"Strange Keys" is split across two discs, each with its own identity and aesthetic. Disc One is the more varied of the two and seems to be Bower acting alone (although i don't really know, as the album lists no credits whatsoever). If that's the case then these six pieces show Bower toying with the idea of what Skullflower is and what the band as a vehicle is really capable of. Two years ago, using the word "beautiful" or "heavenly" to describe anything Skullfower churned out would be entirely remiss; in 2010 the lines are less distinctly drawn and we see Bower bringing in more ideas and sounds from his other projects, most notably Sunroof!, who have always seemed to be the day to Skullflower's infinite night. This sort of self-cannibalizing would seem like a cop-out in the hands of a lesser artist but with Bower it's all about opening up the third eye. While there is no shortage of sheer noise blowouts on this disc (check the opener "Shivering Aurora") the surprise and delight comes in the explorations, of Bower operating outside the comfort zone and expanding Skullflower's musical palette. It's exciting to hear this band evolving and morphing right in front of me; i feel like the idea of noise is being reivented again and we're really only beginning to hear what's possible.
If Disc One is the exploration then Disc Two is the conquering of that world by force. Horrific, bloody, enslaving, merciless force. This is the maelstrom that recent Skullflower albums have demonstrated, the perfect assault engine for auditory onslaught, the whirling, howling scream of a million guitars, like a Rhys Chatham symphony gone completely over to the dark side, as physical a force as it is a musical one. The monstrous weight of disc two leads me to believe that Bower here is operating in full band mode with the help of Lee Stokoe and drummer Stuart Dennison. Much like on last year's "Malediction" the drums are audible as the proceedings begin and then just get buried as the guitars grow and shriek and multiply. A recent article by David Keenan suggested that Bower has been listening to a lot of Richard Wagner and this half of "Strange Keys" certainly lends credence to that rumour-opening track "Nibelungen" is as symphonic a piece as Bower has ever penned, imbued with a crushing density and Satanic pomp that i have never heard in a Skullflower recording. There's a return to structure in this piece, itself a telling notion, and the skillful layering of both noise and melody suggests Bower's engagement with Wagner's work is more than a passing fancy. This approach resurfaces on the epic closer "Rheingold" as well (even the titles of these two pieces seem "german"-it can't be coincidence!), the guitars swelling and climbing to an almost impossible peak of bombastic airpushing until the entire thing just collapses. Sandwiched between those two monoliths are four tracks of utter terror and evil, focusing on Bower's other most noted influence as of late-arcane magick ritual and an interest in all things occult and Satanic. If the third eye can be opened, then so can a void and so can a gate, and across these four hymns Bower seeks to rend open those portals and let whatever dark forces reside there into our universe to wreak havoc let blood. These songs reach such a nadir of volume that it sounds like you're standing in the middle of a great roaring conflagration, being burned alive. Maybe you're a witch. Maybe Bower is the devil.
To me, Skullflower are absolute perfection. I hold Bower in the highest esteem and think of him as one of the true musical geniuses of the modern age. Personally i hold him up with two other visionaries, Campbell Kneale and Varg Vikernes, both individuals who used music as an outlet for intensely personal confessions wrought into sound. It would be easy for me to say that Kneale represents the beauty, Varg the darkness, and Bower becomes the template onto which both artists inscribe their ideas (maybe a bit of a reach, since all three have operated independently of each other and have grown into their aesthetics naturally). I feel that this is really important, intense and gorgeous music, the sound of the end, the utter collapse of everything. There is no one else making this sort of music who is able to operate at this level of mastery. Probably the best record of 2010.