Saturday, August 30, 2008

SKULLFLOWER: 1988-1993, An Appreciation Thereof
The band known as Skullflower, helmed by guitar destroyer, Matthew Bower, are still going. I haven't heard anything they've done since 1996, yet others speak highly of their last half-dozen albums. I won't speak of them, of course, but I will tell you about the 5 CDs of theirs I still own which span the years 1988-'93 as, back in the early/mid '90s, they were albums I'd swear I'd take to the grave. Well, I'm still alive and I still own them, so I guess I wasn't that far off course.
Skullflower originally breathed life in the UK back in the late '80s, a "collective" of sorts made up of various people linked w/ the Broken Flag label, one of the premier imprints dealing in that whole post-Throbbing Gristle world of Limey noise. Sounds kinda dated now, but back in the day, believe me, collecting cassettes full of "power electronics" w/ references to Charles Manson and various mass murderers was a whole load of fun. I wasn't doing it back in the '80s, but ca. '91-'95 I collected more of such cassettes than I'd usually readily admit. Skullflower's twist in that regard was that they were essentially a "rock" outfit w/ guitars, bass and drums, ditching the outrageous histrionics of some of their brethren.
I first read about 'em in Forced Exposure back in 1990 or so, and since they were being compared to F/i, my curiosity was piqued. Still, back in the pre-internet days, their albums, mostly released on Broken Flag or Stefan Jaworzyn's Shock label (he, too, was in the band for a while), proved impossible for a guy stuck in Melbourne to locate. That all changed when I was in Hong Kong for a month back in January '93 (my parents were living there for a year), and managed to stumble upon their Ruins and Xaman CDs in a record store (I can't tell you what an eye-opener it was to browse what appeared to be fairly mainstream chain record stores at the time and find huge sections for the likes of Merzbow, Whitehouse, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound: that's where my headspace was at the time). They fucked my mind but good.
Both collect earlier, vinyl-only material from the band, share Savage Pencil artwork and both probably remain their highest artistic zenith. Ruins, in particular, which is a comp' of their self-titled 12" EP and Form Destroyer LP, is a major stab at post-industrial rock 'n' roll swamped in layers of psych-guitar racket and it's head and shoulders above any other band from the period (barring perhaps F/i, but I'm biased) attempting such a feat. Like a hybrid of Spacemen 3, Hawkwind and Merzbow, their ability at the time to take a basic riff and strangle it over a 5-10-minute period, increasing the intensity and noise w/ each cycle, is beyond reach. Right from the first track, "Eat The Stars", which dives straight into a wigged-out space riff and envelopes it in keyboard whoops and bleeps throughout, you know you're in the hands of professionals. The song titles make 'em sound like cliches straight from the AmRep school of '90s angst - "Black Ass Bone", "Birthdeath", "Thirsty Animal", "Woodland Death March", "Solar Anus" - but every one of those songs just mentioned heads straight for the sun and reaches it. Colossally brilliant astral drone I could never recommend too highly. This mofo has been out of print for a dog's age (I'm pretty sure Andy at tUMULt spoke of reissuing it a few years back), a fate which has also befallen its brother release from the time, Xaman. Unfortunately my copy suffers from "disc rot" - a condition which decays the CD, making it turn yellow and the music within turn to static and noise - something which befell many World Serpent titles from the period (WS was the manufacturing/distribution house [now bankrupt] which distributed [and reportedly burnt] the whole C93/NWW/Coil family of labels back in the day), so I have to turn to my increasingly terrible memory in an attempt to discuss it. I'll say this: similar sound and approach to Ruins, though perhaps not quite as god-like. Doesn't mean for a second you shouldn't search it out.
Up next was '92's IIIrd Gatekeeper CD, originally released on Justin Broadrick's Headdirt label, it saw the band take a different approach. With slicker production and a sound less cosmic and more dirty grind, at the time I was initially disappointed before three-dozen listens revealed its layers of beauty to me. This one sees the band going for a more bludgeoning sound, pre-empting the likes of Earth and Sunn O))) w/ a hipster slo-mo metallic psych squall (it was recorded in '90/'91), which I guess is why this one has recently been reissued by Crucial Blast for a whole new generation to enjoy. I played this just the other day after a decade's break, and the sound has weathered well enough for me to figure I'll be hangin' onto it for life.
The last two Skullflower discs which floated my boat back in the day were '93s Obsidian Shaking Codex, released on Ron Lessard's RRR label outta Massachusetts, and Last Shot At Heaven ('93? '94?) on the long-defunct (and now resurrected??) Noiseville label outta NYC. The former saw the band taking a decidedly non-rock approach, w/ 5 of the 6 tracks concentrating on layers of atmospheric guitar drones and doom-ridden soundscapes (again, Sunn O))) had to've been listening to this stuff at the time), as well as a redone version of "Diamond Bullet", a song which... if my memory isn't totally faltering, I believe was originally released as a 7" on the Sympathy label. Still, it's a good 'un, and the violin drone throughout lends this a fairly awesome Velvets-y drive lacking in their noisier material. The dreamier, more bong-hit side of Skullflower, a side it's good to bathe in for a while.
Last Shot At Heaven saw the band returning to the more rough 'n' ready, over-the-top vibe of Ruins and Xaman, and remains right near the top of the Skullflower heap for me. Recorded totally in the red with guitars and cheap organs rattling throughout, this one has the same desperado, junked-out vibe which made their earlier albums such a revelation - equal parts Amon Duul 1 and Whitehouse - and the sonic overload of a track such as "Rotten Sun II" will convince any noise-loving putz friends of yours or mine - and we're speaking of a wide berth here: My Bloody Valentine, Black Sabbath, Burzum, Flipper, Dead C. or Harry Pussy - that at least at one stage Skullflower were the shit and the bowl all at once. They were fucking relentless in their pursuit of the ultimate mind-bending riff.
What happened? Their subsequent couple of releases thereafter, on labels such as Sympathy, Freek and VHF, left me totally cold and I lost the scent. The band disappeared from view for what appears to be a decade or so, started releasing material again in the mid noughties, and yet I still haven't caught up... or even started! Who knows, maybe in the next ten years I'll get around to their last few albums and once again flip a wig. For now, I've still got these, and they're not going anywhere. They remain mind-fryers of the highest order.


Mundy morning blooz said...

RAMLEH not found...

Dave said...

Nope, didn't mention Consumer Electronics or Ax or Sunroof! or Total or Ascension either, but writing about the Skullflower family tree would take a book!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading a fan's round up of some these early "classics". Bower has been a staple in my collection for years. I was never able to get my hands on Form Destroyer, but I still cherish my lp copy of Xaman. Carved in Roses & This Is on VHF are solid releases worth checking out, too. Recent releases have abandoned the band format more or less (usually solo or duo affairs) and bear a closer similarity to Total. Great blog!

Anonymous said...

I recently got back into Skullflower about three or four years ago, and have managed to piece together many of the gaps in my collection. A great band, and one that really does stand the test of time.

I'd ditto the Carved into Roses recommendation. If you had the patience for Obsidian, it is a rewarding listen. Also, Skullflower released a swath of seven inch singles. Their Sympathy records should be avoided, but the rest of it is excellent (Rift/ Avalanche and Village Sorting are my favorites). Much of their post-Carved into Roses work is mediocre, although the "unofficial" Skullflower website lists the impossible-to- find Infinityland very highly.

As for the new stuff? Oddly, their albums on Crucial Blast (Orange Canyon Mind and Tribulation) are their least "rock" oriented records and bear a strong resemblence to Obsidian and Carved into Roses, only much more abstract. Good stuff.