Shackleton - "Part 1 (Feat. A.Gerth)" (Music for the Quiet Hour)
There’s a story bubbling under the surface of Sam Shackleton’s latest release, an ambitious suite called Music for the Quiet Hour. It’s difficult to piece the details together because we only encounter collaborator Vengeance Tenfold’s elliptical monologues to the future in the last two parts of the five-part composition. In the incomplete sci-fi scenario, the Anthropocene — the current era of man-made everything — eats its own tail, leading to a series of crises and finally a kind of ambivalent evolution to a world of “singleness.” In this sense, it’s reminiscent of the anime franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion, although in spirit it feels somehow closer to Chris Marker’s cinematic sci-fi essays, especially the ruminative Sans Soleil. It’s an audacious, progressive move for Shackleton, no stranger to setting the bar high and staying ahead — or is that well to the side? — of the pack. Music for the Quiet Hour and the accompanying Drawbar Organ EPs are in keeping with this tradition of modesty and innovation: two hours of top-flight techno dropped out of the azure sky. We have some catching up to do.
The Quiet Hour develops at a leisurely pace, harking back to scale, stately pace, and numerous leitmotifs found on this year’s Voices from the Lake album, itself a descendant of the concept-ish album line started somewhere around The KLF’s ambient techno road trip, Chill Out. The Quiet Hour landscape is a decidedly human one, Babylon’s end times playing out in crispy 1080p widescreen. Cycling through volatile marimba patterns, vocal fragments that hover and pant ominously in the mix, and brief moments of high-altitude noise à la Pan Sonic, it’s a primordial ocean of Shackleton sounds that drift by and eddy around each other like the first few moments after the big bang slowed for your viewing pleasure. Vengeance Tenfold shows up regularly like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action and scattering dubstep Zen koans in his trademark liturgical urban patter. Still, his most potent contributions come when he takes on a character: this guy Earl, somehow corresponding with his granddaughter, who lives in an utterly changed future and whom he’ll never meet. It sounds involved, but only because it’s so obliquely executed. Despite the sense of vast inky space it conveys, Quiet Hour is extremely concentrated: the sort of thing that takes less time to listen to than unpack.
That isn’t to short-change the Drawbar Organ EPs, however. Shackleton’s aversion to snares has always impelled him to find different kinds of momentum; here it’s down to a new organ plug-in that gives the EPs their name. He builds organ lines into M.C. Escher staircases, forever ascending and falling, while he has his way with an array of unease-evoking vocal samples. The one that peppers the woeful “For the Love of Weeping” sounds literally sick — unwell, a slightly sour turn in the gut. And sometimes he blurs them into a febrile substrate, as on the sprawling “Test Tubes.” Like Burial’s Kindred EP, Shackleton’s sound has metastasized, colonizing longer track lengths and developing an ever-greater network of details and references to earlier work in a way that recalls the forward-looking ethos of modernism. Shackleton, if there was any doubt, can do big picture and tight focus equally well; he can lead us into the future musically while digging in his heels against the one that’s actually in store.