Shackleton, Music For The Quiet Hour / The Drawbar Organ EPs

[Woe To The Septic Heart!]


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Announced seemingly out of nowhere, the Shackleton box set, whose contents were at the time still somewhat of a mystery, arrived in stores just days after the world was notified of its existence. Because many publications love to play the “First!” game these days, many reviews were published just as quickly, leaving most reviewers with as much time with the record as their readers — not a whole lot. The contents of the mystery box, once its heavy cardboard cover is pulled off like one does with opera boxes, turn out to be an imposing bunch: a CD of Music For The Quiet Hour, the first of Sam Shackleton’s albums he deems deserving of the distinction, and the three Drawbar Organ EPs, pressed up on wax and housed in full artwork sleeves, not to mention a full booklet of further art from Zeke Clough and writing by Vengeance Tenfold. With over two hours of music, over sixteen drawings, and two pages of writing to digest, Woe To The Septic Heart!’s second release is a lot to take in, and the relationship between the various objects housed within is hardly explicit.

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Music For The Quiet Hour gets top billing, and for good reason, as it is easily the most ambitious thing Shackleton has ever released. With that ambition comes some intense, terrifying music. Don’t let the title confuse you: this is by no means a quiet record. It sees Shackleton engage with dynamics in a more direct way than ever before, letting drones get mauled by big explosions of color and melody, while brief moments of silence provide no less surprise. Melodically, Steve Reich’s Drumming and Music For 18 Musicians are pretty obvious influences, but rather than just co-opt Reich’s signature marimba lines, he toys with them in a way that would only make sense on a Shackleton record. When artists make such overt references to the great 20th century composers it can often come off as pastiche or, worse, pandering, but the marimbas and instrumentation here feel far too natural to be facsimile. More importantly, Music For The Quite Hour reflects those 60s minimalist pieces in terms of structure, as it’s a longform piece containing more than a dozen sections that evolve from what came before but veer in dramatically different directions (the five “Parts” seem to be little more than skip points for CD listeners). Some sections are uptempo, melodic, and almost bright, continuing a groove as vocals snippets and percussion build on each other, while more austere, sparse sections that pack loads of ideas into shorter time frames can be found bookending these more percussive situations.

A couple collaborators are drafted in for Music For The Quiet Hour, but the man who holds the key is Vengeance Tenfold, who unfortunately has been absent from Shackleton’s work since the last Skull Disco record (rest in peace, Soundboy, though his rest is surely anything but peaceful). He pops up here and there through the first half, but from Part Four on he steals the show. As the sounds get darker and more claustrophobic, Vengeance Tenfold reads excerpts from the letter included in the booklet of artwork: a letter from Earl to his granddaughter Clara in the near future. Without reading the letter his narration is frustratingly obtuse, but upon reading it becomes clear that Clara lives in some dystopian post-apocalyptic society borne out of our love of money and wars. It’s a grim look at the state of our world, and while it obviously matches and elucidates the nihilism found in Shackleton’s music quite well, most of what we’re presented with is left open to interpretation. The written component is, then, a welcome sign post instead of a road map, and in the age of over-sharing and over-showing, leaving unclear the peyote-induced incantations on offer is a most welcome choice.

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The weightiest parts of this box are The Drawbar Organ EPs, which are like Shackleton’s watershed Three EPs in that they are not really meant to be interpreted as a whole (indeed, they are now only available separately). The three records are, in part, experiments with an Italian drawbar organ module that Shack seems quite taken with; and while the organ is used to play Reich-ian melodies similar to Music For The Quiet Hour, here we’re in much more familiar terrain. “(For The) Love Of Weeping” kicks off the first record with the vocal chants and marimbas we’ve come to know and love, but two-thirds of the way through the titular organ is introduced with rapid-fire, khat-chewing melodies whose notes almost appear to blur together. “Seven Present Tenses” features just as many intense, dizzying organ lines, but “Powerplant”‘s self-help mantras and the tonal melodies of “Touched” are a bit Shackleton by the numbers. The EPs get progressively better and weirder as they progress, though, so the almost pretty melodies of “Test Tubes” and short sound collage “Dipping” make a greater impact. “Katyusha” takes up the whole B-side of EP 2 and for good reason: it lays the groundwork over the course of the first eight minutes or so as another great Shackleton roller before exploding into an intense latter movement of jabbing bass tones and hyperkinetic organ arpeggios.

EP 3 opens up with “Wish You Better,” which, at only 104 beats per minute, is quite a nice surprise. Shackleton has never really played with these tempos before, and since I’ve personally come to enjoy playing his records slower than they’re intended, it’s a fortuitous, welcome change. His music takes on a heady, ominous tone down at these slower tempos, swapping the anxious hallucinations of typical Shackleton fare with a more foreboding, otherworldly trip, resulting in more suspense than outright fear. The sweet glockenspiel melodies of “It Is Not Easy” show us a softer side before we plunge into the best track of the Drawbar Organ EPs: “There Is A Place For Us.” It’s even more spacious than anything on Music For The Quiet Hour, as slowly ascending drones, far-off readings of religious scripture, and tambourine hits collide with dissonant string tones, reducing Shackleton’s aesthetic to its most basic components and becoming ever more potent. Like the rest of the music in this box, “There Is A Place For Us” contains multiple movements within, and tracking these scorched remnants leaves me stunned each and every time. Darker than even Music For The Quiet Hour, it’s far and away one of the best and most absorbing things Shackleton has ever done.

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Zeke Clough’s artwork seems to depict some sort of hellish carnival, with strange, ghastly creatures riding roller coasters whose tracks just cut off suddenly while twisting though the black and white morass. The few figures on the cover of the box look like they’re trying to escape this nightmarish festival, but if “There Is A Place For Us” is any indication, it’s unlikely they will ever succeed. Shackleton’s music has never really moved in dramatic swings but instead chosen to evolve, changing incrementally with each release until, a handful of records down the line, we’re in a very different place. Most of the Drawbar Organ EPs continue this evolution, but some of the tracks, with special emphasis on the third EP, map out some wildly new terrain, and Music For The Quiet Hour flips the script almost entirely on what a Shackleton album could and should be. But then, nothing here ever really sounds like it could have been the work of anyone else, as Shackleton’s signature is just too strong to fool anyone. As an artist, then, this box set finds him simultaneously reinforcing and expanding his sound, and as someone who gobbles up each new Shackleton record voraciously, it’s these exciting new territories that makes the troupe of Music For The Quiet Hour and The Drawbar Organ EPs such a landmark release. I’m not yet convinced I fully understand all the music, visuals, and writings on offer here, but something tells me it’s probably better that way. The world of Shackleton has always sucked in listeners with its dark, unknowable, mescaline-induced atmospheres, but from what’s presented here, his world seems to be getting even stranger.

Brian  on May 30, 2012 at 2:09 PM

truly amazing record right here!

SHODAN  on May 30, 2012 at 9:04 PM

love it

Trackbacks

Little White Earbuds May Charts 2012 | Little White Earbuds  on June 5, 2012 at 10:39 AM

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