Skull Disco: Soundboy Punishments
Skull Disco

Soundboy Punishments collects into one definitive release all of the 12-inch singles previously issued by the London-based Skull Disco imprint. Most of the nineteen tracks are by Shackleton with a smaller number by Appleblim (the two co-owners of the label), and, of course, the release also includes the infamous “Apocalypso Now” mix of “Blood On My Hands” by Ricardo Villalobos. Heard in its entirety, the set documents the mesmerizing twist Skull Disco brings to the dubstep template by injecting into it a heavy strain of Eastern sounds and sensibility.

The opening piece instantly clarifies some of the reasons why this material sounds so remarkable: omitting conventional beat patterns entirely, “Hamas Rule” keeps the focus on percussion—hand drums, bongos, bells, tambourine—and glues the tune together with the alternating appearance of a slithering dub bass line and an ululating Middle Eastern melody. Subtle changes occur throughout the track's seven minutes, making the piece feel like a serpent undergoing constant metamorphosis as it sheds multiple layers of skin. A simple, silken synth line floats through the upper stratosphere in Shackleton's “I Am Animal” (the A-side of the first official Skull Disco release) but, aside from that, the piece is little more than bass and percussion. But though the arrangement is skeletal, the elements constantly shape-shift and remain in agitated motion from start to finish, and consequently listening interest never flags. Though satisfying in their own right, Appleblim's tracks hew closer to dubstep convention, a case in point the low-slung “Girder” which is dominated by wiry bass wobble and echoing voice accents. And, though he may be Soundboy Punishments' less dominant presence, Appleblim's “Mystikal Warrior” and “Fear,” lethal cocktails of cranium-shattering snares and viral bass lines, prove he's certainly no secondary figure.

One of the reasons why the material exercises such an intense grip upon Western ears is rooted in the ineffable “otherness” of the Middle East. Musically, the material offers a bridge, albeit a radically distinctive and unusual one, that is easier for Westerners to cross than its belief systems. A key reason for the mesmerizing impact of “Blood On My Hands,” for example, is its cryptic voiceover and text (When I see the towers fall / It cannot be denied / That as a spectacle / It is a realization of the mind / You see, I'm standing on a mountaintop / Letting out a scream / It's the language of the earth / It is the language of the beasts / There's no point to look behind us / We left the corpse behind / Because flesh is weak and forms break down / They cannot last forever), with the masterstroke the repetition of “fall” which slowly expires like a man taking his last breath (of course, the lyrics refer to the World Trade Center attacks in NYC on Sept. 11, 2001). Shackleton's original is a propulsive, seemingly buoyant dub workout that's distinguished not only by the slowed voiceover (whose weary resignation markedly contrasts with the upbeat rhythmic flow) but by snare accents that ricochet thunderously. Villalobos's epic treatment unspools over a transfixing eighteen minutes with the lyrics repeated over and over accompanied by subtle intensifications in the quietly galloping groove: a wispy, phantom-like tone that drifts above, a chugging whirr—suggestive of blood gurgling in a dying man's throat—that slowly rises, falls, and grows ever more ominous as the song nears its close, plus the soft and distant tinkle of cymbal accents. The running time may seem excessive but it ultimately intensifies the tune's hypnotic impact.

Not surprisingly, the remix casts a huge shadow over the collection's remaining six cuts and, consequently, the impact they might otherwise have is lessened. Martial snare patterns and brooding strings imbue “Stalker” (in fact, Shackleton's first release) with an appropriately foreboding ambiance. Flute and a small percussion army cast a dark, enchanting spell in the first half of “I Want To Eat You” before a plummeting bass and beats kick in, nudging the tune closer to familiar dubstep territory. “You Make Me Cry” ends the collection on a restrainedly uplifting note (especially welcome coming after the aggressive “Massacre”) and, fittingly, does so through a seamless integration of dubstep and Eastern elements. Like any newly-formed genre, dubstep must deal with the constant threat of ossifying into a cliché-ridden style when parasites latch onto it and slowly suck it dry. A figure like Shackleton, by contrast, offers an ideal artistic model for how to keep a genre invigorated and vital.

December 2007