A Liminal Review: Pinch & Shackleton by Pinch & Shackleton (November 22nd, 2011)

Dubstep seems, much like noise music, to have been going through something of a consideration of its identity and direction as a genre of late. Both are genres that evolved from the underground, garnering a rabid cult following, before finding themselves increasingly popular and even mainstream as the years went on (an evolution which, obviously, was faster and more pronounced in the case of dubstep). Exposed to a wider audience, and an increasing familiarity on the part of punters with the archetypes of the genre, both have seen artists try to broaden their horizons by integrating new sounds, in a bid to remain fresh and relevant.Such an approach is a bit of a double-edged sword, and for every new listener you bring to the table of dubstep by playing with more “mainstream” elements, there are bound to be eminently more purists who decry such attempts as self-serving and reductive. If such a conundrum was moderate in noise, with a quick return to the roots of the genre via the extreme Harsh Noise Walls of The Rita and Vomir or the highly-acclaimed experiments of Kevin Drumm and Joe Colley that quickly eclipsed attempts to bring noise into more accessible terrain (aided no doubt by the genre’s natural obtuseness), in dubstep there appears to be a more uneasy balance, as the likes of Magnetic Man were forced to compromise a lot of dubstep’s initial sound in a bid to crack the popular charts. Then again, as a genre that grew out of the dancefloor, surely it was only natural for dubstep to embrace more “accessible” sounds in a bid to draw people to the clubs and the record stores? It’s an interesting question, and one that has been explored, with varying musical and commercial success by everyone from Kuedo (aka Jamie Teasadale of Vex’d) to Zomby, via Ikonika and Joker. House, prog, drum’n’bass, hip-hop, stadium-sized electronica – all have been mines to dig at in an attempt to make the murky urban sound of traditional dubstep more palatable to the masses, and the debate will probably rage on as to whether or not it’s a valid means to an end.In such confusing times, however, it is reassuring to have two of the “old guard” rear their heads in such emphatic fashion as Pinch and Shackleton do on this, their debut album as a duo. And, unlike some of the names mentioned above, the British pair have decided to focus on the initial aura that set dubstep apart from all other electronic genres in the early noughties. Much like the music of elusive Mercury Prize-nominee Burial, the sound of Pinch and Shackleton is anchored in the detached atmosphere of urban dystopia, the kind of nocturnal hinterland in which suburban and inner city malaise collide with the dancefloor in disconcerting and infectious ways. If anything, Pinch and Shackleton enhance this dark aura, delivering one of the most disconnected “dance” albums ever released.

Musically, the pair shy away from the kind of dense, overpowering bass lines that characterises most dubstep, preferring to focus on the percussion. Alternately brittle, hesitant and fierce, the drum lines on Pinch and Shackleton are the dominant force on most tracks, driving the pieces forward even as the uneasy atmospherics threaten to drag things down to subterranean levels of menace and disquiet. On ‘Jellybones’ and ‘Burning Blood’, the duo takes a leaf out of William Bennett’s Cut Hands book with samples of African percussion that, whilst not as overtly abrasive as the erstwhile Whitehouse frontman’s mutant techno, still lend an uneasy edge to proceedings. This is no Dust + Blackdown-esque embrace of the myriad cultures that make up modern London, more an attempt to explore every facet of percussive sound in a modern context, and the results are exhilarating, especially as they refrain from pitching headlong into mutant Africana (in the manner of, say, T++), instead blending the organic percussion sounds with ice cold synth lines and distorted effects to create something almost alien in sound.

Elsewhere, on ‘Selfish Greedy Life’, the duo go all Steve Reich on us, looping and deforming a female vocal sample until it becomes part of their disjointed rhythmic pallet, another way of bringing forward motion to music that could be decidedly detached. Yet, for all the appeal of Pinch, and especially Shackleton’s transgressive approach to rhythm, what ultimately shines on Pinch and Shackleton is the emphasis on atmosphere. The comparisons to Burial are not cheap when it comes to this album, for there is a wide-open feel here that the enigmatic producer would have loved. The synth lines on ‘Torn and Submerged’ and ‘Levitation’, for example, are insistent and infectious, redolent of the kind of sounds Cabaret Voltaire and the like were unleashing in the eighties, only filtered through nearly three decades’ worth of minimal electronica. Opener ‘Cracks in the Pleasuredome’, by its very title, but also by its hesitant mix of atmospheric synth and dismembered vocal snippets, feels positively futuristic, a vision of future societies where human interaction is non-existent and technology, both brutish and elegant, is omnipresent. The spectre of Vangelis and Blade Runner rests strongly over Pinch and Shackleton, making the album an overt evolution from the post-garage urbanism of early dubstep (and I come back to Burial here) into something more cinematic and ambitious. Just check out the opening synth loops of ‘Rooms Within a Room’, not to mention its Kafkaesque title: you could be caught in the middle of one of Philip K Dick’s nightmarish fantasies.

This deliberately forward-looking, yet somehow traditional, angle on dubstep is what lends Pinch and Shackleton its unerring force. Drum patterns and vocals are drenched in warehouse-level reverb, as if untold ghosts have populated the machines of the future, making each track echo and extend beyond the simple parameters of its melodic structure. Everything is familiar, yet somehow elusive, and, ultimately, this gives the album an emotional punch that isn’t immediately apparent when compared to Burial’s heart-wrenching melancholia. But it’s there, and it’s potent.

As with noise, I have nothing but respect for artists that try to push back the boundaries of a certain genre, even if it means compromising on some of the elements that made that genre so beguiling in the first place. Long live Skream and Benga, if they can get more people to listen to the bass-heavy mulch that is dubstep. But there will always be something more exciting in the extremist and uncompromising approach of guys like Pinch and Shackleton. This album is dense, dark, atmospheric and untamed, and I doubt many DJs will be spinning these tracks behind their booths in Fabric and the likes. But it offers up a night-time vision of dance music that will stretch into the future long after most wonky/purple sound/dancestep (delete as applicable) acts have disappeared into obscurity. There is a composerly grace to Pinch and Shackleton, and the fact that it’s dark, foreboding and weird shouldn’t deter you from exploring its nebulous grooves. Ultimately, this is where the heart of dubstep, and urban music in general, still lies.

You can also read this review here: http://www.theliminal.co.uk/2011/11/pinch-shackleton/

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