Saturday, February 6, 2010


Skullflower is the only band that could soundtrack the apocalypse. As the years have worn on, Matthew Bower has refined his vision to such a singularity that no one currently operating in the musical world can match what he does or even begin to come close to replicating it. Everything pales in comparison to this; there is no keeping pace with genius. Far beyond mere amp torture and reaching past the limits of auditory bombast to a world where the drone is the idol, where the message is one of adulation and engagement, where the journey and the destination are one, "Strange Keys" is a monster of an album. It isn't a statement so much as a declaration of war, or maybe just Bower's sneer as he says, "I dare you." But Matthew Bower has nothing to prove at this point and that's part of what makes this whole thing feel so visceral and honest. There is a darkness here; it's rendered in both the music contained within and the artworks on display outside-the stark black and white engravings of vaguely religious iconography, the photographs inside showing sexual torture, angels falling from the sky, medieval villages aflame and a Renaissance era depiction of melancholy-but there's a light, too, not an optimism but a more beautiful rendering of the same ideals. Interspread amongst all the violent noise guitar eruptions there are equally violent displays of heavenliness. "Enochian Tapestries", for instance, wallows in a wash of massive Tim Hecker-esque fuzz blur while Bower's trademark high-end whine caterwauls over everything, sounding like a weeping requiem and an aching paean to the idea of happiness. A thorough listen to "Gateway to Blasphemous Light" reveals an exploration of strained melodies beneath it's overwrought echoes, the guitars ringing bright and molten as they look to carve a piece out of the sky. It's not blasphemous in the sense that it's profane-it's blasphemous in the sense that people just aren't ready; it's a truth they aren't prepared for yet, much like ancient ideas of the world being round, or the earth revolving around the sun.
"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.

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