A Quietus Review: 4 Black Suns & A Sinister Rainbow (June 20th, 2013)

The title of Matthew Bower’s latest project automatically brings to mind his Sunroof! outfit, whose Panzer Division Lou Reed remains one of the man’s best releases. However, where Sunroof! saw Bower twisting banks of feedback noise around grungy guitar arpeggios. As such, Sunroof! connected vividly with the earliest incarnations of his most famous band, Skullflower. Black Sun Roof!, meanwhile, feels like a continuation of more recent Skullflower releases, which perhaps makes sense because, like that in band’s most constant recent line-up, and in Voltigeurs, he is partnered by Samantha Davies, here performing mostly on violin, with Bower as ever using his guitar as one mighty noise source, bolstered by some equally freaked-out synths. The pair have been collaborating for several years now, and they’ve developed in that time a potent form of noisy synergy, regardless of the name they’re operating under.

4 Black Suns & A Sinister Rainbow is, unsurprisingly, a loud and fucked up beast of an album, but Bower and Davies’ approach to these 12 tracks – spread out over two CDs – in a very different fashion to their previous work as a duo, mainly through their use of unruly, faltering rhythm patterns as an ever-shifting bedrock for most of the tracks. Skullflower started life as a full-on noise rock band, complete with muscular drums, but here the forward momentum, such as it is, is provided by a sickly-sounding drum machine that the pair use to inject added unease rather than actual rhythm, as snare loops bubble up and recede in disconcerting fashion, evoking the brittle pulsations of early 80s industrial electronic music, notably San Francisco goth-nihilists Factrix. As such, whilst 4 Black Suns & A Sinister Rainbow flows from the same dark, sense-sapping well as Skullflower and Voltigeurs and Sunoof!, it operates on a subtly different level.

If you consider the titles of recent Skullflower albums such as Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament, Malediction or Fucked on a Pile of Corpses, it’s easy to discern a form of bleak spirituality, a pursuit of gnostic philosophy rendered abstract as Bower and his various musical partners pile on the waves of distortion. His erstwhile band and label mate Gary Mundy has spoken to me in the past of “bleak psychedelia”, and Bower seems to generally aim for the core of those two words, to the point that they become irrevocably intermingled. As the high-octane drones of 4 Black Suns & A Sinister Rainbow wrap themselves around ones senses, however, it soon becomes clear that Black Sun Roof! is both more and less abstract than anything Bower has done before, as if the haze of distortion is keeping something concrete and tangible just out of arm’s reach. On the first disc, ‘Truffled Abyss’, the level are cranked into the read, but fluttering synth phrases and beats seep through the cracks between the walls of noise, outlining half-formed melodies usually framed by Davies’ overdriven, yo-yoing violin lines. Via e-mail, Bower speaks of the pair’s desire to move away from existing ‘dark’ music archetypes, with Black Sun Roof! instead trying to create their own “alien artifacts”. In a way, it reminds me of artists like Wim Mertens or Sigur Ros inventing their own languages: the strange collages of synth, rhythm, violin and guitar; of melody and dissonance feel familiar (“concrete”, as Bower puts it), but never to the point of being instantly recognisable. Black Sun Roof! exists very much in a world of its own, one that they allow to bleed into ours, and into their own history.

‘Perfumed Pressure’, the two-part opening salvo, blasts the album into existence with Bower’s trademark squealing feedback heralding familiar multi-layered guitar mayhem, which sounds like he’s been spending time in an underground wind tunnel buffeting his ears with white noise. However, the aforementioned beats, which skip and collapse like the minimal rhythm on Factrix’s ‘Center of the Doll’ underpin the track, keeping it from soaring into the spheres, whilst ghostly half-formed sounds evoke sinister voices sounding from behind a wall of fog. We’re a long way from Umberto’s more overt sci-fi explorations on his latest album, Confrontations. The aliens on 4 Black Suns & A Sinister Rainbow are only suggested, like something moving at the corner of perception. Later tracks such as ‘Monstrous Souls’ and ‘Glassy Penetralia’ will feel more familiar to Skullflower fans, except even these are suffused with gasping rhythmic pulsations and sketches of synth or violin harmonics, but these wisps of light amidst the darkness are used as texture and colourations rather than as mere counterpoints the unforgiving monstrous drone Bower rips out of his six-string.

The second disc, ‘Werewolf Universe’ is markedly different to the first, a more subdued affair where Bower and Davies’ ever-shifting patterns evolve less mono-maniacally. Here the various components, be they distant voices, juddering drum machine explosions or entwined violin/guitar duels, dance and phase around and in and out of each other. Even on the 10-minute epic ‘Thunderbolt Cumshot Axis’ (what a title!), the interplay is dextrous, even subtle, the music seeming to build up of its own accord, as if Davies and Bower are mere channels for something bigger. Bower compares it to a “virus”, and it’s true that 4 Black Suns & A Sinister Rainbow may be his most organic and unpredictable release for a very long time. And fear not, Skullflower and Voltigeurs fans, these tracks are so loud and monolithic that you can still get lost in them as the waves of sound roll over you, like the best of both those bands.

4 Black Suns & A Sinister Rainbow is a long and occasionally impenetrable album, one which seems to be in perpetual motion, the various instruments colliding until they’re barely distinguishable, and yet with splinters of texture and atmosphere colouring each carefully-crafted piece. It won’t be too everyone’s taste, and it’s incredibly, overwhelmingly long, but it’s another thrilling direction that Bower and Davies are taking. Oh and, despite what you may have read, there actually isn’t a hint of tremolo on any of the tracks.

A Quietus Review: Fucked On A Pile of Corpses by Skullflower (September 27th, 2011)

skullflower_1317121159_crop_180x180Fucked on a Pile of Corpses – now there’s a title to get the self-appointed arbiters of good taste in a bit of a state. But this is Skullflower we’re talking about, not only just about the most consistently excellent band to have emerged murkily from the UK underground in the last two-and-a-half decades, but also one of the most intelligent and profound. The title may at first suggest the kind of crassly provocative nonsense favoured by teenage black metal enthusiasts, but anyone remotely familiar with the music of Skullflower will know that, behind the harsh words and violent imagery lies a thoughtful balancing of twin notions of ecstasy and decay. Fucked on a pile of corpses – what could be more electrifying or more hideous? Even more than My Bloody Valentine or Slint, Skullflower has, since 1988’s Birthdeath EP, epitomized the way in which crushing volume and relentless brutality can go hand in hand with ecstatic bliss.

If anything, the band’s creative genius, Matt Bower, has got even better at melding the tantric and the deafening as he’s slowly, and noisily, joined the ranks of alternative rock’s elder statesmen. Cold Spring were quick to advertise Fucked on a Pile of Corpses as just about the most extreme album Bower’s ever produced under the Skullflower moniker and, while I might argue in favour of 2006’s noise guitar masterpiece Tribulation, there is no denying that this latest offering is just about as ferocious, violent and deafeningly loud as they come.

The album bursts into (after?)life with ‘Hanged Man’s Seed’ (yeah, anyone upset by the album’s title is liable to find track names like this, or ‘Tantrik Ass Rape’ to be beyond the pale), a startling (and startlingly brief) explosion of electronics-driven noise, complete with thumping drum machine rhythms and distorted modular synth mess. Given that since Bower resurrected the Skullflower project he appeared to be dedicating his efforts to finding the best way to gain desolation and enlightenment through the mauling of customised guitars, the Whitehouse-esque staccatos of ‘Hanged Man’s Seed’ are almost a shock, and immediately bring to mind memories of Bower’s early days as a key figure on legendary Power Electronics label Broken Flag. The faux nostalgia continues a bit later on ‘Anubis Station’, where howling, disconnected vocals drift frighteningly behind a wall of distorted mulch, evoking the ghostly, horrified noise of Gary Mundy’s Ramleh circa Hole In The Heart, only with a layer of typically Bower-esque guitar mess slapped on top. In between, there’s a fleeting glance towards the band’s days as a quasi-doom metal act on ‘Viper’s Fang’, the only track to feature drums, which are combined with some insane crunching guitar riffage, to ensure the track wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1990’s Xaman album. This is followed by a nod to Bower’s more recent explorations in Voltigeurs of amorphic guitar noise (‘Defiling Their Temples With Bestial Lust’).

At this point, Fucked on a Pile of Corpses could almost be in danger of becoming a Skullflower album per se, to quote Neil Young’s description of his 1989 opus Freedom, which appeared to deliberately cover every base the Loner had ever touched upon, from protest folk to lovelorn ballad to noisy rockers. Of course, Matt Bower is made of more perverse stuff than the Canadian, and just when you think you’ve nailed ‘Hanged Man’s Seed’ or ‘Viper’s Fang’ as staples of a particular facet of the Skullflower/Bower cannon, a sudden burst of noise, unexpected melody (these are some of the most song-like -relatively speaking- tracks Bower has released in yonks), guitar flourish or abrupt stop (all three opening tracks are under four minutes in length, making them amongst the shortest in recent Skullflower history) that leave you wondering what the hell you just witnessed and subjected your ears to. And by ‘Fairy Knife Hell’, you’ve been pitched headlong into new heights of Skullflower madness.

In the last year, I’ve seen Matt Bower perform live three times – twice in Voltigeurs (the rather fantastic and monolithic guitar duo he forms with Samantha Davies) and once in Skullflower. On two of those occasions, he and his bands were sharing a bill with some of the premier exponents of what I consider to be the best noise sub-genre to have emerged in years, namely the Harsh Noise Walls of The Rita, Vomir and Werewolf Jerusalem, among others. Of course, you could argue that Bower laid down the foundations of HNW years ago, particularly in Hototgisu, but there is a slight feeling on the second half of Fucked on a Pile of Corpses that he’s been somewhat inspired by his concert bedfellows, especially on ‘Tantrik Ass Rape’, the album’s high water mark, a remorseless deluge of hysterical formless noise that overwhelms the senses and leaves you staring into space, wrapped in sound, unable to focus on anything but the unrelenting tidal wave of sound conjured up by Bower and his acolytes. But if the ethos of HNW has certainly had an effect on this latest evolution of the Skullflower sound, it is never derivative, as the emotionally charged chords of Bower’s (and Davies’?) guitar bring a depth and humanity to Fucked on a Pile of Corpses that evades all but the very best harsh noise artists out there.

With Fucked on a Pile of Corpses, Bower has delivered the strongest, most cohesive (and, ironically, given the titanic length of its predecessor Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament, the shortest) Skullflower album since Tribulation, and maybe since before the band’s late-nineties hiatus. Coming from an unrepentant Skullflower nut like myself, that’s saying something, as everything they ever do is at least worthy of repeated listens. Beyond the crude title and sheer brutality this album displays, this is above all a powerful, hypnotic and emotionally affecting album, one that uses extreme volume, aggression and brawn to aim into indeterminate heavens, and pretty much hits the target. Easily one of the year’s best releases to date.

You can also view this article: http://thequietus.com/articles/07066-skullflower-fucked-on-a-pile-of-corpses-review