When Shackleton and Appleblim closed Skull Disco, the question was what was going to happen to their music; especially in the case of the former, who had turned the label into a kind of private lab where he could experiment with dubstep alongside all kinds of funeral, ritual and tribal sounds. Shackleton's story after Skull Disco is widely known: he started a trip along different labels - such as Perlon (where he played with minimal techno more than ever, on “Three EPs”), Fabric, Honest Jon’s and Tectonic, where he delivered an album last year with Pinch - until he announced the creation of Woe To The Septic Heart!. The latter is a new, rather irregular label (this is the second title in two and a half years), which is styled like Skull Disco: the Lovecraft-like designs by Zeke Clough and, primarily, the total freedom (even more 'total' than what he had enjoyed until then) to create music without any restrictions or need to follow any trends. That's the only explanation for the Briton's progression from his early 12”s in 2004 to now: a staggering upward curve, from excellence to ultra-excellence.
It's not just one album Shackleton returns with, it's two. There are several ways to get “Music For The Quiet Hour / The Dawbar Organ”: on double CD (with both cycles separated), or on vinyl (three 12”s that only hold the tracks from “The Dawbar Organ”) and finally, as a collectors' box, apparently already sold out, including the three singles, a CD copy of “Music For The Quiet Hour” and a set of exclusive Clough illustrations. It looks like the project is more than just music: there's a plastic arts component, and it's somewhat of a transcendental experience. Furthermore, though the two albums can stand on their own, sounding rather different from each other, they're also a kind of ouroboros (the snake biting its own tail, the symbol of continuity and eternity of time), where one title refers to the other and vice versa. It seems like Shackleton went through a very productive creative episode - where ideas came out under high pressure, even like he were exorcising demons - because the better part of the material isn't only trance-inducing, it's as if it's the ultimate consequence of that abstract and extracorporeal state.
The big innovation (which holds some part of regression as well) is on the first album, “Music For The Quiet Hour”. Here Shackleton uses a language not so shaken by the beats, and on which the music appears in a state of dense steam; like a big, thick hydrogen cloud where ambient, documentary soundtrack music, spoken word and what we used to call hauntology mix. It seems as though a new spectrum hides between the cracks of every atmosphere, a trace of the ineffable. It's only five tracks, but the total duration goes beyond the one-hour mark, with segments (all the parts are united in one trip, flowing uninterrupted) that last longer than 20 minutes. When there are beats - always exotic, influenced by African and Indian folklore, and (on part 2) even Balinese gamelan - they're only there to support the descriptive passages and to invigorate certain transitions. The real substance is in the toxic atmosphere, in the enchanted trace the record leaves behind as if it were ectoplasmic saliva. Here's where Shackleton reminds us, indirectly, that before he founded Skull Disco, his first steps were on Mordant Music. He reveals his most cultured and arid influences, from Steve Reich's minimalism to gliding electronica; which, in lieu of catching sight of cosmic and extra-terrestrial landscapes, flies over wastelands and deforested zones. The music (freely constructed, vaguely similar to the library music redone on labels like Ghost Box) also references the psychedelic ambient of the 90s, of records by The Future Sound Of London, like “ISDN”. Furthermore, with a final, masterly touch, he includes the participation of Vengeance Tenfold on several passages (the fourth and fifth, mainly), who recites - with his dim voice coming from a narrow cave - poetry and popular science, making “Music For The Quiet Hour” also part spoken word. A kind of spoken word, however, that seems mechanical, surreal (the quotes sound automated, drugged), and in consonance with the surreal and volatile tone of the whole album. Quite spectacular.
The second album, “The Dawbar Organ”, maintains the structure of the separate vinyls that form a unified cycle, like “Three EPs”. It reflects the more 'conventional' side, if such term could ever be used for Shackleton's sound, of the producer. The textures are similar to those of “Music For The Quiet Hour” (bewitched atmospheres, dry voices, beats influenced by world music), whirling in complex structures taken from drum'n'bass, but at a slow pace – however, it's material where the rhythm is more important than the mood. It is, therefore, more in the vein of what Shackleton's been doing over the past two years, on “Fabric 55” and “Man On A String Part 1 and 2”: rave psychedelia with a flavour of a Magreb sunset looking out over the Sahara (“Seven Present Tenses”). It features genetic manipulation of the rhythmic chain in order to obtain unexpected alterations, in a vein that, once again, connects Steve Reich with Goldie (“Manipulation”, “Touched”). It also, in the final part, includes unusual deep-house details - blurred between shadows and ritual arpeggios - bringing Shackleton closer to the incorporeal passion of many of the records by Theo Parrish (“Katyusha” and “Wish You Better”). Until, however, we reach “There Is A Place For Us”: a gliding end piece where the rhythm disintegrates and dense atmospheres whirl, connecting with “Music For The Quiet Hour”, in order to prolong the listening in a giant loop. Ultimately, this creates a two-hour piece where we experience the lucid perception of an artist who is at his peak, offering a tour de force that is already one of the most valuable moments of his long and complex career. Furthermore, depending on how you look at it, it might even be his best; if only for the ambition, variety and almost perfect resolution. This double album has come out of nowhere, without warning, and it's the only record today that can compete with Actress' “R.I.P.”. This is major league stuff.