t all began, appropriately enough, with an explosion. The first side of the first release on the avant dubstep label Skull Disco is Shackleton’s “I Am Animal” and after a few seconds of desiccated rave strings, a bomb comes in and blows the whole thing up. The strings continue, of course. Little can stop the urge to dance—even the tom-heavy syncopations that you’ll find on most dubstep tracks. But the bomb remains. A mission statement. A call to arms.
Few have risen to the challenge in the past two years. But who can blame them? If it wasn’t for this CD release of Skull Disco’s first seven vinyl releases, their sound might’ve gone even more unheard. As it is, the sound of twisted dubstep isn’t all that palatable. Then again, when you listen to Soul Jazz’s mostly listless Box of Dub collection, it’s not hard to understand why it’s a genre destined to stay underground.
Strangely, though, the weirdest are probably the ones most primed for mainstream acclaim. Unlike the majority of their contemporaries, Shackleton and Applebim (the two producers responsible for most of the work here) lace their work with more than a simple dedication to dub pioneers. On “Hamas Rule,” you’ll hear a Middle Eastern melody lolling about, while “Naked” mixes descending bass hits with what sounds like melodica and an insistent piano.
The label’s biggest hit thus far, of course, has been Shackleton’s “Blood on My Hands.” It immediately launches into the usual Egyptian-tinged riddim, but it also opens with the refrain “When I see the towers fall…” and works its way through a harrowing monologue from there. Included here as well is Villalobos’ 18-minute take on the track, which smoothes out the original’s jerky propulsion, slows it down, and turns it into a meditation far more affecting than any piece of 9/11-influenced art that has come before it.
Despite the noise to the contrary, it’s been a bit hard for me to puzzle out the connections between dubstep and microhouse, though. Ricardo Villalobos hammers home the point in the most recent issue of The Wire that artists like Shackleton are “serious” about testing the limits of sound. But aside from punishing, teeth-chattering bass, there’s little about Soundboy Punishments that tests a listener. This is how dubstep—and all genres—should be: music that takes from other styles freely, encompassing sounds from all edges of the world. Mediocrity is unsettling and eerie. Soundboy Punishments is life-affirming and vital.
Reviewed by: Nina Phillips
Reviewed on: 2007-08-09