Rating: 9 / Available on: 3×12" / Label: Perlon
In Perlon, Shackleton seems to have found a home that suits him well. I must confess I haven’t followed the Berlin-based label with much interest since about 2006, but it’s one I will hold in eternal high regard – dogged in its no-mp3 policy, with a striking and confident visual identity, this is an imprint which over the years has brought us such game-changing records as Villalobos’s The Au Harem D’Archimede and Narcotic Syntax’s ‘Ultravolta’. The emphasis has always been on rhythmic experimentalism, and it made perfect sense when Shackleton was invited to remix Villaloboos’s ‘Minimoonstar’ for the Chilean’s Vasco EP last year.
That remix represented Shackleton’s definitive break from the UK-oriented dubstep scene that had nurtured him, and its release also coincided with his relocation to Berlin. Of course, unlike your average "creative" chancer, previously London-based Shackleton didn’t head to Germany to lose himself in the city’s party culture; he did it to give himself more space – internal and external – to evolve and refine his art. And if Three EPs is anything to go by, the move has been a great success – though its unwaveringly bleak tone leads one to suspect that harshness of the German winter may have gotten to the Lancashireman.
As its title suggests, Three EPs was originally conceived as three separate releases, but Perlon’s decision to release them together in a 12"-triple-pack means it’s hard not to treat it as an album – album in the sense of long-form, "significant" artistic statement. Shackleton’s sound, though more delicate and detailed than ever before, is still incredibly dark: and as we all know, the only way to properly engage with and enjoy the dark stuff is to immerse yourself in it. With nine labyrinthine tracks on offer here, it’s easier to find your way in than it is to find your way out.
Opening with the cagey ‘No More Negative Thoughts’ – which samples what sounds like a self-help tape for combating depression – this record grips from the off. Right down to its title, ‘Let Go’ is an invitation to enter a forbidding dream-world: I don’t know to what extent Shackleton’s drums are synthesized and to what extent live recorded, but on this track he makes full use of a very real-sounding kit to craft a kind of freaky 21st century jam-music that boasts the hysterical energy of freeform improvisation and the auteurist bite of digital editing and arrangement. If Four Tet were any good, he might sound a bit like this.
"Freaky 21st century jam-music that boasts the hysterical energy offreeform improvisation and the auteurist bite of digital editing andarrangement."
‘It’s Time For Love’ is a less demanding and ultimately more satisfying track; a nuanced update of the Skull Disco dread-step sound. As ever, the propulsive but fanatically complex drum patterns are the focus of one’s attention – no one can make anxiety and trepidation sound so funky as Shackleton can – but there’s also more emphasis than ever before on extraneous and atmospheric sounds; drones and tones straight out of a Nurse With Wound record swirl and lurch around the thickly-layered and lashing beats.
‘Mountains of Ashes’ is a highlight, a stunningly composed and executed track that draws you into a dense, disturbing sound-world of scrapes and groans before unleashing the deadliest percussion and bass break you’ve ever heard – the most obvious "dancefloor" flourish of the whole release, with some intense tabla action up-top. ‘Asha In The Tabernacle’ also finds Shackleton going for the jugular, a murky-as-fuck tribal tattoo that calls to mind UK funky but has its origins in traditions altogether more ancient and heavy. The foggy but driving sound design brings to mind, of all things, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, but in both sheer sonic sophistication and fuck-you toughness these tunes are untold leagues ahead.
Throughout this record, it’s impossible to know what’s around the corner: ‘There’s A Slow Train Coming’ is a truly twisted mood-piece, a dub-wise horror soundtrack that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Senking’s classic Raster-Noton album List. The most obviously dubstep-derived track on here is the skippy ‘Trembling Leaf’ – rhythmically it’s garage, but the kind of garage where a serial killer is lurking, waiting to cut you up. We finish with the corrosive drone-scape ‘Something Has Got To Give’, which actually appears to have fucked up my ears for the week.
The unrelenting, intimidating darkness of Three EPs is perhaps ultimately a weakness – after all, there are only so many shades of black and grey available to even the most mercurial producer. But the fact is that tripped-out, experimental and psychedelic music just doesn’t get any more powerful and inspirational than this. Three EPs combines the cutting edge of electronic music with a ritualistic intensity operating at the level of the unconscious; in this purely "shamanic" sense it’s part of a lineage that includes voodoo tribes, William Burroughs, Psychic TV. It makes you feel anxious, it hurts your ears, it changes your physiology. It’s a trip. If you’re looking for music to DJ out or to brighten up your commute, then look elsewhere. You can’t "use" this record – it uses you, it’s uncompromising, and it doesn’t meet you in the middle. It’s a record to be loved, but also to be feared.