by Ian Simmons
[ cdreviews ]
When it comes to experimental drone metal, Skullflower have few peers. Recent releases have seen contemporaries like Sunn O))) expand their palette with saxophone, choirs and so on; however, despite having 2 CDs to play with, Skullflower have kept their focus tightly on guitar, with some minimal percussion and creepy looped vocals on City of Dis. This is not to say it is dull; it is fascinating to see just how much texture and variation mass feedback drone can be imbued with in the right hands. This particular version of Skullflower (Strange Keys was recorded in 2006/07) is essentially Matthew Bower solo. He has maintained an impressive control of the tonal structuring of the pieces here, organising blocks of scuzzed-up roar and crackle so that they slide across each other, creating a sense of depth and flow that his limited raw materials might not suggest would be possible.
Rather than aiming for contrived climaxes and false drama, he constructs pieces that circle a well defined centre of gravity, mapping out an aural terrain rather than taking the listener on a sonic journey. While Shivering Aurora has a "shaking a chainsaw inside a steel dustbin" vibe, City of Dis manages an eerie pulsing calm and Enochian Tapestries a cavernous stasis of awesome dimensions, leading through to the second disc and the restless energy of Blackened Angel Wings Scythe the Billowing Void and the almost elegiac final track Rheingold. (However abstract their music, one metal tradition Skullflower haven't abandoned is titles sounding like they've been ripped from a Gothic fantasy novel.) Monotone, they might be; monotonous they are not. Once you reach this point, it is difficult to imagine metal stripped down to a purer form. The beat has almost completely evaporated, riffs have been sanded away, all you are left with is an expression of sheer sonic muscle, a paint-stripping, yet meditative, otherworldly roar.
If metal is all about expressing power and domination, Skullflower have produced a music that begins to approximate a sound-weapon, relentlessly exerting a field of control over everyone in hearing range. In this stripping away, Skullflower are but one of a whole raft of groups exploring just how rarefied metal can become and still be metal, along with the aforementioned Sunn0))), Earth and Black Boned Angel are also following similar slowed-down, fuzzed-up paths. In essence, though, all this harks back to the multi-layered electromagnetic impenetrability of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, widely seen as a joke when it came out in 1975. Reed claimed that it was the ultimate conclusion of metal; 35 years later, it seems he was not wrong.