Skull Disco: Soundboy Punishments

Skull Disco

I saw this on Boomkat a couple of weeks back and was really in two minds whether to bother or not. I have a fair amount of Dubstep (on CD, gah), but was beginning to feel like maybe I didn’t need to hear any more. I’ve found the thrill of the music to be intermittent: at times I really enjoy it, at others I’ve found its mid-range tempos seem to verge on the monotonous. (Gutter, if you’re reading this, please feel free to put me right.) I don’t claim to be an expert at all, so such views are probably the result of ignorance of the wider scene rather than representing anything like informed opinion. Despite those reservations, and to a large extent on impulse, I clicked away and ordered the Skull Disco compilation.

When, a week or so later, I opened the package I experienced the first of a couple of pleasant surprises. Unlike the standard Dubstep jewel case, here was a lovely gatefold card jacket with thick card sleeves for the two CDs. I liked the visual design as well – Skull Disco have a consistent label style courtesy of Zeke Clough, which seems to be a mixture of Robert Crumb, cod-Egyptian symbolism and touches of heavy metal arch-gothic. The only other comparably impressive Dubstep design strategy is the teen-subconscious erotica of Various Productions’ sleeves (designed by ). Playful and possibly ironic on the outside then, Skull Disco’s music both fulfils and wrong-steps expectations. The 19 tracks are all mid-paced and bass-heavy, so no surprises there. However, there’s a greater emphasis on percussive activity than other Dubstep I’m familiar with and the music is a strange mixture of formal patterns and playful inflection. Another strong impression, probably obliquely related to this, is the sense of space on these tracks – it’s positively airy but still manages to retain the genre’s characteristic eeriness. Unlike the compressed claustrophobia of, say, Memories of the Future, Skull Disco tracks feel like you’ve escaped prolonged incarceration only to find the world you’d longed for changed and you’ve become an outsider against your will. The feeling of space also means that the music’s samples and sound effects are powerful in inverse proporation to their understatedness.

Also related to these impressions is the extent to which the (Middle) Eastern flavouring observable on early Kode9 and Digital Mystikz tracks (see Rephlex’s Grime 1 and 2 compilations for example), has bled into the very seams of the music, infused its structures with a sense of otherness. It’s as though these musicians have raised themselves up from their armchairs and taken a plane trip to experience the cultures they’ve sampled. The music remains a fantasy of sorts, but it doesn’t feel so much like dilettante plundering for its own sake, but instead it’s resulted in a weird hybrid that might catch the unwary off-guard. Scratch that, it caught me off-guard, made me wonder for a while what exactly I was listening to. I think this gets to the root of why I hear Skull Disco as not just another CD hoovering up a bunch of Dubstep 12″s. At least for a while, it feels refreshingly different to experience this sense of space and uncertainty. And of course there’s no ignoring that remix. If you’re not yet familiar with Ricardo Villalobos’s characteristic teasing out and twisting of Blood On My Hands (included as the first track on the second CD), well, you have an uneasy treat ahead of you. Uneasy because of the spooked repetition of the ‘fall of the towers’ subject matter. The only reference to that subject matter I’m aware of is on Scott Walker’s Tilt, though I’m sure there’s many others by now. I digress.

Listening to this album prompted me to do a little research and I quickly found a lengthy interview with Shackleton (composer of the majority of the tracks on Soundboy Punishments), undertaken by respected musician and Dubstep expert/commentator Blackdown. One thing I was particularly struck by in the piece was the focus upon the choice of title for the compilation’s first track: ‘Hamas Rule’. Shackleton is clearly treading similar ground as Muslimgauze did, by referring to Middle East issues. What I’m struck by is the level of concern on the part of the interviewer, a far cry from the tradition of political engagement on the part of popular artists in past decades. The title is clearly ambiguous and reminds me of the outcry caused by New Order and Joy Division. In fact, as much as the music is interesting in itself, it’s the references to Hamas and 9/11 that intrigue me. It seems that most music nowadays appears to shy away from political reference or engagement. I’d love to see Shackleton explore these areas further rather than back off from them, his text for Blood On My Hands is remarkably haunting.

Skull Disco website (order for £10 + P&P!)
Blackdown interview with Shackleton

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