A couple of days ago, Dylan Ettinger –whom we mentioned last Wednesday in our overview of the cosmic music revival– was asking on twitter if there’s still anyone out there who was fed up with dubstep. The question could be taken as a gentle joke –after all, this is the guy who asked Zola Jesus to marry him via the same social network–, but it does show a tendency of opinion that could extend with the course of time: in 2010, dubstep and its mutations have been ubiquitous and, if the process keeps going at this rate, the day will come when there’ll reach a saturation point, and there will be no turning back. It seems an inevitable fate: as the genre becomes more popular, it will at the same time lose many fans who were there when it all started.
About this process we’ve already spoken about in an extensive article, a few weeks back, and it’s not our intention to repeat the same line of enquiries. But there is one on which we do have to insist, because it’s a starting point: the tag “post-dubstep” doesn’t identify an alternative genre to dubstep that crystallised between 2006 and 2008, but a process of constant evolution and change. We speak of post-dubstep for the simple reason that we know the movement of the scene, but not its direction. Little by little, we see how some options become solid – Magnetic Man have broken the mould of the mainstream and will be to dubstep what Daft Punk were to house in 1997 or Reprazent to drum’n’bass in 1998–, but the range of possibilities is still too wide. To speak of post-dubstep is really a reiteration: while framing it within the hardcore continuum, it already implies the notion of change. The extraordinary part is that in 2010 there have been so many different changes on a scene that up until not so long ago was a stylistic block of concrete. Basically, these are those changes.
1. Future garage With “future garage” we refer to the producers who have developed towards house and old 2step. The label doesn’t sit very well with the London scene –a word like “future” is considered pompous, arrogant and inadequate for a type of sound that still has to develop completely–, but it’s accepted because of its similarity to the illustrious and historic UK garage, to anticipate some kind of revival that many are willing to receive with open arms. Thanks to the use of female vocals with a high-pitched tone and cut up with a scalpel and a pneumatic house beat, many artists have tried to connect the old Ramsey & Fen productions with those of Joy Orbison –the godfather and torchbearer of the most luminous and optimist dubstep sound. Those features, to which we would have to add soft mist and deep atmospheres, are what link the works of a heap of producers, including Ramadanman, Elgato, Eliphino, Joe and Untold –plus the better part of the Night Slugs and Numbers releases (the two revelations of the year when it comes to labels)–, which has more or less been recorded for posterity on the “Future Bass” compilation, released on Soul Jazz this autumn.
2. Techno-step Future garage is the variety that makes dubstep incline towards deep house. A few years back, dubstep already turned towards techno, through the works of talents like Shackleton, Martyn and Scuba. Those three producers have kept on doing what they were doing with such convincing records like their contributions to the Fabric series (Martyn and Shackleton) and Sub:Stance (Scuba), and a string of 12”s on which the sound acquired a metallic grey tone and a feeling of urban decadence. It’s an established and in part worn out style –an opinion that, in any case, is dismantled in one blow by Shackleton’s spectacular “Fabric 55” and its prequel, the single “Man On A String Part 1 & 2”–, but still strong, thanks to the fans who keep making the crossover from conventional techno to the more adventurous dubstep. 3. Emostep From Burial, two currents developed. One solidified the influence of 2step, which in the productions of the artist who made “Untrue” left a blurry and spectral trace, and from there –via Joy Orbison’s “Hyph Mngo”, as we’ve said– future garage started to emerge. The other current, instead of solidifying the sound, it kept on liquefying it to the point it began to evaporate into the atmosphere. Burial had something more than just rhythmic inventiveness, and this was the ability to move and evoke noble sentiments. Therefore, the chain of post-Burial achievements is what has led to the defining of a current in dubstep that stresses the texture, the melody, the teary feeling and the acceptance of part of the pop audience. Mount Kimbie should have been the ones to take the baton from Burial –warming up for The xx on part of their tour, and remixing Foals–, but “Crooks & Lovers” didn’t emotionally explode the way it should have. However, James Blake has gone on in the same vein adding pianos, sateen rhythms and baritone vocals, only to establish himself as the revelation of 2010, the only producer who made us forget that, once again, Burial has kept almost completely quiet for a year and we’ve had to make do with disciples who sound less like him every day and who, little by little, are finding their own true voice: Clubroot, Pangaea, Pariah.
4. Popstep If we have to talk about the impact on the pop circuit, nobody has achieved more than Skream. Magnetic Man and the hit “I Need Air” is only one consequence of the direction the man started to take with his remix of La Roux’s “In For The Kill” and that’s led him to explore what no-one had before. On “Outside The Box”there’s room for thick as a brick dubstep, drum’n’bass according to the gospel of Lemon D and Dillinja, but also for the robotic tune of a second encounter with La Roux on “Finally”. The entrance in the charts, in any case, was when Magnetic Man –Skream, Benga, Artwork– began and young singer Katy B took the baton from shooting stars of the British urban scene like Lady Sovereign and Ms. Dynamite, putting her voice to smash hits like “Katy On A Mission”. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to see that, once this road is taken, only two options are left: either winning the Mercury Prize or flooding commercial radio with bad copies. We trust it will be the first option.
5. The confused zoneThe friction between dubstep and pop is leading us to a confused zone. It’s the post of post-dubstep: a second space of transformation, even darker and more unpredictable than the one established this year and which leaves the door open to new twists in 2011. Today, the Darkstar album keeps dividing the aficionados: while there are those who see a magical aura around “North” in its rare fusion of translucent dubstep and primitive synth-pop, others only hear an imperfect record, dull and disoriented. Luckily, James Blake gets the overall approval that Darkstar lack and his debut album, expected in Spring 2011, is one of the most anticipated albums of next year. And they’re not alone on this road: the Hemlock label has released the first 12” by Breton, a debuting band moving between epic rock, fat hip-hop and heterodox dubstep on the “Counter Balance EP”. Is there anything more post-dubstep?
Next page: 10 records that deformed dubstep 10 records that deformed dubstep
The Gaze of the Abyss
Sam Shackleton rejects being included in the dubstep scene. His request is not only legitimate, but entirely justified: after all, how is his music, since he began to release 12”s on Skull Disco , until now, like that of the rest of the producers spread out over the underground scenes in London, Bristol, and Berlin? It’s true that they share common features, such as the presence of low sounds, slow rhythms with complex construction, and an earthy, profound, labyrinthine element. But Shackleton plays by his own rules. In a sense, he is a paradigmatic producer of “post-dubstep”: he accepts some aesthetic features, but he quickly transforms them in a process of continually evolving change and exploration. This is why we wanted to talk to him and share impressions: nobody is more unique and singular than he is in this field.
It is also worth approaching Shackleton because his recent “Fabric 55” is the consecration of an aesthetic that is the same distance from New York illbient as it is from tribal, slowed-down drum’n’bass, and dubstep from the dark side, a sound option that reaches a sublime state in the first reference on his new label, Woe To The Septic Heart!, in which he once again takes up the working methods of Skull Disco with his focus updated to a present that, for him, continues as a permanent search. Below, before the questions, you can see a video recorded by the PlayTV cameras at the most recent Unsound festival, held in Krakow in November 2010. In it, we have captured a segment of Shackleton’s hypnotic live show, a small portion of what will be magnified and released in the spectacular, dense set for Fabric. The science of rhythm and the rhythm of fear. As the famous Nietzsche quote says, “If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Shackleton’s music is the gaze of the abyss.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Sam Shackleton, Melissa Taylor , Radek Szczesniak, and to the entire Unsound team.
You had a label, Skull Disco, but chose to shut it down when it was at the top of its game. It seemed, when you started releasing music for Perlon, that you didn’t have the same need for a label as a platform, but now you’ve founded Woe To The Septic Heart! What’s the inside story here? Why are you going back to the label format, and why now?
I closed down Skull Disco for a number of reasons. I felt that there had been 10 good 12” releases and that this was a good number to finish with. On top of this I couldn’t bear the idea of asking Zeke the artist to do some more skull themed artwork. The Soundboy had really been put to death and there was no where else to take it. I was also really uninterested in the dubstep-techno thing that a lot of journalists were putting on Skull Disco. That was just not what I wanted it to be about. I don’t need a label but I thought it was time because I wanted to have my own aesthetic again I suppose. Perlon are great and I am really happy with Zip’s handling of everything, but at some point I just wanted to get back on with my own thing.
Zeke is doing the artwork again. Back in the Skull Disco days, all of it was inspired by African rituals from books you were reading. Is there an outside inspiration for the new artwork as well, or is everything from what’s in Zeke’s head?
I wouldn’t say all of it was inspired by African rituals! The name Skull Disco came about because I had read a book about a tribe in Cameroon who would dig up their relatives when they had a certain celebration and put them in view of the party. I thought this sounded like a good way to celebrate and this made me think of skeletons in a disco. Hence Skull Disco. Generally with the Skull Disco sleeves I would give Zeke an idea and he would run with it and take it much further than I would have even imagined.
What are the first steps for the new label? Is it just for your music, or are you thinking of bringing some friends or new signings on board?
No, it’s only going to be for my own music. Maybe I will start up a sister label if I want to put other things out. There’s this phrase carved in the groove of the A side of “Man On A String Parts 1 & 2”: “ The crisis of our country is not caused by external forces.” And another on the B side: “The danger lies within.” Can you elaborate on these statements?
This is really simple. When I went to get it mastered, me and Rashad (the mastering engineer) got talking about the sounds and I said that the AA side was supposed to have a Savage Republic type of feel to the percussion mastering. Quite rough and jarring. Rashad was really pleased that I had heard of Savage Republic as they are one of his favourite bands and so we decided to quote their lyrics on the run-out groove.
That made us think that Woe To The Septic Heart! was a label with some political mission… By the way, are you concerned about the Tories getting back into 10 Downing Street again?
No, it is not on a political mission! It was just a spontaneous thing to have that etched on the run-out groove.
As for the Tories, no, I am not happy about that. I think that perhaps some people got complacent and forgot how bad things can get under the Tories. It is quite complex to go into here though and I don’t want to just make an easy to digest soundbite about it. Britain is a diverse collection of countries and people. In some parts of Britain or within certain sections of the population a lot of people probably didn’t notice the difference even under the more extreme measures of Thatcherism as it didn’t seem affect them directly. On the other hand there are still people who live without any real political input or don’t feel included in the wider society. On top of this, the mainstream media is highly sophisticated at diverting people’s attention from the issues whilst pushing its own agendas and reducing politics to a personality contest. I think that partly because of this power of the media, politicians are pretty scared to present meaningful alternatives regardless of if some politicians have progressive ideas. When you have all these factors together, I can well understand how the Tories got back in. Yes, it made me feel sad.
That said, it is only my opinion and I can’t say for sure that I am right. It is a free vote and people have the right to choose who they want I suppose even if the apparatus seems to be rigged. Even though I disagree with that choice, it is people’s choice. Cameron and his party are by and large a self-interested, short-sighted bunch looking after the interests of a small section of the population in my opinion but better that than forcing people to live like I think is right. Oh well.
You shared a 12” with Laurie Appleblim of Harmonia & Eno remixes. He was your label mate at Skull Disco. Are you still in touch, and will you work with him again?
Laurie is a very dear friend to me. We are not the sort of people to fall out with each other and I could never see a reason to. Even so, with Skull Disco we never actually made music together. People always assume that we did because of the split nature of some of the 12 inches. I am in touch with Laurie and see him whenever I go to Bristol or he comes to Berlin. Your recent remix collection (in the last two years) is impressive, but it isn’t generous: there are remixes for Badawi, Moderat, DJ Maxximus, Mordant Music… Do you put much effort into a remix, or is it that you try to be very selective with who you work with?
I think that I have done enough remixes. It takes a lot of time and I put a really lot of effort into it. I think that this much is obvious if you listen. Don’t forget that I have also remixed To Rococo Rot and Invasion. It isn’t so little. I generally listen to the parts and see if anything jumps out at me that I can use. I try not to listen to the original if I can avoid it. The “Three EPs” release on Perlon - was it originally planned to be a series of 12” (i.e. three EPs, one at a time), or was it conceived and produced as a proper album? I ask this just because the title still confuses me.
Yes, at first we were going to do a release on vinyl only but then Zip convinced me otherwise. I didn’t plan it as an album, that is why I called it “Three EPs”. If I had planned it as an album it would have had a different title. Some people tell me that it works as an album though and that makes me feel happy. Were you attracted towards techno before visiting Berlin, or was the mood you found in the city what started to change the shape of your sound? Scuba, for example, hasn’t done that many dubstep tracks since living in Berlin.
Not particularly, and I am still not particularly. I am just trying to make the music that I have in my head. Perhaps subconsciously the city has had an effect on me. I don’t know. It is always difficult to talk about the subconscious because it is subconscious by definition! I am not sure I ever made dubstep to be honest. Perhaps a track like “Naked” is the closest I ever got to making dubstep per se. You have heard the new 12”, I assume. I know that I am not re-inventing the wheel but I would say that this is a long way from either dubstep or techno by most definitions.
How do you find the Sub:Stance party at Berghain? Did you like the vibe?
I enjoy it. It doesn’t have the vibe of a Saturday night of course. This is something very special. But, in its own way, it is really good.
What’s the usual set up for a Shackleton live appearance? How much live manipulation is there of those complex drum patterns?
Ha ha! Good question. I would say that the complex percussion thing is pretty much the only thing that I can’t manipulate live. I am afraid to say that the percussion is pretty much set and I can only choose which phrase to go with and add effects to it. Everything else can be pretty well manipulated. Recently, we’ve noticed some “Shackleton influence” on tracks by Pinch ( “Croydon House”), Jack Sparrow and other similar producers toying with techno shades and cold, complex rhythms. Have you ever felt bitten, or does this particular sound come from a common and shared experience?
I really like that Pinch track but I didn’t think it was particularly like my stuff. I have never heard Jack Sparrow to my knowledge but I am sure he is just trying to do his own thing. I don’t think that I am doing anything particularly groundbreaking in any case and hardly feel like somebody who people take ideas from. I am sure that I have taken more inspiration from people than I have been inspiring to people. As for complex rhythms, don’t you think it would be boring if everyone used a regimented rhythm with a kick and snare combination and no syncopation? It is not as though I have a monopoly on complex rhythms. Besides which, in relative terms, my beats are like a baby’s compared to the true dons of percussion!
Your Fabric CD isn’t the first live set released by the label, but it’s your first release understood as “Shackleton live”. What does this album mean within your discography? Was it important to you to have a physical representation of your club appearances?
Well it is a big deal for me on one level as, of course, and I am pleased to be a part of the series. By the same token, I try to do my best work for anything that I release. I think it does make sense to document the live set as it is a different thing and perhaps it makes more sense in the context of a live set. I can understand when people don’t really “get” my music when they just hear one track especially as my mixdown is not so standard for a lot of modern dance music and doesn’t really rely so much on immediate effects or straight build and drop structures. I think that if people hear the whole set then perhaps it can make more sense and people will have time for their ears to get used to it and hopefully can then follow it better. Let’s hope so anyway!