusicologist’s dream collection of melodic mallets, the piece builds and un-builds itself slowly toward an intensely minimal twenty-minute centerpiece with waves of ambient noise, drone, and the most extreme realizations of the producer’s dystopic dub sensibilities to date. Let it help you to imagine, for an hour or so, riding through “It’s a Small World” if it were structured a little more like the boat ride scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Central to the piece’s success is that it perfectly encloses the solemn, apocalyptic vocal performance, an extended rumination on the desperate challenges of modern existence packaged as a stunning time capsule to speaker Earl Fontainelle’s future relatives, which ranges from detached spoken word and rhythmic recitation to cut samples of all shapes and sizes. Whereas the EPs collection is a showcase for the enviable skills of which we all knew Shackleton was in full command, Music for the Quiet Hour is a game-changing work that synthesizes all of its beyond-disparate elements into a monumental piece as viscerally engaging as a stage play or a great film. I could go on for pages to describe its unique character, but within the context of the collection, Music for the Quiet Hour is simply too short.

It’s apparent more than ever on this full anatomical workup of a release that the sustained success of Shackleton’s well-established modus operandi, of creating something so weirdly personal, seems to work as readily against the grain of the medium’s highly associative culture as it does to explore some of it’s more neglected and imposing possibilities. Too often the modes and methods of electronic music are thought of as relatively oversimplified, repetitive by nature, and painfully limiting to an artist unwilling to confine him- or herself within established standards, but it’s the appeal of obsessively twisted, deeply personalized images like Shackleton’s that prove that just isn’t the case. Shackleton’s releases sound a repeated victory for electronic music that isn’t defined by which bin it’s hoping to be placed in, though despite his obvious aversion to labels and genre, you can bet that there’s no shortage to the Youtube-comment-arguments about exactly what to call him. Which is double case in point, anyway.

In not setting limits on the possibilities of sonic expression, electronic music makes it all the more inviting for artists to set their own boundaries. Which in general just cranks up the spotlight on unexplainably individualistic, blissfully isolated works like those that seem to seep out of Sam Shackleton’s weathered pores. Where most artists in this part of the universe are doing their best to choose between the boxes laid out before them, Shackleton knows he’s been trapped in his own perfectly good, if isolated, one since birth. Thankfully for both artist and audience, he’s realized and repeatedly takes full of advantage of how much of an edge he’s got in his own expansive wilderness. And even better: he’s not desperate enough a genre survivalist to drink his own pee. Yet.