Living in London these days, I’m consistently amazed by the vibe at Bristol’s dubstep nights. The tight-knit community around Rooted Records and the city’s small size and friendly feel lend a great atmosphere to events like Pinch’s monthly Dubloaded sessions. It’s about as far a contrast as possible from London – even FWD>>, which has a loyal crowd of regular attendees but still has some of that distinctly ‘London’ feel to it; the same kind of thing you feel when walking around a crowded street or stand in a tube during rush hour and feel a thousand lives brush past you without touching your own. Arriving straight at the Croft off the coach from Victoria, the difference couldn’t be more palpable.
It’s this aspect that makes Dubloaded such a pleasure to attend – there is a genuinely chilled out, friendly feel which fits well with the positivity coming from MC Dread during Wedge and Gatekeeper, who open the night with a back-to-back set of typically Bristolian dubstep, all devastating bass pressure and brittle, techy melody. Still, the real reason I’ve made the trip down from London for the evening is the promise of an hour in the company of Shackleton. Since Skull Disco’s end last year, he has almost entirely dropped off the radar, emerging for the odd, rare, live performance. Judging by the wealth of new material premiered tonight, it’s been time productively spent. With his later work for Skull Disco he gradually loosened his ties to the dancefloor - the shamanic drum circle pulse of ‘Death Is Not Final’ aside, his music became increasingly abstract, the only resemblance left to the genre that spawned it the omnipresent rumble of sub-bass and the fleeting memory of halfstep beats.
From the moment he steps onstage this evening, hunched behind his laptop, there is no such intangibility. The sheer physical force that fills the Croft’s tiny space is overwhelming. It helps that the sound system in here is tweaked to perfection – both astonishingly loud and crystal clear. It’s immediately gratifying and utterly danceable – in fact it’s next to impossible not to move, as the repetitive, polyrhythmic percussion seems to tap into some deeper plane of consciousness. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so absorbed in any live music experience – at one point I check myself, and find that I’ve been staring blankly at the wall for the last ten minutes, so absorbed in what’s entering my ears to care about my eyes.
The immediately familiar syncopations of ‘Blood On My Hands’ appear early, swamped in almost painful static wash, and the eerie disembodied voices that pepper his tracks leer out of the mix, out of their recorded contexts. Over the course of his hour’s set there is a lack of traditional build-drop dynamic - rather the set is built vertically, with layer upon layer of tribal patterns and washes of static feedback. Individual components are stacked upon each other then elaborately peeled away to the bare bones, the effect reminiscent less of any concept of ‘dubstep’ than of some mutant, devolved strain of techno, stripped to its very core and innately tied to the ritualistic connotations of ‘the dance’. The last fifteen minutes are devastating, as the curling arabesques of ‘Hamas Rule’ are propelled into molasses-thick wall of noise which parts to allow the urgent radio chatter of ‘Naked’ to breathe for a fraction of a minute before the air is abruptly sucked out once again.
Headhunter plays last. Last year’s Nomad was not a particularly immediate album, its charms gradually sinking in over repeated plays - there is no such subtlety tonight, just an hour of massive, room-wrecking dubs. Whilst many producers hover around its margins without fully integrating techno’s hypnotic pulse, Headhunter has probably come closest to creating a genuine hybrid. There have been accusations that the Bristol-Berlin crossover can strip dubstep of the rude charm that has characterised London-centric dance music throughout its history, but if anything the introduction of loosely formed garage-influenced beats to techno’s mechanistics infuses it with a greater humanity and sense of playfulness. Tonight is ample evidence of that.
I will definitely be making the same trip next month.