Shackleton’s work is so diffuse and so challenging that finding an entry point can be like feeling out a foothold in a sheer granite wall. His last solo full-length, 2012’s Music for the Quiet Hour/The Drawbar Organ EPs, sprawled to more than two hours. His earlier work, astonishing as it often is, still reflects the dubstep roots he would eventually shed in order to make his best and most unclassifiable music. And his recent output has been mostly in tandem with other artists: an album of goblin chants with Anika, a free-jazz excursion with Polish clarinetist Wacław Zimpel, a collection of eccentric prog-dub poetry with opera firebrand Ernesto Tomasini. All of this stuff is profoundly idiosyncratic and rarely makes for an easy listen; none of these albums could really be said to be “representative.” It adds up to one of the most daunting catalogs in electronic music.
Departing Like Rivers, Shackleton’s first solo album since Music for the Quiet Hour, feels like a re-introduction. It traverses seven tracks in 63 minutes, hardly a casual commitment but a lot easier to experience in one sitting. More subdued than most of Shackleton’s work, it bypasses a lot of the potentially alienating moments that sometimes result from his determination to go out on a limb. The hokey spoken-word passages that tripped up Music for the Quiet Hour are mostly absent, and there’s nothing as potentially divisive as Tomasini’s gravitas-laden quaver. But if some of the fringes of Shackleton’s sound have been shaved away, the center is intact, pulsing like the heart of a malevolent sun about to go supernova.
This is heady, beaded-curtains, incense-in-the-air music, heavy on bells, hand drums, and far-off metallic scrapes. The air is always thick with the residual decay from a struck cymbal or gong, and something is usually droning ominously in the background. A litany of apocalyptic sampled voices (“the sky is about to burst”; “overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth”) gives the music an occultist, Coil-like mystique. The producer claims to have incorporated bits of old British folk songs into these tracks, and though you’d need an encyclopedic knowledge of the Child ballads to pick them out, something still seems ancient about this music, as if Shackleton has opened a portal to the foggiest parts of Britain’s past.
A sense of something faintly unwholesome lingers. The sequencer at the end of “Something Tells Me / Pour Out Like Water” is tuned so strangely that the notes seem to curl like wilted flowers, and the bell that tolls in the background signals the arrival of something dreadful. When another sequencer shows up at the end of “Transformed Into Love” and begins slipping out of time with its counterpoint, it’s almost humbling to see how even that most rigid and mechanical of instruments can’t help but get caught in Shackleton’s undertow. The hand drums lumber on, as if soundtracking a grueling march to the battlefield; the bass attacks the music from all sides, and they rarely work together to drive the music forward. One element floats atop the other like oil and water, and yet everything is absorbed into a vast, pulsating orb of sound.
The 13-minute “Something Tells Me / Pour Out Like Water” starts the album mid-sentence with a jolt of bass like a door slamming behind the listener, and from there, there’s nowhere to go but forward. In the frequent absence of a groove, the music maintains momentum through its linear structure, and it plays like an arcane ritual unfolding in real time, each step performed precisely in sequence. On first listen, you might simply marvel at all the sounds on display. After a few more spins, the underlying structure of what initially seems like an amorphous suite becomes more obvious. “Something Tells Me” and “Pour Out Like Water” blur together at first, but once the initial effects on the brain wear off a bit, you can stand back and see them as two separate pieces separated by a yawning void of metallic noise.
Why not just split “Something Tells Me / Pour Out Like Water” into two six-minute tracks instead of one 13-minute monster? I suspect Shackleton just liked the impact of that 13-minute runtime. Grander, proggier, more forbidding: these are always positives in the Shackleton universe, and whether you prefer Departing Like Rivers to his earlier work depends on how much your interest in his music has to do with the challenge it offers. Departing Like Rivers can feel a bit like The Shackleton Reader, compiling all the best bits of his last decade of music into a (comparatively) quick and easy package. It’s the best album to recommend to newbies, but there’s the risk that a first-timer will decide it’s the only Shackleton they need, which would be a shame.
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