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Dub on his hands: Ricardo Villalobos remixes Shackleton

[Note: Today's entry is re-run from my blog over at URGE.]

I've been advocating a crossover (or at least a friendly afternoon tea) between dubstep and minimal for a couple of years now, and 2006 saw such encounters start to happen. One tune appears to have been the key: Shackleton's "Blood on My Hands," released by his own intrepid Skull Disco label. That tune was an early entrant into minimal techno sets from the likes of Ricardo Villalobos; now Skull Disco will release a remix of the tune by Villalobos himself.

When Villalobos charted it early last year, it was probably dubstep's first high-profile infiltration of the 4/4 ranks; it made sense, too, given Shackleton's liquid congas and overall sense of gloom. (As a DJ, Ricardo often plays to the party, but in his studio, he likes to indulge his dark side.) Cassy picked it as the opening track for her Panoramabar 01 mix CD, on the venue's own Ostgut Ton label—an ambitious choice, if in retrospect a somewhat misguided one; the tune's too creepy to really sit right with the sax-smeared deep house groove that follows it, and by fading out when she does Cassy doesn't do justice to the vocals that form the centerpiece of "Blood."

Those vocals: I heard them oozing out of many a Villalobos mix from this summer. Not having listened to Shackleton's single in a while, I couldn't place them, but you never forget the words themselves:

"When I see the towers fall,
It cannot be denied that,
As a spectacle,
It is a realization of the mind.

You see, I'm standing on a mountaintop
And letting out a scream,
It's the language of the earth,
It is the language of the beasts.

There's no point to look behind us,
We left the corpse behind,
Because flesh is weak and forms break down.
They cannot last forever."

Hearing that line about "the towers fall"—followed by indistinct muttering, all of it pitched coagulatingly slow, and then a vision of Lot's wife standing near Wall Street, covered in ash—is unnerving. Especially when the context is a festival, a rave, a sweaty, loved-up dancefloor bumping at 128 BPM. But that's precisely one of Villalobos' strengths as a DJ—the ability to lace the rave with a flash of gravitas, of sobriety, without being portentous or a buzzkill. Knowing something of Villalobos' oppositional politics—he refuses to play in the U.S. while Bush is in office—I suspected that for him, the lyrics referred to the World Trade Center. It wasn't until reading Blackdown Soundboy's recent interview with Shackleton that I learned that he indeed intended the lyrics as a response to 9/11.

I most recently heard Villalobos mixing "Blood on My Hands" in part two of his session at Fabric's seventh birthday party. (You can find it over at Cocoon Styled.) Here, he blended Shackleton's tune—his remix, in fact, though I didn't know it at the time—with his own "Fizheuer Zieheuer," the 35-minute, over-the-top minimalist extravaganza of modulating drums and horns. It was doubly unnerving, because this time—with the drums reduced to nearly nothing—I couldn't figure out where the tracks began and ended; I figured the vocals must simply be an a cappella that Villalobos was playing over another of his drum tracks. Well, yes and no, because finally we come to the very point of this entry: the remix.

(It's not out yet, but for a taste of Villalobos at his most expansive, check his classic "The Contempt (Last H of Porto Mix)" in the playlist on on the URGE page; for a taste of Shackleton's music, download DubSTa's mix from the Skull Disco site.)

Villalobos' rework of "Blood on My Hands" slows the pace and turns it into an 18-and-a-half minute brood, nominally four-to-the-floor, flecked with congas and sunk deep in an airless chamber filled with watery keyboards. It is, in a word, perfect. Hardly a party tune, God knows, but imbued with such a sense of motion—thanks to those perpetually modulating drums, flanging out towards the horizon—that it begs to be snuck in just after the peak hour, when dancers are regaining their breath, their bodies still bobbing involuntarily, gathering speed. The vocals are no longer creepy, but simply mournful, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that that's precisely what Villalobos, who grew up in exile, probably intended.

Coincidentally or not, that's the tune that was playing on my stereo, driving down the coast of Chile, when I first heard that Pinochet was dead, which is rather uncanny when you think about it. Chile's exiles had been resisting the urge to look behind since 1973; even the country's return to democracy in 1990 did not permit a full backwards glance. Only with Pinochet's death—because flesh, thank God, is weak, and forms break down—does it become safe to look behind. Safe, but still painful. You wonder if Villalobos had all this in mind when he first heard those lyrics, if that's why he focused so heavily on the vocals when he produced his remix. His mix, it must be said, is imbued with a gravitas that Shackleton's original, no matter how good it is, doesn't quite achieve. There's something else that elevates Villalobos' remix above the level of the merely good: a reminder that for the survivor, for the exile—even (especially?) in the context of a dictator's death—there's no such thing as celebration.


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as usual, thanks for the expansive and tuned information...

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