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Soundboy Punishments

(Skull Disco; US: 23 Oct 2007; UK: 30 Apr 2007; Internet release date: 23 Oct 2007)

There aren’t many superstars in the genre known as dubstep, a genre still getting its bearings as it evolves from its roots in grime, house, and dub music. Partly, this is because the genre isn’t conducive to the concept of a superstar, as it finds its roots in minimalism. Dubstep is one of those genres that lives in the cracks in the sidewalk, that seeps in through the ventilation, quietly and carefully catching the imagination of those who hear it, those who are patient enough to appreciate the repetition and the expanse that permeates the genre’s best work. Of course, the lack of superstars may also simply be a reminder that almost no one, to date, has truly advanced the genre with releases that could be seen as definitive or truly groundbreaking.


That said, the Skull Disco crew is about as close to superstar status as dubstep allows. Formed by Sam Shackleton (who simply goes by the name “Shackleton”) and Laurie Osborne (more commonly known as “Appleblim”), Skull Disco has now been around for two years, long enough to define its own sound.  The sound that Skull Disco peddles is a version of dubstep steeped in the organic, with the inclusion of sounds other than the unidentifiable electronic bits of percussion that often pass for drums in electronic music.  Both Shackleton and Appleblim, on their own releases, tend to incorporate African and Middle-Eastern elements into their work, displaying a fondness for toned percussion that borders on obsession.  Such an interest adds another layer to the typical dubstep formula, however, and that may ultimately be what makes Soundboy Punishments such an engaging release from start to finish.


Soundboy Punishments is a compilation of pretty much every track from every Skull Disco EP released to this point, making it the perfect starting point for anyone not already well-versed in the label’s history.  Front to back, it’s absorbing, engaging listening, one that may well have you hitting reload in your web browser in no time, waiting for the announcement of Skull Disco’s next release.


Shackleton himself is quite well represented throughout Soundboy Punishments, as he is responsible for no less than 13 of the comp’s 19 tracks. The most affecting of these is likely “Blood on My Hands”, a song that certainly gets its due on this comp given that it takes up two tracks (amounting to 26 minutes) of the runtime. Its original version is interesting and somewhat harrowing, using a short spoken-word segment on the falling of the World Trade Center towers as its basis and building on it with quiet, hollow synths and a vaguely tribal beat. 


While that original treatment is interesting, however, it’s the remix by Ricardo Villalobos that truly cries out for listening. A minimalist masterpiece that lasts upward of 18 minutes, its beat finds its roots in microhouse, and its sounds are more sparsely laid out, in an unpredictable way that is impossible to foresee. There’s very little synthwork or melody to be found, just toneless percussion, noise, and that unforgettable spoken word. It’s a skeleton of a song covered in ash, as perfect a reason as any to own this comp.


While Shackleton never quite approaches the level of emotion hidden within “Blood on My Hands” in his other efforts, he is a master manipulator of tension; his tracks always seem one layer of sound away from utterly exploding, but they never quite do. They tread along, pulling you with them on an invisible string, eager to bring you to the giant curtain but always stopping short of opening it.  His best moments carry with them implications both political (“Hamas Rule”) and horrific (the frenetic, second-disc closer that is “Massacre”), and he only stumbles when his inspirations seem fuzzy. “Majestic Visions” is the sound of brilliance trying too hard, as Shackleton attempts to cover the nondescript title subject with more melodies than he’s accustomed to incorporating into one of his tracks. The result is a cacophonous overrun of the quiet tension he is so obviously comfortable with, mercifully the exception rather than the rule.


Appleblim, for her part, carries more benign intentions, her work fitting in neatly alongside that of Shackleton, but never really challenging its intensity. Where she does surpass Shackleton, however, is in her use of melodies, minimal little things that actually work with her choices of percussion rather than distract from it. “Cheat I” is creepy and abrasive, but in that scary movie way that invites you to keep watching even if you already know how it ends. The presence of a single track from Gatekeeper, appropriately called “Tomb”, is a nice change of pace with its distorted synth melodies and heavily echoed samples.  “Tomb” could well have been an old Massive Attack instrumental, and I mean that in the best possible way.


What Shackleton and Appleblim have put together under the Skull Disco name is a place where dubstep can develop, an outlet for those looking to avoid the stagnation that has consumed and all but destroyed so many potentially wonderful electronic movements in the last 20 years or so. They would be wise to seek out other artists with which to do this, as limiting themselves to their own tracks will only take them so far. Still, for now, Skull Disco is where the “superstars” are at, and anyone investigating this still-young genre would be well-advised to check out Soundboy Punishments.

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Mike Schiller is a software engineer in Buffalo, NY who enjoys filling the free time he finds with media of any sort -- music, movies, and lately, video games. Stepping into the role of PopMatters Multimedia editor in 2006 after having written music and game reviews for two years previous, he has renewed his passion for gaming to levels not seen since his fondly-remembered college days of ethernet-enabled dorm rooms and all-night Goldeneye marathons. His three children unconditionally approve of their father's most recent set of obsessions.


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Shackleton - live instore appearance, October 2007
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