Shapeshifter have cemented themselves as a national treasure and spawned a new wave of drum and bass in New Zealand and farther afield. Throughout their discography they have always stayed true to their roots, encapsulating the intensity of their live sound and uplifting feel-good vocals. Shapeshifter have headlined multiple sold out tours, graced the lineups of Glastonbury, Parklife and The Big Chill, taken home a heap of awards, gained a legion of fans, and continue to define a traditional Kiwi summer for many gig-goers. With six full length studio albums (three of them platinum), and one on the way, there’s no better time to revisit their electric body of work spanning over the past two decades.
Twenty years ago four guys met for the very first time at Christchurch’s Jazz School and Shapeshifter was born. They put their own twist on the drum and bass genre by bringing together their diverse musical talents of dub, hip-hop electronica, jazz and metal. The four-piece quickly established themselves as ones to watch with the release of their debut studio album Realtime. With songs such as ‘Tapestry’ and ‘Atmosphere’ they proved that they can work a sampler as well as a saxophone. They even recruited collaborators Ladi6 on vocals and Kaps (Fabel) and Tiki Taane (Salmonella Dub) on production for effortless track ‘Move With Me’. Their raw talent and sophisticated sound went on to win them Best Electronic Release at the 2002 bNet NZ Music Awards, and they also picked up a nomination for Best Electronic Album at the RIANZ NZ Music Awards.
Riddim Wise (2004)
The anticipation for Shapeshifter’s second studio album was high after gaining heavy praise for their first LP. The band relocated to Melbourne in 2002 and amped up their live sound by recruiting vocalist Paora Apera (aka P Digsss). With a bunch of sold-out shows under their belt and a new home studio, they dropped their second album Riddim Wise in 2004. The ten tracks showed a progression in pace by infusing their strong instrumental elements of energetic drums and rumbling basslines into an atmospheric spectrum of drum and bass. The towering vocal features on singles from Ladi6 on ‘When I Return’, Joe Dukie (Fat Freddy’s Drop) on ‘Long White Cloud’, and P Digsss on ‘Been Missing’ are some of their best. The album went on to become the #1 Independent NZ album release and also the #1 NZ National Dance Album in New Zealand history.
Third record Soulstice, saw the band gradually move towards more vocal heavy drum and bass with the addition of P Digsss as a full time member. The album successfully blended elements from soul, dub, hip-hop, funk and rock into their own captivating style, shifting focus from the traditional drum and bass formula. Soulstice has produced many fan favourites, including ‘Bring Change’, ‘One’ and ‘Electric Dream’, which continue to hold a special place in their live shows. Ladi 6 also makes a third return, this time for track ‘In The Rain’. All twelve songs have their own unique flavour, from ‘Southern Lights’ heavy distorted guitars to ‘The Ride’s’ romantic beat. Optimistic single ‘Bring Change’ was the first song of theirs to accumulate extensive TV and radio play, which helped their popularity soar and earned them a Gold certification in NZ in just three weeks.
The System Is a Vampire 2009
Shapeshifter may have briefly disappeared off the radar for a few years, but they made a triumphant return to the scene they pioneered with their fourth studio album The System Is a Vampire. In true Shapeshifter fashion, they love to debut new material in a live setting, and they gave Kiwis an early taste of the record on their 2008 Summer tour by playing various unreleased tracks including, ‘Twin Galaxies’, ‘Warning’ and ‘System’. The System Is a Vampire stayed true to the Shapeshifter sound but with a more underlying dark and grittier approach, a stark contrast to the sunlight euphoria of Soulstice. P Digsss vocals continue to ascend, especially on standout lead single and opening track ‘Dutchies’. The album went on to become platinum, was shortlisted for the inaugural Taite Music Prize in 2010 and became their first ever record to be released globally.
The System Is a Remix (2011)
After releasing a live album in 2007 it was only a matter of time before the boys dabbled in remixes. In 2010 they released a collection of remixes of their songs on an album adequately titled The System Is a Remix. Shapeshifter picked some local talent from the likes of State of Mind and The Upbeats as well as a few huge international names including Logistics, Camo & Krooked and Netsky. They remixed a variety of their biggest hits from ‘Dutchies’, to ‘Electric Dream’ and ‘Long White Cloud, with the sentimental anthem ‘The Touch’ getting a double dose as well as alluring track ‘Lifetime’. The different spins on some of their deep cuts and absolute bangers showcase their bonafide arsenal of hits.
Continuing to work with The Upbeats, they went on to help produce Shapeshifter’s fifth album Delta. With vibrant and emotionally filled singles ‘Monarch’, ‘Diamond Trade’, ‘Gravity’ and ‘In Colour’, it was the sound of a band ready to make waves on a global scale. The saxophone genius and musical elements from their early days shine through and are helped along once more by pristine production from their stage sound manager and friend Tiki Taane. Delta continued to tread new ground by exploring new source material with their stadium-sized sound and genre-defying amalgamation of jazz, rock, soul and electronica. If listening to ‘In Colour’ doesn’t make you feel good then your speakers must be on mute.
Shapeshifter may only be down to two original members but with fresh blood in the mix, their sixth studio album Stars continued to push boundaries and amplify their expansive drum and bass sound. Throughout their career Shapeshifter have always managed to capture the essence of their live sound and make it feel like you’re at a high-energy gig even when you’re alone in your bedroom. Title track and single ‘Stars’, ‘Fake Charmer’ and ‘Her’ show a finessed confidence and the cheeky Anika Moa even makes an appearance on song ‘Blazer’. In 2018, NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gifted Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex a little slice of Kiwi heaven in the form of a Stars vinyl and The System Is a Vampire album during their royal tour of the South Pacific.
It’s not a proper Kiwi summer without a Shapeshifter gig, lock a date into your calendar and catch them on the road on their upcoming New Zealand tour.