In 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, still simmering on the one-week-only shelf at the New York Public Library, Daniel Pinchbeck writes: “The Apocalypse refuses to release its grip on the profane imagination of our culture.” His solution: more book reading, spiritual enlightenment, shamanistic journeys on psychotropic plants. In a recent Voice Pazz & Jop essay on noise, metal, and the U.K. drum ‘n’ bass–dub blend dubstep, Simon Reynolds agreed: “We live in cold, dark times, and these genres register that coldness and darkness.”
Of the three, none has evoked cold ‘n’ dark as monolithically as dubstep. And like most monoliths, dubstep can bore as often as it can awe—Soul Jazz’s recent Box of Dub should’ve introduced the genre; instead, it nearly killed it. The style’s narrowness is one of the reasons to celebrate its exceptional practitioners—most recently, Shackleton and Appleblim, whose Skull Disco label has put out some of the deepest, bleakest, and least dogmatic takes on dubstep yet. Consider Shackleton’s “Blood on My Hands,” seven minutes of mechanized gasps and clangs, with a bassline so low-frequency that half-decent speakers only register it by wobbling. And snare drums—snares that appear out of nowhere, clatter, and recede. Each element feels isolated; it’s a sound archipelago. But where dubstep’s prefab dread can resemble common weed stupor, Shackleton sounds alert, harsh to the point of industrial, polluted by trickier, more seductive Middle Eastern rhythms. And then there’s the track’s deadpan voice-over, taking the perspective of a political radical watching the events of 9/11 on TV: “When I see the towers fall, it cannot be denied/That as a spectacle it is a realization of the mind.” It warps into a mantra: “When I see the towers fall . . . fall . . . fall . . . fall. . . . ”
Soundboy Punishments collects the label’s first seven singles, including psych-house producer Ricardo Villalobos’s 18-minute remix of “Blood on My Hands,” which only trumps the original in the sense that it spells out dubstep as dance music, not just a soundtrack to modern terror. When an interviewer asked Shackleton about the track and 9/11 in general, he echoed the sentiment of any good doomsayer playing the long game: “I thought that it was like a story from the Bible.” He’s not a prophet, but Soundboy Punishments does represent a common condition: end-times anxiety as a point of seduction.