There are few artists currently working in the field of electronic music, willing or able to surpass the bounds of convention. DJs, producers and/or artists toe a party line between function and tradition, that has frozen perfunctory forms and institutionalised textures in stasis in an ever-restricting notion of what electronic music constitutes, especially on the dance floor. Roland machines drum out consistent marching orders between familiar motifs and forgettable themes from a diminished sonic palette, falling between pre-determined parameters defined by genre and style. Electronic music today has been gentrified, but there are still a few artists that work outside of the confines of these institutionalised traditions and fewer still that have done this with the level of success that Shackleton has.
Like his arctic-exploring namesake out of antiquity, Shackleton has been traversing the furthest reaches of known music conventions since 2004, rising to prominence out of the UK’s extended Dubstep scene, establishing the groundbreaking Skull Disco label with Appleblim, and going on to release genre-defying records for the likes of Perlon, Honest Jons and his own Woe the Septic heart imprint. An uncompromising figure in the world of electronic music, he’s retained an elusive tether to dance floor, recontextualising the more adventurous side of electronic music to the perfunctory demands of club music, while drawing distant musical planets together in a universe where Riccardo Villalobos walks hand in hand with Neu! and euclidean rhythms expound on the motorik beat in alien soundscapes.
Shackleton’s career in music starts as a teenager playing in a punk band alongside long-time collaborator Vengeance Tenfold (Earl Fontainelle). “It’s a really loose term isn’t it, punk(?)” he pondered in Resident Advisor, for one of the few times he’s ever spoken to the press. “But for me, it was never really about a form of music, I think it’s more about being able to do what you think is good, what turns you on.” There’s something in that formative influence that has followed Shackleton throughout his career. On his most recent EP, Furnace of Guts, he creates immersive textures while percussive elements shake loose structural norms in the seismic wake of a deep subterranean modulating drone. In a fusion of styles and influences, there seems to be no limit to what turns the artist on and there’s always something unusual in his work that usually tingles with the anticipation of hearing new music for the first time.
While Punk provided the impetus, it was the UK’s burgeoning Dubstep scene that nurtured Shakleton’s music from gnarly guitars to bold sonic experiments for the dance floor and sound systems. Although he “never really felt part of some early dubstep ‘scene,’” according to an interview in the Quietus, it was the Dubstep scene and community that provided the platform for the artist to flourish. “Back in those days there was no fucking dubstep,” he recalls in the RA interview… “Grime was the term if anything and it was really important, a really, really important thing that influence… that oddness of the beat.” And it’s in that oddness of the beat that he immediately found a niche within the nuanced sound of Dubstep, and it’s something that is particularly noticeable on the first Shackleton release, Stalker from 2004. That stark arrangement; the piercing textures; the cold sonic approach to sound design, and the disruptive beat scattered around the menacing sub-bass manoeuvres, all allude to Grime, and yet the marching band snare rolls and the jolting synth stabs extend tendrils beyond Grime into elements of footwork and hatrdcore rave.
“Generally I like music that has its own personality and doesn’t rely on a scene or a fixed set of conventions to give it validity,” he told Self Titled mag. It put Shackleton in good stead, and while it might have found some sympathy with what was happening around the artist, it allowed him to develop his sound beyond such limiting factors like genre or scene. In that same spirit he created Skull Disco with Appleblim shortly after his first release, as an extension of their combined artistic desires within the sphere of the Dubstep movement, but focussing on the more expressive interpretations of the music. Appleblim’s associations with dubstep magnet >>FWD and the various contributions to the label, made Skull Disco a flagship for the genre through its brief yet significant existence. Taking the name from Nigel Barley’s 1983 book The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut, Shackleton referenced a chapter “about the party where the tribe would dig up their dead relatives and put them in view of the party” and there is something about Shakleton’s percussive arrangements that always echoed the theme of the label, from the name to the immersive artwork by Zeke Clough.
Polyrhythmic themes and the sounds of congas and tablas, forge strong associations with exotic African music and eastern traditions, but while it’s an influence, alongside Grime, Punk and Dubstep, Shackleton’s music refuses to be reduced to a single aspect in the sum of his music. “It could be that in my programming that you hear a lot of influence from Africa,” he explained in Self Titled Mag, “but I would say that it is an assumption based on association. What I mean to say is that you hear congas and automatically think of African rhythms. Actually, I make the beats that feel right to me and that make me move.”
Percussion plays a central role in Shackleton’s work, and it’s a big part of his appeal as an artist, where it engages with both DJs and record enthusiasts. Both intuitive and off-beat, Shakleton’s music stands apart in the context of club music, marching blindly on a 4/4 on their way to the dance floor, but even while it might not resonate with some, his focus remains trained on the dance floor. “I like dancing and so I make the music that I would want to dance to,” he told Self Mag, but at the same time, he defies the most impulsive of rhtyhms for something usually incredibly complicated, developed far beyond the usual Kick-Snare arrangements. “For me the kick-snare combination doesn’t really do it,” he told Resident Advisor, and when asked how he approaches his percussive programming, his only reply came; “with bloody care and attention.”
On a track like his seminal 2008 release, Death is not Final (Skull Disco), ”just the percussion programming took ages” he explained and while it’s still perfectly accessible, you can instantly hear the difference in Shakleton’s approach between the original and 4-4 observing T++ remix. Shackleton’s programming is vibrant and alive, moving between elements and shifting the focus from the strong beat, where it seems to evoke something visceral and very cerebral at the same time. On the dance floor and through a big sound system, the sub-bass frequencies breathe further life into the composition and it swells and grows with the dance floor as it moves through its arrangement.
Death is not Final carries a lot of weight in more than just sound, not only as the beginning of the end of Skull Disco, but also as the foundation from which Shakleton would build his next endeavour, Woe to the septic Heart. As a label it became an exclusive vehicle for Shakleton to continue to pursue the style he’d cultivated through Skull Disco and even take it further, where influences from krautrock to psychedelia and dub would continue to influence his unique style and enforce his singular artistic voice. Two distinct periods in Shackleton’s career emerged; a before and after Woe to the Septic Heart, where he began to define a sound that went beyond the dance floor, especially with three collaborative LPs coming out in that period.
Devotional Songs with Ernesto Tomasini, Sferic Ghost Transmits with long-time collaborator Vengeance Tenfold, and Behind the Glass with Anika were albums that channelled Shakleton’s sound into new dimensions, each with its own particular sound, possibly dedicated by the influence of each collaborator. Although only Behind the Glass appeared on Woe the Septic Heart, with Honest Jons facilitating what would probably have been the excessive costs of Zeke Clough’s incredible gatefold artwork, there’s a definitive change in Shakleton’s work in this era leading up to the present. Even his latest Furnace of Guts retains much of the evolution we hear on those records. The dance element is still there, although it’s surreptitiously obscured by an abstract psychedelia that underpins the textures of the artist’s more recent works.
Even though Shackleton is “not a big fan of what you might term electronica” and continues to describe his own music “as very functional club music” according to the last Quietus interview, there is something in these records that takes some of the focus away from perfunctory elements of club music into more obscure territories. This only goes to strengthen the resolve of the genius behind the work, without really undermining any of his earlier releases before Woe the Septic Heart.
“When I’m locked into making music I’m not thinking about anything else and it’s just… the only way I can describe it is that it’s a compulsion,” he told Resident Advisor and that compulsion has served him well. Even during the hype of Dubstep, that idiosyncratic pursuit defined an artist whose music could and did live beyond Dubstep, where he could appear on a label like Perlon and Mordant music simultaneously, without missing a beat and without having sacrificed his artistic identity. Today, Shackleton’s music and all his artistic endeavours from his label to his live show continues to remain relevant, without succumbing to hype, and individual without becoming stale.