A Dusted Review: Draconis by Skullflower (October 30th, 2014)

Skullflower

Listening to the music of Skullflower is a psychedelic experience in the same way that staring at a blank wall or ceiling in the dark whilst on acid, drunk out of your skull and/or high on grass (delete as applicable) can be. It’s as overbearing and unwavering as the open-ended violin drone compositions of Tony Conrad or the blasted walls of sound spat out by the likes of Vomir or the Rita. It’s proof that a full-on sonic assault can, in the right context, be as blissful and, I’ll say it again, psychedelic as the tripped-out musings of a Grateful Dead or Amon Düül II. It just takes more patience and a willingness to enter into labyrinthine minds of Matt Bower and Samantha Davies. Bower, in particular, has been ploughing this arcane, extreme furrow for the best part of 30 years, gradually honing it until he’s reached something approaching “tantric noise,” like Pärson Sound with the acoustic circular melodies replaced by unending acidic mechanical bile.

For Draconis, the duo returns to the absolutist vein of 2006’s Tribulation and Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament from four years later: this latest album, is impossibly long. The tracks bleed into one another like melting glaciers and the primitive song structures of 2011’s superlative Fucked on a Pile of Corpses are whittled away by saturation and excruciating volume. But compared to those two releases, Skullflower have been given (or gave themselves) license to flesh things out a bit, notably via the lush packaging. The album comes in a six-panel double-digipack, complete with a 16-page booklet overflowing with lush illustrations and bizarre photographs that both detail Draconis’ thematic concerns and deepen the mystery.

Bower has long had a fascination with arcana and mythological lore, although his focus is, as ever, enigmatic. The paintings that adorn these pages are abstract yet sinister, with vivid colours and strangely animalistic shapes creating an unerring sense of moody drama, as if we’re gazing at ancient humankind’s primitive attempts to recreate the legends of the earth’s creation or the epic battles of Norse mythology. Obscure symbols crop up here and there, whilst sketches and texts evoke trees, dragons and pyramids under the stars, drawing lines in myth and science from the north of England to Bhutan via ancient Egypt and the Hindu goddess Kali. Keeping things as vague and mysterious as possible only accentuates the album’s heady form of lyrical psychedelia. I cannot pretend to understand Bower and Davies’ vision, for I do not have their knowledge or imagination, but it sucks you in like a tornado, because you can’t help but try to figure it out.

“Tornado” is also a great metaphor for the music on Draconis. Each track on disc one is a veritable maelstrom of noise with extensive layer of “strings” (live they focus on guitar and violin, but sometimes I swear I can hear synths on Draconis, albeit bludgeoned into abstraction by effects) superimposed and swirling around one another like gales of wind blowing in every direction at once. Disc two is slightly more nuanced, from the two-minute opener “Alien Awakening” (there are aliens in here as well!) that sounds like Keiji Haino recorded in a wind tunnel mid-solo to the epic musical tapestry of 15-minute closer “Dakshinikalika” via “Dresden Spires”’ crumbling blocks of industrial crunch.

These are some of the most epic and evocative tracks ever released by Skullflower: huge slabs of metaphysical noise with the awe-inspiring primeval-ness of ancient stone circles, ice-capped mountains or ruined industrial buildings. In translating nature’s mystery and majesty into noise, Skullflower have thrown a curveball into the genre’s progression, taking out of sweaty club spaces and into somewhere more spectral, contemplative and, yet again, psychedelic. It’s no wonder the band mention Popol Vuh on the label’s website.

But should anyone reading this be tempted to regard Bower and Davies as little more than two slightly unhinged hippies with a taste for noise and post-pagan mumbo-jumbo, I urge you to check out their back catalogue and anything else you can find on them. There’s a vein of sly, sardonic humour that runs through their entire work (encapsulated here by a picture of their cat looking bemused in the booklet), whilst all this sturm-und-drang conceals first and foremost a deep sense of humanity: our past, our present, our future, our emotions and our fears.

It’s hard to tell if this hour and fifteen minutes of noise and drone is a definitive Skullflower statement, but it does what all great music must: it throws open the doors of possibility, asks more questions than it answers, and aims for something beyond the mundanities of reality.

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A Quietus Review: La Bas by JFK (August 28th, 2013)

Anthony diFranco has spent the past couple of years painstakingly excavating his numerous solo ventures (Ethnic Acid, Ax, JFK) and reissuing them on CD and vinyl. In the process, he has revealed himself to be one of the most striking and significant figures to have emerged, via his Ramleh pal Gary Mundy’s Broken Flag label, from the UK underground. OK, admittedly, he has emerged into slightly less dense shadow than before, but one can only hope that this CD will add to the recent Ax and Ethnic Acid compilations and finally grant diFranco the recognition he deserves. Because, whilst he may have, by virtue of his age, come along after Throbbing Gristle, SPK and Whitehouse had already unleashed the grim and provocative genres that are industrial and power electronics, he can proudly call himself one of those band’s most forward-looking disciples.

That he is still taking all of his various projects forwards with the same verve and talent is testament to his abilities and open-mindedness. Indeed, recent Ethnic Acid live performances have seen him take in both munged-out techno and harsh wall noise, in a significant departure from his brittle, DIY early material, a sign that diFranco will not be content to let these compilations of older material serve as some sort of epitaph.

Of the three projects, JFK seems the most beholden to its immediate forbears, and LA BAS comprises ten punchy, aggressive tracks that distill the murky malevolence of TG and SPK with Whitehouse’s more rambunctious, fast-paced assaults with a hint of Cabaret Voltaire mutant swing thrown in for good measure. And yet, as young as diFranco was at the time (the album covers ages 15 to 20, fer chrissakes! When I was 15, I was just beginning to learn that ‘Blue’ by Eiffel 65, and at 20 was pretending to hate Pink Floyd to annoy my mates), it is never overtly derivative of his better-known forbears, so most comparisons only serve to give an idea of his overall sound, but can’t hope to get to the heart of what makes JFK so infectiously enjoyable, even in its most sinister moments.

From the moment the album (and it feels more like a cohesive long player than a compilation) jumps out of the speakers with grinding instrumental ‘Big Fat Sin’, it never relents, careering forwards with a verve and aggression that is positively punk, and indeed actually reconnects power electronics to its roots in that genre. ‘Omen’ introduces diFranco’s vocals, which rarely crop up on other projects, which is a shame as he has the kind of snotty snarl that the likes of Stephen Mallinder and Mars’ Sumner Crane wielded so effectively. The vocals are mixed low, so deciphering the lyrics is tricky, but diFranco’s delivery conveys an enormous amount regardless, pitched somewhere between menace and youthful romanticism, the voice of someone turned cynical at a young age.

One of the album’s standout moments, ‘Aktion In A 10/6’ crystallises the aura of JFK into seven hard-hitting minutes of frothing post-punk. Over metronomic, stripped-down drum machine beats, diFranco unleashes torrents of blurry feedback and howls dejectedly like an alternately threatening and distraught rejected lover. The abstract lyrics convey the same sort of sexual violence that emanates from The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus In Furs’, but with an added sense of disenchanted romanticism.

The pace of the track, compared to more frenetic tracks like ‘Omen’ or the almost catchy ‘Sexodus’ (which is bolstered by mad guitar riffage and noise from Skullflower’s Matt Bower), is slovenly and repetitive, the kind of industrial grind that makes the genre so challenging and refreshing at once. The album’s centrepiece, meanwhile, is the 12 minute noise and found sample collage ‘Will To Love’, a work so belligerently obtuse and abstract that it can’t fail to evoke Throbbing Gristle at their most deconstructed.

LA BAS is the sound of a man still finding his feet, yet already so confident in his vision that it deserves to be recognised as an industrial masterwork like those of some of the aforementioned bands. Balancing infectious punk-rock structures with fierce noise, abstraction, drone and atonal textures, Anthony diFranco comes up with something truly hybrid that has endured the test of time far better than quite a number of his better-known contemporaries such as 23 Skidoo and Clock DVA.

A Liminal Live Review – Never Say When: 30 Years of Broken Flag (May 11th, 2012)

This live review first appeared on The Liminal’s site, but I have added my own photos here.

30 years ago, a tiny record label run out of Croydon resident Gary Mundy’s bedroom was launched on the world, alongside Mundy’s band Ramleh. Although it would always remain an operation ensconced in the underground of British music, it quietly helped shape the nature of that underground and gradually grew in influence until it reached the near-legendary status it holds today, some fifteen years after it was laid to rest. That label, of course, was Broken Flag, and few have defined the Power Electronics and noise scenes in this country more than it did between 1982 and 1995. Broken Flag launched Ramleh, of course, but also Consumer Electronics, The New Blockaders, Ethnic Acid and Skullflower, and, for all its perennial association with Power Electronics, its roster was remarkably diverse, bringing together artists from around the world and across the various facets of noise and electronic music. Listen to just about any modern noise/electro/industrial artist or band operating today, and you can hear something of Broken Flag’s influence amidst their drones, screes and squalls. And what better way to celebrate this astonishing legacy than by organising a three-day festival in a grungy venue in rain-battered north London?

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Skullflower (Samantha Davies)

Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way: it had been announced that Prurient would be part of the bill, but he sadly dropped out. The doors also opened an hour late on each day. The Dome, whilst a nice room with decent enough sound, somewhat undermines itself due to unfriendly staff and ridiculously over-zealous bouncers. But those were small niggles over a weekend of simply phenomenal music. Any fears I had that things would get a bit samey (we’re talking about 3 days of noise and industrial music, after all) proved to be completely unfounded, and with so many great, and I mean truly fucking great, acts on display, I very much doubt anyone left feeling short-changed.

I have already hailed the event’s diversity of sound, but for all-out Power Electronics fans, there were several acts that would have amply satisfied their need for crackling tones and shouty vocals. Swedish duo Sewer Election and Treriksröset had the perhaps unenviable task of opening the event, and proceeded to deliver a brittle and short set full of hiss, fuzz and aggressive arm-raising, taking the novel stance of performing in the midst of the audience, hunched over their effects pedals and contact mics. Like Saturday’s second act, Lettera 22, these two were a younger act designed to showcase Broken Flag’s influence on recent generations. Italy’s Lettera 22 also performed in the midst of the audience, producing seething synth- and tape-based harsh noise that shook the hall so much they caused a pair of amps to crash to the floor. Their set was altogether more potent than Sewer Election and Treriksröset’s, with the kind of sonic construction that has characterised recent works by Mike Shiflet and Joe Colley, albeit with a constant undercurrent of noisy drone (and perhaps less subtlety than those greats). It did drag on a bit, but Lettera 22 showed that newer acts are not scared to push the boundaries of what their illustrious forbears pioneered.

Starting at 7pm (supposedly), Friday’s evening was the shortest, and it was dominated by stalwarts from Broken Flag’s past. Le Syndicat hail from France, and first appeared on the Morality compilation way back in 1985. Their set, another excessively long one, showed some exciting use of techno-ish beats and heavy bass (they’ve obviously spent some time with ears to the drum ’n’ bass ground, and it is good to highlight the sometimes unexpected lineage between early industrial and d’n’b), but mostly lacked focus and direction. Con-Dom, in contrast, was gruelling and confrontational, with Mike Dando stripped to the waist as he hurled scabrous lyrics at the audience and kicked over any beverages on the stage’s edge, backed by brittle old skool power electronics and gruesome film footage. Very much a per se Power Electronics gig, then, and one that showcased the genre’s uneasy balance of pure menace and over-the-top silliness, something that was also the case with the balaclava-clad Grunt, who were beyond cliche with their ugly shouted vocals and stereotypical blasts of uninspired greasy noise. Meanwhile, young Finn Tommi Keränen, who appeared on Sunday, was more sedate, but failed to distinguish his sound from every “pure Power Electronics” act that preceded him, his scraped tones sounding like a carbon copy of Grey Wolves circa 1992.

Consumer Electronics

Consumer Electronics

Of course, the need to provoke and enrage has been intrinsic to a lot of Power Electronics from the genre’s inception in the form of Whitehouse. Whitehouse’s Phillip Best was a key player in the Broken Flag story, as a member of Male Rape Group and Ramleh and as leader of his own project, Consumer Electronics, who headlined on Saturday and who, like Con-Dom, embodied the spirit of shock noise. This was the mosh-pit moment of the weekend, with Best (very much a noise celebrity) striding around with his shirt open, kicking over beer and spitting water as he screamed typically obscene lyrics (though, to be honest, all I could hear was the word “fuck” – it could have been “I fucking love everyone in the world”, in fairness, though I doubt it) and rubbed his body, tongue protruding. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Sarah Freilich and Gary Mundy produced screaming, overloaded machine noise and Anthony diFranco pummeled his bass guitar, the whole lot building into an ear-bashing wall of angry noise. Sure, the theatrics, which even involved holding up pictures of what appeared to be murder victims, were beyond camp, but like his erstwhile Whitehouse colleague William Bennett, Best somehow manages to balance his silliness with an intense aura of acute menace and fierce intelligence; and the music was simply overpowering. The only thing that prevented the set from being a true reincarnation of the mid-eighties Power Electronics scene at its height was the fact that this audience was full of adoration for the people onstage, rather than being on the brink of a riot.

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JFK

As much as I enjoyed Consumer Electronics and even, somewhat against my better judgment, Con-Dom, the most musically interesting acts on show were often those who went beyond noise and industrial and explored different styles. M.T.T., who appeared on Saturday, was a good example, his grimy set featuring delicate interludes and some subtle plucking of what looked like an electric dulcimer, with the ensuing spaces bristling with poised tension and unexpected melodies. In many ways, it reminded me of the recent works by Cindytalk or even BJ Nilsen, who was, coincidentally, in the audience (yes, shameless name-drop there). JFK, a side-project by Ethnic Acid and Ramleh’s Anthony diFranco, featured twin bass and electric guitar, bridging the gap between Broken Flag’s electro-noise origins and the thunderous industrial metal of Godflesh or Ministry. The riffs were heavy and sludgy, the basses rumbled like earthquakes, a drum machine spat out mean beats, and for all of a moment it felt like Laibach and Justin K Broadrick had joined in the fun, albeit drunkenly and with no interest in any concept of song.

Kleistwahr

Kleistwahr

Several artists resolutely anchored in noise also displayed a fearlessness in taking things into new zones, not least of all Gary Mundy’s solo project Kleistwahr. Using basic loops and his inimitable voice (I swear there are few in noise who can hold a candle to him in terms of how he uses vocals), Mundy unleashed a veritable storm of sonic nails, an avalanche of brittle, savage electronic mess that seethed and surged rhythmically with the inhalations and expirations of the breath from his lungs. Somewhere inside the morass, Mundy expelled angry, anguished lyrics that seeped into focus only to disappear as quickly as they appeared. It was a short, fierce set that opened the Saturday in full force, eradicating the hangover that clung to my brain more effectively than a hundred aspirin pills. On Sunday, Putrefier used a mighty-looking modular synthesizer to craft intricate noisescapes in the manner of Keith Fullerton Whitman, as individual sub-melodies were seized upon, enhanced, exploded and then discarded with effortless, near-scientific, skill. The resemblance to KFW is interesting: was this a case of a veteran taking on new ideas, or a sign that Putrefier’s influence has, like Broken Flag itself, transcended the ages? Sigillum S, meanwhile, delivered a remarkably elaborate set, melding synth patterns over a persistent, throbbing bass drone in front of unnerving video footage. With a density of sound almost akin to progressive rock and enthusiastically menacing vocals, Sigillum S were almost “cinematic”, as if they were soundtracking the grim imagery behind them rather than just using it as a tool, again joining the dots with modern “horror” acts like Raime or Failing Lights. They also highlighted modern noise’s intrinsic link to the late-seventies and early-eighties industrial scene, as incarnated by Throbbing Gristle and SPK. Equally close to those highly conceptual roots was Italian legend Giancarlo Toniutti, who took the novel approach of performing next to the PA. His sound was dominated by metallic rumbles, elastic vocal snippets and claustrophobically compressed drone. Above all, like Sigillum S, a relentless deep drone guided his sound, and Toniutti built his screes and squalls around this immobile metronome, until the resulting chaos came close to the implacable, all-consuming and monolithic beauty of Harsh Wall Noise. What a way to connect the past and the present states of noise. 

Belgian duo Club Moral equally mastered the old and new in their brutal take on what could literally be described as musique concrete. They also were one of only a quartet of acts to feature a woman, and noise’s domination by straight, white, men is something that both intrigues and confuses me, and not just because I was almost certainly the only gay person in the audience for the duration of the festival. But that’s a consideration for another day, so back to Club Moral! From a live stand-point, they were extraordinary: Danny Devos jumped into the audience, rolled around on the floor and dunked his head into a contact-miked bucket of water whilst Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven chucked out 80s-style electro bleeps and zaps and churned out moody, static noise. Once again throwing back to the golden era of Throbbing Gristle, this performance owed as much to performance art as it did to noise or Power Electronics.

Taking a completely different approach were Esplendor Geometrico, a Spanish duo who made an only very brief appearance on Broken Flag back in the day, and one that Gary Mundy highlighted as being very different to the rest of what the label was putting out at the time. This was their first ever live performance in the UK, so their set was predictably long, and, actually, very different from everything else on show. Of course, there was the requisite harsh noise, complete with grinding bass tones and hissing static, but every track was dominated by insistent, driving beats, evidence that noise can quite comfortably process techno and house without losing its darkened soul. Coming on like Pete Swanson’s excellent Man With Potential album, only with more angst and aggression, Esplendor Geometrico’s set felt like club music beamed in from the dystopian future of Blade Runner. Vortex Campaign, meanwhile, combined pulsating, beat-driven noise with fuzzed-out riffs on electric guitar. Dodging around the crackles and hiss generated from a laptop, the guitarist toyed with staples of the blues and garage rock, giving the entire performance the sort of rootsy edge of Wolf Eyes offshoot Stare Case, emphasising Industrial music’s natural, but often overlooked, roots in rock tradition.

Ramleh

Ramleh

Such a diverse line-up was testament to both the good taste of the organisers (again, massive thanks to the great people at Second Layer records and Harbinger Sound) and the genre-pushing nature of Broken Flag. But few bands could ever hope to encapsulate the spirit of the label in the way that Skullflower and Ramleh do. After all, they are probably the two bands that first spring to mind when one evokes Broken Flag. Skullflower were the penultimate act on the Friday, and with their dense clusters of extended guitar noise over monolithic rhythm section pounding, they elevated proceedings into new areas of sonic bliss. Matt Bower, the mainstay of Skullflower, has long abstracted himself from the gristle and grind of basic noise, focusing instead on hypnotic repetition and transcendent drone. His guitar playing, allied to that of his partner Samantha Davies, owes as much to LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad’s minimalist drone as it does to anything linked to noise or even rock, and, to cop a phrase of his, being caught up in the sound of Skullflower live is like sitting under a waterfall. With so much of the weekend’s music focusing on machines and electronics, it was a beautiful escape to be absorbed by the primeval post-rock of Skullflower. On Saturday, Davies and Bower teamed up with Gordon Sharpe, aka Cindytalk, as Black Sunroof!, although what resulted felt more like Sharpe fronting Bower and Davies’ Voltigeurs than anything tied to the original Sunroof! Of course, Sharpe’s presence was a stunning glitch in the uber-macho ambiance of the weekend, the exquisite, ambiguous transgender singer contorting and swaying as he belted out mournful, arresting singing over a blanket of ear-shattering violin and guitar drone provided by Davies and Bower. Black Sunroof! brought a touch of the sensual, the elegiac and -dare I say it?- the queer to proceedings, and were one of the most unexpected acts on display all weekend.

Black Sunroof!

Black Sunroof!

Ramleh, as befits the band that, essentially, made it all, played two sets: one “Power Electronics” version (although I prefer to think of it as “noise drone”) and one full rock band. The former concluded the Friday night, and showcased the intense sound Gary Mundy and Anthony diFranco perfected on their superlative Valediction album: intense, all-encompassing machine noise that enveloped the audience, creating a drifting platform for Mundy to howl, moan and growl into the microphone, his distorted voice (and I’ll say it again – man, what a voice!) lifting what would be intensely beautiful, but near-static, noise into blissful heavens of transformative drone. diFranco did hit the bass at one point, but it only served to add an extra layer to the impregnable wall of sound. On Sunday, they were joined by drummer Martyn Watts and Phillip Best on vocals, although the latter surrendered much of the singing to Mundy, and quite rightly so. Best’s presence seemed to serve as a bit of nostalgia (he was a driving force behind Ramleh from the mid-eighties until the late nineties, and crucial to great albums such as Be Careful What You Wish For), but with Mundy unleashing earthy, ragged guitar solos over diFranco’s hallucinatory bass (I’ve previously compared him to Jack Casady and Billy Talbot), the set felt like a flight of fancy over and away from pure noise and into the sort of realms most notably explored by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Butthole Surfers, Black Sabbath or the Stooges. Of course, as on the Friday, this was loud, mean and noisy, but it was just as potently psychedelic, and truly dominated by Mundy and diFranco’s intense conception of “song”. In a recent interview I did with diFranco and Mundy, they talked at length about how they like to take a melody (normally such an unused word at a noise event!), build it up and then destroy it, only to build it back up… and destroy it all over again. That was evident on their Power Electronics set, but even more so in the heart of their rock maelstrom on Sunday.

The New Blockaders

The New Blockaders

And so, after Ramleh’s ecstatic second set, it was left to everyone’s favourite crass noise band, The New Blockaders, to conclude what had been an exhilarating weekend that took noise back in time before projecting it into the future. Fittingly, it was a conclusion of pure noise, a tidal wave of nasty, enervated saturation delivered by three weirdos in balaclavas. With the way they bang tin drums and other weird objects, The New Blockaders go beyond pure noise and into something approaching, but resolutely sneering at, the avant garde. The best moment was when one of them suddenly materialised in the audience, banging his slab of metal as he marched through the mass of people. Ultimately, with their ferocity and nihilism, the New Blockaders brought matters full circle, back to the roots of Broken Flag’s underground spirit, but without ever dispelling the magic that had gone before, as Ramleh, Kleistwahr, Skullflower, JFK, Club Moral, Esplendor Geometrico and all those others had transcended noise in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible and remained lodged in my mind even as The New Blockaders went about their madcap theatrics. What a weekend. What a fantastic thirty years. What a label. Thank you Broken Flag!

A Quietus Interview: Skullflower (November 16th, 2011)

Sitting Under A Waterfall: An Interview With Skullflower

Skullflower recently released their self-professed ‘most extreme album yet’, Fucked On A Pile Of Corpses. Joseph Burnett met up with Skullflower’s Matthew Bower, to talk about his varied musical history, and the genesis of the new album

For nearly three decades Skullflower has been lurking at the periphery of British rock music, a darkly beautiful shadow that emerged in the heyday of Power Electronics – and even debuted on that scene’s most illustrious and ambitious label, Broken Flag – before traversing metal, free rock and noise to wash up, still roaring and soaring, on the shore of the 21st century underground. Driven by erstwhile Sunroof!, Total and Voltigeurs head honcho Matthew Bower, Skullflower has seen many changes in both personnel and musical styles, but always remained true to an ethos that combined elegiac majesty with unrelenting power. As their name suggests.

This year saw the release of Fucked On A Pile Of Corpses on Cold Spring and it may just be the most extreme album under the Skullflower moniker in years. Overtly referencing the band’s past as a pioneer of both electronic noise and extreme metal, whilst also looking forwards and embracing the modern Harsh Noise Walls scene (that in itself owes much to Skullflower’s trailblazing), Fucked On A Pile Of Corpses is a potent reminder that, whilst decades may have passed since his 1988 Broken Flag debut, Birthdeath, Matthew Bower’s uniquely refusenik spirit and sense of adventure remain undimmed.

The Quietus caught up with Bower to get the lowdown on Fucked On A Pile Of Corpses as well as the band’s unique history and remarkable evolution.

You’ve just launched a blog. Is that’s shaping up ok?

Matthew Bower: Don’t get me started, I can’t look at it at the library for some reason, but I’m sure it’s fine. I think I’m going to have get the Internet at home to work on it.

Are you not a fan of the Internet?

MB: It’s a bit of a double-edged sword (laughs). I’m rather leaning towards the negative camp…

Fucked on a Pile of Corpses is the latest in a veritable torrent of albums, both studio and live, you’ve released in the last 5 or 6 years, coming less than a year after the two discs of Strange Keys to Untune Gods Firmament. Seems like you pretty much live in the studio, though I assume you record at home. Do you find it easy to keep the inspiration and ideas flowing, to keep coming up with new things to record?

MB: I’ve recorded at home, on and off, forever, really. It’s certainly the main method of recording since about 2006, so around the time of Tribulation.

It’s a totally natural speed to work at. I’m essentially a one-man act, so it’s probably problematic to compare me to a band that consists of people who need to get together to make an album. But I don’t analyse how I record. Most of the time, I’ve been working a full-time job, which I’m not doing at the moment, so to be fair, I’m not having to make up for time that may have been taken away from me. I used to have to force myself to be as productive as possible, whereas now it’s very natural. But the whip’s never had to be cracked hard.

I don’t really have inspiration. I generally just start working and figure out what I’m going to do. I might plug in with no more intent than somebody who’s just picked up to just practise. I don’t play without having the means to record if I feel like it.

A lot of your albums have a consistency of sound or a theme. Do you start with an idea of where an album’s going to go, or do you let it evolve organically?

MB: I let it evolve organically. I might have an idea, but I don’t think I’ve successfully straight-ahead converted an idea into actuality, it’s always just been a starting point, and it’s usually forgotten immediately and turned into something different.

How does that work in terms of the different acts you’re involved with, either Voltigeurs or Skullflower? Do you know when you start recording whether it’s going to be a Voltigeurs or Skullflower album?

MB: I only have Voltigeurs and Skullflower at the moment. Usually, when I’m playing with Samantha (Davies), we’ll focus on Voltigeurs, and if I’m working alone it usually becomes Skullflower. And I record live, so that would divide that, really. They’re getting a little blurred, perhaps, when we start doing some overdubbing.

Voltigeurs is really centred very much on the guitar sound, whilst Skullflower, which is also a guitar band, includes a lot of electronic elements, especially on Fucked on a Pile of Corpses, notably on the opening track. Again, was that just a natural decision to add those elements?

MB: Between the monolithic expanse of the triple and double Skullflower CDs [Circulus Vitiosus Deus and Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament], which are probably 95% guitar, it just made sense to move around a little. Fucked on a Pile of Corpses had a very strange germination, a lot of shapes before it assumed its final shape. The inputs are very diverse, and a few tracks are a few years old, but it all sounds very similar because I re-processed everything with a similar set-up, which gives it a kind of homogenisation. It became like a row of pictures that had all been treated in the same way. So they may be a bit more disparate than usual, but they’re all held together by the same kind of sound.

It’s probably one of your most diverse albums. Was that a deliberate attempt or something that developed as the album evolved?

MB: I started working on Fucked… using Samantha’s eight-track reel-to-reel, rather than my four-track, with her engineering, and did about four pieces that are represented in the bits towards the end of the album: ‘Tantric Ass Rape’ and ‘Fairy Knife Hell’ are both from those pieces. At that point, I started dragging in some old pieces, rough rehearsal pieces, to make it a kind of collage with those whilst at the same time doing the extra treatments.

The styles that are there are all things I’ve worked with in the past. I think track three was started a couple of years before. And it became apparent that it was close to the kind of Power Electronics stuff I did in Total years ago. And I really liked that…

Fucked on a Pile of Corpses has been promoted as your most extreme album yet. Would you agree?

MB: I’m afraid I’m actually guilty of writing the press release! There’s no great store to put by it. I was asked if I would do it, I thought I’d do a bit of a parody, a sort of Now That’s What I Call Music! 23 (laughs). “THE BEST ALBUM EVER!!” sort of thing. I’m happy to go with it, but it’s really more of a little provocation or something than a true statement of intent.

At the same time, the sheer volume of Skullflower has always been a key factor. Do you see brutality and volume as having a blissful effect, for listeners and for you as a performer?

MB: That gets you part of the way there, yes. There are a lot of comparables, but there’s an idea of something meditational taking place, and of being able to empty yourself in the music. I’ve always been operating in that sort of area, you know. Sitting under a waterfall.

That’s a good image! In a piece you wrote on your website, you mentioned Georges Bataille, and I’m aware of his philosophies of the God-like being twinned with the baser aspects of human nature. Do you reflect that in the title Fucked on a Pile of Corpses?

MB: I think it does. Some of his texts I find a little bit hard to connect with. But I think he encourages approaching a meditative state where things can happen that are beyond you. I think he approaches an ecstatic level from different angles, be it sexuality or overload or whatever. I think I picked that up early on, but I think there’s a lot of effort needed to understand those ideas. I got re-introduced to Bataille recently, around 2005, reading texts that were in a way shorn of the sexual side and focusing on the ‘God’ notion.

So is there a thematic background to Fucked on a Pile of Corpses?

MB: Yes, yes. It could have gone out under the title Flowerstrewn Charnelground, which means exactly the same thing, but stretching it a little bit. It’s a sort of tantric thing, but being slightly profane with something rather holy. Eros and Thanatos, which is there on the cover. The pictures for the cover are ones I’d had lying around since the mid-80s…

Are they designs you came up with?

MB: No, they’re all things I collected, or things I copied out of books. If you drew a circle, it would go from Japan to Tibet, right to left.

Do you design or have a lot of input on all your album covers?

MB: Well, the early ones, on Broken Flag, I completely did myself. Pre-computer years, so I’d send in artwork to be reproduced. I don’t work for record companies, so I just art direct, sometimes using artists that we bring to the table. Otherwise it’s pretty much all me.

Fucked… is also very short by your standards, about 36 minutes. Again was that a conscious decision to go for a short, sharp kick after the length of Strange Keys…, or did you feel the album just didn’t need to be elaborated on?

MB: It’s certainly the natural length for the album. As I was listening back to what I recorded, I became aware that it worked better as a shorter album, with the top length being about six or seven minutes, as opposed to, say, 20-minute workouts.

When you tour, which you’ve been doing a lot of recently, is each show an improvisation, or do you go in with pre-prepared tracks from an album or rehearsal?

MB: It’s pretty much totally improvised. The ones we do with George (Proctor) drumming, which you saw when we shared the Werewolf Jerusalem bill, usually are made up of the same couple of tracks every time, but I don’t think it really works live that way. Typical Skullflower shows over the last couple of years, with me and Samantha, we usually go for the ‘one piece, one tuning’ set, where we only work out the tuning in advance, to some degree. We work with probably five different tunings, and work with them until we find the right one.

That focus on tuning over actual pieces is really interesting. Are you influenced by ‘just intonation’ and ‘militant tuning’ composers such as LaMonte Young or Tony Conrad?

MB: I’m not sure I’ve ever really ‘got’ just intonation, I’ve never really properly understood it. Those splits are a bit like Freud with his Id and Ego, which I’m not sure really exist in the real world. I think I was more influenced by the idea of LaMonte Young rather than his actual music. By the time I actually heard his music, in my early twenties, I’d already done my first drones, one note/one chord pieces. I had his Well-Tuned Piano album, from the eighties, but only really got into it last year… I always preferred the stuff he was doing in the sixties.

One thing that was important with Skullflower at the beginning is that our tuning was lackadaisical, but I always had a problem with digital tuners, because the problem was that everybody sounds the same. I’d rather exploit the natural out-of-tuneness of my own intuitive tuning. It makes it difficult at times, but at other times it really works.

Skullflower has been through a lot of changes, from your early days when you were almost a metal band, with a drummer and bassist; to the more free-form or relaxed sound you have now. Can you take me through that evolution?

MB: ‘Relaxed’ is an apt term for what we are now. I think we reached our limits of relaxation around the time of Argon, or something like that. It was most similar to what sort of hippy rock becomes in the avant-garde. And I’d always had a wide range of influences, such as free jazz, but which I’m pretty closed to now. In the early days, we’d done the whole Power Electronics thing, and there was this whole American noise-rock scene, which we felt closer to at the time than to the Industrial thing. So we were reclaiming some territory there, in a way.

And then, we got more noisy and freeform, but it’s not going back to the Industrial thing, it’s closer to that seventies, Faust and Can sound, that had been an influence on Skullflower in the eighties. Then we had the hiatus, and I started getting heavily into metal music, and that powered me re-starting the band in the 2000s.

On Fucked…, you have a track called “Anubis Station”, and past tracks and album titles have seemed to evoke various pre-Christian religions, without being simple Pagan revivalism. Is this a reflection of a folk tradition that has often populated English metal, industrial and noise music?

MB: I only really got into folk retroactively, down the line, and there’s a lot of it that I fucking hate, that sort of pipe or drinking music. But the sort of wistful, mystical songs, like ‘Tam Lin’, that exist in the canon, and a sort of melding between Viking music and Egyptian music, all get interwoven, and it supplies a sort of muscular yet beautiful framework that’s not actually Blues based. My problem with the Blues thing is that it leads to a kind of stoner rock inevitability about the riffs, and what I like about folk-based music is the suspension. The psychic element can be a lot less obvious.

It’s not just a simple case of trying to re-establish Paganism, or whatever, it happened rather naturally. We kind of choose, magpie-style, from various world religions, though hopefully in a more extreme way.

A couple of tracks on Fucked… are very dense and noisy, and you of course appeared live with Werewolf Jerusalem and The Rita. Do you relate much to the current noise scene?

MB: We’ve always done noise music, so I feel a certain sense of comradeship with those guys, and I find what they do very refreshing and beautiful, but no more now than before. I listen to a lot of the Harsh Noise Walls guys, and Surrounded by Fangs by Werewolf Jerusalem is a great CD-R. A lot of people can’t understand it, but I find it practically impossible to listen to pop music these days. You have to educate yourself to something like Werewolf Jerusalem. ‘Challenged’ isn’t such a wrong word. Part of the enjoyment is being ‘pushed’ in a way. The entertainment is in the difference engine.

We’re very fortunate that we have a close working relationship with George Proctor, who lives close by, so we have something of a local scene. We also know guys like Hal Hutchinson, who was at the Werewolf gig, so I’m aware of other artists, but we’re separate from the whole time and tide…

What are your plans for the rest of year and beyond, for Skullflower or otherwise?

MB: I’m doing a split with a black metal band called Mastery, though I’m not sure when that’s coming out. There’s a bunch of stuff coming out on Turgid Animal, which will be the Total re-releases, and if we’re lucky a Voltigeurs triple CD, which was put together across last year and was the main work of last year. We haven’t got any live dates planned until the Broken Flag 30th anniversary shows next year, I think, but we’d like to tour Europe and are trying to put something together. Although a comet could hit the earth between now and then!

You can also read this article, and watch a video for “Anubis Station”, here: http://thequietus.com/articles/07403-skullflower-interview

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

From the Vault: Gateway to Blasphemous Light: SKULLFLOWER!!

This article originally appeared on my blog, and is my fanboy-esque take on most of the great noise/rock band Skullflower’s studio and live albums, from theit Black Flag debut to 2011’s Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament. I hope I do them justice.

Approaching the daunting monolith that is Skullflower‘s discography would take the patience of a saint and pockets deeper than Donald Trump’s (if you want to meet such a hardy soul, check out this superlative list by my online buddy, “Nightwrath”: http://rateyourmusic.com/list/nightwrath/the_power_of_skullflower/). So, typical of my general laziness, I’m not going to try to give a proper overview/blow-by-blow analysis/history lesson, just give my take on those albums I have (generally the most easily purchasable ones) and how I have come to regard Skullflower as nothing less than one of the best bands ever to grace the world.


The history of Skullflower is intrinsically linked to the UK underground of the early eighties, which exploded to life in the wake of punk, lurching into more unusual, dark and experimental directions as it did so. The advent of cheaper recording formats, notably cassette tapes, simple electronic instruments and easy-to-use recording methods meant that music was no longer the exclusive domain of classical composers or pop/rock/jazz bands with studio access and lots of ability. Indeed, punk, for all its numerous flaws, had shown that anyone with a good idea and lots of attitude could make a record and even, wonder of wonders, get it released.

Less physical barriers were also coming down. Even as the country as a whole was embracing rabid conservatism, in the form of Margaret Thatcher’s government,  the musical underground was getting more radical. Throbbing Gristle, who remain to this day the granddaddies of radical British music, and the scene’s eternal leading lights, had led the way, exploring transgressive and provocative themes, and giving birth to a new genre of music they baptised “Industrial”. Out of their explorations of extreme sound and lyrical matter, the UK underground would bloom.



I will admit to not being an expert, but, it seems to me that, until these halcyon years from 1977 to 1985, Britain had never had a truly “out-there” act that could serve as a calling card to the rest of the underground. The US, of course, had had The Velvet Underground, whilst Japan had seen Les Rallizes Denudes headline massive festivals, and Germany had given us the freak-out post-everything of Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream‘s first album. Which is not to say the UK had not had great underground acts (Pink Fairies, anyone?), but the extremism and provocation of those foreign bands had yet to really be mirrored in such conceptual glory in this country. Throbbing Gristle changed all that, and Whitehouse, Ramleh and, of course, Skullflower, took things to another level altogether. In typical British fashion, of course, none of them -past the initial shock value of TG and Whitehouse- caused quite the stir that The VU or The Stooges did among mainstream audiences, even those inclined towards “fringe” sounds. In this country, we venerate at the altars of alien gods, but if the same souls emerge on our shores, we just can’t believe it to be real… Or so it seems from the vantage point of youth (such as it is). Otherwise, I fail to understand how The Velvet Underground or The Stooges managed to burrow their way into cultdom among British rock fans, but Skullflower remain mostly unknown. I’m lucky in many ways to have come along decades after much of the music I love hit its heights, but am aware that often my perceptions can be skewed or unrealistic. I’m doing my best to represent things as they were, I promise!


Of course, any talk of Skullflower means nothing if you don’t mention the man behind such an illustrious musical entity. His name is Matt Bower, and his shadow soars over the UK underground like some mystical but outlandish eagle, even if his influence has rarely been mirrored in record sales. More than William Bennett or even his buddy Gary Mundy, and perhaps only equaled by Steve Stapleton and David Tibet, Matt Bower is the voice, guitar and effects box of the UK underground. And Skullflower remains, even after such magnificent side projects as Total, Sunroof!, Hototogisu and Voltigeurs, the supreme expression of Bower’s vision.


The birth of Skullflower was slow and progressive, growing out of several Uni/high school bands involving Bower, Alex Binnie, Stewart Dennison, Stefan Jaworzyn and others. At one time, Bower was a key member of Gary Mundy’s superb power electronics/drone metal outfit Ramleh, and the first Bower albums, first as Total then as Skullflower, would appear on Mundy’s seminal Broken Flag label.

Which is as good a place as any to start, given that, having already made a power electronics splash solo as Total, on Broken Flag, Bower would unleash Skullflower on the world via that very label. I remain convinced that the UK underground, and metal/noise music in general, would never be the same again from the moment BFV9 hit the shelves.

Birthdeath (Broken Flag, 1988)

As Skullflower’s first proper release, Birthdeath is essential listening to any fan of the band, or any of Bower’s subsequent adventures. It’s most interesting to listen to in the context of what Broken Flag was releasing at the time. Broken Flag had become renowned as a post-Industrial, power electronics label, with albums by Maurizio Bianchi and Grey Wolves among its numerous tape releases. Extreme stuff indeed. And whilst Birthdeath, with its creepy title and oppressive atmosphere, certainly fit the mold, it was also very different, for a start because it featured “real” instruments, with guitars, bass and drums taking precedence over fucked-up synths or electronics.


And yet, of all Skullflower releases, Birthdeath perhaps feels most consistent with the age in which it was made. The loping bass lines are 100% post-punk, evoking such post-punk luminaries as Joy Division or PiL. Not a bad thing of course, and Bower’s vocals are notably brilliant, a Rotten-esque snarl that is nonetheless wrenched back into the mix, subsumed by rampant guitar noise and insistent percussion, therefore taking the music beyond post-punk and into a neo-metal environment that would later give us My Bloody Valentine and Ride. With a darkness and menace that was 100% TG/Whitehouse/This Heat. Birthdeath may be short (it’s an EP after all) and very “rock”, it remains one of the first indications of where industrial music, as a “rock” derivative, and metal could go. Skullflower would between 1988 and 1995 show just how magnificent such a combination would be.

Form Destroyer (Broken Flag, 1989)

If Birthdeath gave a hint, and tentatively brought metal (I’m talking Black Sabbath/Blue Oyster Cult metal of the darkest kind, here) back into the orbit of the underground, away from the nonsense zone the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest had taken it to, Form Destroyer, and the slew of albums that followed it, would elevate the Skullflower sound into the realms of genius. Dark, metal-meets-industrial-post-punk genius.


Form Destroyer dispenses with a lot of the familiarity that Birthdeath had built up. Fuck the Peter Hook-ish bass and punkish sneer vocals. This is Bower bowing down at the altar of guitar noise, taking the power electronics template of Ramleh and Whitehouse and filtering it through riff-upon-riff of messed up power chords, as if Tony Iommi had shed his hippy leanings and then been given full reign of the Sabbath’s musical direction. Opening track “Elephant’s Graveyard” is everything that makes Skullflower so special, a non-stop guitar solo backed by ridiculously heavy post-Bill Ward drums and one-note bass whilst Bower limply utters unintelligible lyrics as if he’s drowning in guitar mulch. The tremolo and fuzz are obscene, and the track hoists itself out of any noise/industrial context into dark, cavernous realms of new metal. The kind of metal that would have Julian Cope salivating. Where power electronics and industrial seemed to reflect the clunking, metallic, buzzing present/future, here was music that felt older than time itself, as if long-lost gods and angels were rising from centuries of slumber to reclaim the world. This ur-plod echoed that of Sabbath, but stripped away any modern context, becoming the sound of dusty pyramids, creepy barrows and pagan monoliths. And of course, this became the template for the next 25 years (and counting) of metal music, the dots between Form Destroyer and bands like SUNN O))) or Nadja being all too easy to connect.

Xaman (Shock Records, 1990)

Shock Records were owned by Skullflower guitarist Stefan Jaworzyn who was, until he left the band in the early nineties following one too many fall-outs with Bower, the other main creative figure of the band. Having said that, mega fans such as myself will always treasure the contributions of drummer Stewart Dennison at least as much as those of Jaworzyn. There’s just something so perfect about Dennison’s monolithic plod, and it would drive and animate the Skullflower sound in inimitable ways at least until the band’s first dissolution in 1996.


Xaman is, in my opinion, the first perfect Skullflower statement. It’s more abstract than Form Destroyer, despite also being more “metal”. Its predecessor maintained a tiny, tiny, bit of the post-punk soul of Birthdeath, which somehow made it less abstract than this, or future albums. By releasing themselves into metal and noise, equal parts Sabbathian plod and Rallizes-esque guitar saturation, Skullflower grew into a monstrous beast, whose tracks were built around ridiculous sub-Crazy Horse rhythmic plods whilst Jaworzyn and Bower leaped into the stratosphere via their guitars, endlessly soloing as each piece, from opening pounder “Slaves” to the side-long, 26-minute-long beast “Wave” soared and rumbled like a mythological mountain detaching itself from the earth and taking off towards the heavens (I have no idea what that metaphor means, but it seems to fit).

As someone who listens to a lot of metal music, I have tried to find a comparable album to Xaman, another such premonitory opus that indicates where the genre was going to go, and indeed spend the next 20 years. I can’t. Sure, Swans took the Sabbath’s slowed-down sound and married it to industrial clanging, but Xaman is something else altogether – its background in industrial is only hinted at through walls of noise, but mostly this is pure doom, primeval and heavier than that lead zeppelin Keith Moon mentioned all those decades ago. Xaman features guitar played as Jimmy Page should have played it back in ’68, a non-stop riff-o-mania mixed with basic solos, so insistent that its meaning becomes unfathomable. Guitar as noise. Guitar as drone. Guitar as trance. Xaman is truly overwhelming, and for me feels like the culmination of what brutish heavy metal, as dreamed up by Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath, was always meant to be. I wish someone would hurry up and re-release this motherfucker!

IIIrd Gatekeeper (HeadDirt, 1992)

Until Bower resuscitated Skullflower in the mid-2000s, IIIrd Gatekeeper was perhaps the most famous of the band’s albums, and incidentally one of the absolute best.


Essentially, IIIrd Gatekeeper is modern metal in excelsis. Do you like Nadja? The Angelic Process? Hey Colossus? Boris? Here’s the blueprint. With the -possible- exceptions of The Melvins and Earth, I don’t think any band really set down a marker on the genre in quite the way Skullflower did on IIIrd Gatekeeper. Of course, I’ve been talking about metal since Birthdeath, so what changed? Sitting here in my living room, my head filled with sound, the first thing that occurs to me is the bass. It’s no longer subsumed into the mix – it’s front and centre, big, fat, distorted and powerful. Almost a second lead guitar. Imagine Jefferson Airplane‘s legendary bassist Jack Casady doing metal, and you might just get the sound I’m evoking. If you’re an Airplane fan. If not, then fuck me, just go out and buy IIIrd Gatekeeper!

Mirroring this added heaviness, the drums are equally in-your-face, slovenly punches to the skins that inch the melodies along. The whole production is clearer and more typically heavy-metal-ish, with Bower’s guitar (he was now sole axeman following the departure of Jaworzyn) creating scything walls of relentless distortion, feedback and fuzz. Again, there are no riffs in the traditional Sabbath/Zeppelin style, just endless, near-formless soloing, taking the format laid down by those bands, and hurtling into something closer to free improv or drone. But Skullflower never relinquishes the violence and heaviness that makes metal such a haven for headbangers. Tracks like “Larks Tongues” (neat King Crimson reference!) and “Saturnalia” are like Sabbath on LSD, twisted, beyond-heavy crunchers that pummel the senses under waves of guitar noise and thunderous drumming. The vocals, meanwhile, are almost a prototype of the kind of harsh, muted growling that would soon become a staple of Black Metal.

Perhaps the overall sound and vibe of IIIrd Gatekeeper is a reflection of the man who released it. HeadDirt was the imprint of Justin K Broadrick, long a devotee of Skullflower, now of Jesu and Greymachine, who at the time was riding high as an industrial metal pioneer via his Godflesh outfit. Like Skullflower, Godflesh was a seminal band, melding harsh urban noises with a vintage metal pummel and bleak lyrical output. It was not any more ferocious than what Bower and co were doing in their Broken Flag days, but perhaps slightly more tailored towards the mainstream. Ever so slightly. In comparison, Skullflower would always be an outsider band, but at least Broadrick was keen to give some time int he limelight. To this day, IIIrd Gatekeeper remains the most common first point of entry for people discovering Skullflower.

Last Shot at Heaven (Noiseville, 1993)

Skullflower goes psychedelic!!! Of course, records like Xaman and IIIrd Gatekeeper were already darkly psychedelic, in a typically Cope-esque manner. But Last Shot at Heaven moves things up a notch in the trippy bliss levels, whilst maintaining an edge of violence and menace, as demonstrated by the cover art depicting a young woman craning her head back, eyes seemingly shut in ecstasy, but which is actuallty a picture of one of the first Muslim victims of the Bosnian ethnic cleansing taken just as she was being shot.

Indeed, one of the great pleasures of being a Skullflower fan is picking up on the subtle -or sometimes radical- sonic shifts they make as they advance from one album to another, and picking up on the understated metaphors in both their music and artwork.


The basic template inherited from IIIrd Gatekeeper, of harsh guitar soloing, pumping bass and earthquake-inducing drums, is retained on LSAH, but where its predecessor focused on the drums and the bass and the mood, this motherfucker is a massive guitar celebration, as Bower rips outlandish warped noise from his beleaguered axe, creating the kind of sonic tornado that, along with the blistering poly-rhythmic pounding of the drums as displayed here on “Rotten Sun li”, would later become a key component of bands like Acid Mother’s Temple, Mainliner or even Oneida. The guitar no longer incarnates a phallic extension of the macho Jimmy Page-esque frontman, nor is it a means to subvert conventions in the manner of Stoogian riffage. Instead, it’s a supremely cosmic weapon of pure transcendence, a beautifully awe-inspiring sound to transport the listener to new-found inner worlds. In that respect, Last Shot at Heaven feels most noticeably “retro” among early Skullflower albums, channeling as it does the spirit of Ash Ra Tempel, Les Rallizes Denudes and Amon Duul II.

Beyond that, however, Last Shot at Heaven is another bold step forwards for Skullflower. As steeped as it is in the post-psychedelia of the early 70s, it doesn’t fully deviate from the deep, doomy metal thunder of its predecessor. But, more significantly, it also gives many a sideways glance at the grunge and shoegaze styles that were prevalent in the early nineties. More Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine than Slowdive and Nirvana, of course, but you can tell Bower has heard the merits of adding a sprinkle of catchiness and riffs into the torrent of noise and sludge. Opener “Caligula” may just be the most infectious, and blissful, Skullflower track ever. Ultimately, Last Shot at Heaven gets negatively compared to IIIrd Gatekeeper, a more complete musical statement, but it serves as a great indication of how fantastically consistent in their brilliance Skullflower were by this point. 


Obsidian Shaking Codex (Self-released, 1993, CD-R reissue on RRRecords)4409

Nothing, even Xaman and IIIrd Gatekeeper, prepared me for Obsidian Shaking Codex. Those albums were great, magnificent even. OSC is on another plane altogether.

Almost literally. Obsidian Shaking Codex sounds like very little out there, and certainly not like anything released around the same time, again testament to how prescient and forward-thinking Skullflower were. I think it was discovering this album that made me realise that not only are Skullflower a fucking awesome band, but that actually they go beyond such platitudes and transcend all stereotypical notions of musical taste and quality. Obsidian Shaking Codex sets up the stall for just about every psych/drone/noise-metal band to have appeared since, taking the brittle exoskeleton of The Dead C and Les Rallizes Denudes, and anchoring it to a wall of post-modern, post-industrial noise before launching into newer, wilder, nastier and deeper sonic lands. Tracks like “Sir Bendalot”, the pummeling heavy metal opener, may seem familiarly heavy, in a Sabbath/Blue Cheer vein, but, stripped of coherent vocals and suffused with mysterious flute sounds, soon turn into weird, esoteric and unhinged musical explorations.

By “Circular Temple”, the second track, everything you may have been familiar with has collapsed. Not just Skullflower’s own sound, but British post-industrial music as a genre. Coil, Whitehouse and even Throbbing Gristle seem so very far away now. The track is essentially, beautifully, formless, an endless dirge of shuddering guitar noise, in which riffs, improvs and meandering solos slalom around each other and drum fills only interrupt the murky flow on occasion, like interjections from a slumbering giant whose rest has been interrupted by the screes and squalls of Bower’s guitar. No, I don’t know what I’m on about either! Obsidian Shaking Codex does that to you – its awkward grace and deep, dark drones will have you dreaming of windy barrows and Tolkien-esque vistas, but ones that are totally dominated by sinister shadows, gnarled tree trunks and whispering ghosts. By the album’s end, the frenetic post-rock, post-fusion -fuck it, post-everything!- 25-minute leviathan that is “Smoke Jaguar”, you find yourself drifting in a fog of sound. It isn’t quite noise, not quite ambient, not quite drone, not quite metal. It’s beyond all of those genres, a true artistic triumph, which Skullflower would often struggle to replicate later in their career, but which would also flash through all their releases here on, and was already hovering like a shadow over previous albums, notably Xaman, IIIrd Gatekeeper and Last Shot at Heaven. Obsidian Shaking Codex is the album they really nailed it on, and the one that would make even great metal-that-aren’t-metal acts like SUNN O))) seem slightly derivative. 


A masterpiece in other words.


Carved Into Roses (VHF, 1994)

Skullflower signed to psychedelic drone label VHF for this release, who would also release This Is Skullflower, a mini-trend that perhaps highlights the band’s slow shift (already hinted at on Last Shot at Heaven) away from doom-laden noise-metal towards more esoteric, trippy and psyched-up musical shores.

At this point, I am seriously running out of superlative terms to describe the sounds Matt Bower and his acolytes (by now even superb bassist Anthony DiFranco had left, so it was just Bower and drummer Stuart Dennison, plus guest appearances from Whitehouse’s Phillip Best, Russell Smith and Simon Wickham-Smith) were coming up with. It seems in fact that each release was purposely conjured up to surpass its predecessor and, whilst Carved into Roses probably had too hard an act to follow in Obsidian Shaking Codex, it at least represents a massive leap forwards from all their other previous albums that it remains one of Skullflower’s most important statements. 

Some critics have -erroneously, I think- said that Carved into Roses represents a “mellowing” of the Skullflower sound. Whilst the crunching post-riffage of IIIrd Gatekeeper or Obsidian Shaking Codex‘s molten noise are indeed (mostly) set aside, the idea that Carved into Roses is more ambient or “quieter” than its predecessors is, frankly, ludicrous.

But it is more sophisticated, more thoughtful and, ultimately, even more adventurous. Five years before Japanese genius Merzbow showed the smart side of harsh noise on Door Open at 8am, Skullflower were doing the same for metal with Carved into Roses, by incorporating the usually intimidating structures of free-form jazz into their monolithic metal crunch. They once again throw a wee curve ball on opener “Pipe Dream”, which could be straight out of Last Shot At Heaven with its doom/drone guitar mulch, bursts of feedback and stark vibe, although hints of the mayhem to come can be heard in Stuart Dennison’s scattered drumming and some spookily industrial vocal snippets. But by “The Rose Wallpaper”, Dennison is conjuring up marching band patterns and, out of nowhere, as Bower excoriates his guitar in masochistic metallic bursts of fury, a lonesome, strangled saxophone blearily attempts a garbled solo. It dips in and out of the mix, in time to the accelerations and decelerations of Dennison’s increasingly free-form pounding of the toms, and its intrusion into the world of Skullflower is as startling as it is welcome. The more unstructured nature of “The Rose Wallpaper”, “Shiny Birds of Doom” or “Metallurgical King” (all three contenders for the imaginary title of ‘Best Skullflower track ever’) not only make Carved Into Roses stand out as a truly masterful melding of jazz/improv and metal, but also showcase the increased subtlety and sophistication of Dennison and Bower as composers and musicians. “Metallurgical King”, which seems to pick up where “The Rose Wallpaper” left off, is a particularly mighty slab of free-form noise, with bonkers tremolo and the kind of sax mayhem Peter Brotzmann would be proud of.

As for the claims that it isn’t heavy… I can admit it is no longer a cruncher, in the Butthole Surfers/Sabbath mold. But the atmosphere on these tracks is easily as choking and menacing as on any of the Obsidian Shaking Codex ones, Best’s voice often descending into a tortured primal scream, whilst Bower and Dennison alternate expertly between hard-hitting free-form pummelers and dragging, inching doom plods. Such shifts in pace, power and tempo are mastered expertly and, if anything, Carved Into Roses is one of Skullflower’s heaviest albums ever. The follow-up, Infinityland is also a cracker, and both have recently been reissued as a triple CD set, along with a disc of singles.

This Is Skullflower (VHF,1996) 4415

This would be the last album Skullflower would release before a 7-year hiatus (following swiftly on the heels of a slightly rag-bag collection of shorter tracks, outtakes and covers called Transformer, also released in ’96). Between this and Carved Into Roses, the duo did release two other full releases, Argon (Freek, 1995) and Infinityland (HeadDirt, 1995), neither of which I’ve been able to get hold of, sadly.

I would be keen to check out both those records because This Is Skullflower represents such a dramatic shift from the sound of Carved Into Roses, that it would be nice to get an idea of what came before to see if there is any continuity.

Essentially, TIS sees them taking the idea of free jazz grasped at on Carved Into Roses, and fucking running the distance with it. It is indeed much mellower and atmospheric than their previous output, even in the track titles – “Lounge”, “Creaky Rigging”, “Glider”… But don’t be fooled into thinking that it therefore is less interesting or arresting. Skullflower continue to step boldly into new territories, bringing in piano and strings, whilst pursuing their exploration of the limitations and possibilities of their established drums and guitars. On “Lounge”, Dennison pushes the free-jazz boat out even further, coming on like a latter-day Han Bennink, whilst Bower’s searing guitar improv is offset by jarring piano motifs. It’s a textured and unusual piece, and things get even better on “Creaky Rigging”, which duly lives up to its name thanks to Tony Conrad-esque violin drones set over what sounds like a woozy dobro or sitar and far-off, hazy guitar lines. It’s easily the best track on the album, redolent of such great tantric drone/psych bands as Vibracathedral Orchestra and the pioneering work of European bands such as Parson Sound and Yatha Sidhra. Heady stuff indeed, Skullflower going hippy, if you like.

Which may in many ways be the album’s only real flaw. The quality, as usual, is phenomenal, in terms of musicality and composition, but some of the dark, paranoid atmospheres of previous albums have succumbed to the experimentation, it seems. Maybe, just this once, Skullflower gave too much to the cerebral where before there was always just enough instinct and spleen to get the absolutely perfect balance. Either way, it’s still a fucking good album, but perhaps Bower was right to call it quits for a while…

Though it would have been magic to see where exploring the sound of the album’s other stand-out track, the drone epic “The Pirate Ship of Reality is Moving Out…” could have led the band…


Exquisite Fucking Boredom (tUMULt, 2003)

After a 7-year gap, during which Matthew Bower parted company with Stuart Dennison and dedicated his inspirations to a revived Total and his new outfits Sunroof! and Hototogisu, Skullflower returned, like a phoenix resurrected in flames. I can imagine there was some trepidation, and a shed-load of expectation, among fans at the time and so it is perhaps fitting that Exquisite Fucking Boredom is probably the most accessible of the new-look Skullflower albums. Ease’em in gently, eh Matt?


Exquisite Fucking Boredom essentially feels like a dual continuation of what Bower was doing on Last Shot at Heaven, but filtered through the trippier textures and hazy drones of This Is Skullflower. The result is an album that is both heavy, showcasing Bower’s relentless guitar assault, and blissfully psychedelic, in a fucked-up, Brainticket way. Most of it is taken up by the 4-part magnum opus “Celestial Highway”, which takes a funkily ambling sixties’ garage-psych rhythm base (think a more monolithic Doors or Thirteenth Floor Elevators) and runs with it over nearly an hour, albeit one divided into segments. Head music in the extreme, as the drums (credits are hard to come by for much of Skullflower’s output, but apparently, this is one of the occasional latter-period albums to feature Stuart Dennison, as well as additional guitarist Mark Burns -for the unusually-prominent riffs?- and bassist Steve Martin) send things cantering metronomically and minimalistically along with bloody-minded determination, much as drummer Werner Diermaier did for Faust on their magnificent collaboration with Tony Conrad, Outside the Dream Syndicate, which leaves Bower and Burns free to belch out dirty, fat riffs that jingle and jangle whilst maintaining their metal edge, before throwing up a miasma of wah-wahing free-form noise over the top. Somewhere in the mix there’s also an ever-droning organ, just to ram home the sense of sheer elegiac spaciness, should you need it.

If this is boredom, then I want to be bored more often! It’s easily Skullflower’s grooviest, sexiest and most liberated album, without any of the intellectual inhibitions of This Is Skullflower, but still maintaining a hazy, psychedelic vibe that means it’s not just a throw-back to the early nineties. Its only flaw perhaps is that it would have worked better with just the “Celestial Highway” suite, as the other two tracks, “Saturn” and “Return to Forever” don’t really add anything to the album. But that’s a small quibble. With Exquisite Fucking Boredom, Matthew Bower announced that Skullflower was back in a big way, and he has not looked back since. Lucky us!  
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Orange Canyon Mind (Crucial Blast, 2005)

On the second album since his “comeback” as Skullflower, Matthew Bower followed in the footsteps of Exquisite Fucking Boredom, in that Orange Canyon Mind feels at times like it’s a refreshing, or post-digital update, of his previous sound. Exquisite Fucking Boredom seemed to tap into the nascent heavy psych trend of Oneida, Colour Haze and Comets on Fire, whilst still maintaining a darker undercurrent and taste for much more intense, violent and improvised guitar noise, as had been Skullflower’s modus operandi since BirthdeathOrange Canyon Mind sees Bower, accompanied by a couple of guests on guitar and occasional drums, incorporate harsh electronic sounds, but not as some throwback to the power electronics scene Skullflower evolved out of, but rather as an echo of the glitch and harsh electronica espoused by the Editions Mego label and artists like Ryoji Ikeda and -more harshly- Kevin Drumm. Of course, whilst still indulging in fuzzed and distorted guitars and deep heavy metal textures.

Orange Canyon Mind is therefore one of Skullflower’s most varied and eclectic albums, certainly among their post-2003 output, which is enjoyable, but also possibly undermines its consistency a bit. The exquisite title track feels like Neu! on downers, a pulsating “motorik” back-beat being offset against a dense wall of guitar pyrotechnics. “Annihilating Angel”, in which shuddering glitchtronica textures battle with a never-ending wah solo, is another one of the band’s great moments, a dense, punishing, unforgiving masterpiece of atmosphere and volume, that shows that Bower has lost none of his ability to oppress and terrify. 

Later tracks seem to jerk between such monstrously claustrophobic drone/noise workout, and more “traditional” (in the loosest sense of the word!) post-metal plodders, with prominent wah guitar and meandering subdued percussion, as on “Vampire’s Breath” and “Ghost Ice Aliens”, both full-blooded sludgy rockers that again evoke the heavier end of modern psychedelia, such as Serpentina Satelite. “Goat of a Thousand Young”, meanwhile, is a creepy industrial-electronic piece, perhaps suggesting in texture, if not actual style, the direction Bower would take on Tribulation.

The eclecticism of Orange Canyon Mind certainly underlines the musical vitality and strength of this singular band, but at times plays against it in terms of consistency. That said, I’d still call it required listening, if nothing else then for “Annihilating Angel”, “Starry Wisdom”, “Orange Canyon Mind” and the overall atmosphere of doom and darkness (and above all because it’s a fucking Skullflower album!).

Tribulation (Crucial Blast, 2006)

When you hit the “play” button on your stereo, Tribulation doesn’t start so much as keep going. The opening track “Lost In the Blackened Gardens of Some Vast Star” seems to surge out of the speakers mid-riff, if such momentous noise can be called a riff, and you feel like you have stumbled, unheeded, onto a rehearsal or, perhaps more aptly, some weird, menacing ritual. This is Skullflower (here just Matthew Bower on guitar, occasional electronics and sporadic percussion) reaching heights of extreme sonic mayhem, and the only album Bower has released under this moniker that could more or less comfortably be classified in the “noise” genre.

Indeed, at times, this could almost be the sort of wall noise espoused so eloquently and dramatically by the likes of The Rita, Vomir and Werewolf Jerusalem. Although, unlike those acts, Bower’s emphasis remains on guitar and minimal electronics, plus a healthy dose of SUNN O)))-esque doom atmosphere, albeit buried in some of the harshest sounds yet to come from Skullflower. “Lost In the Blackened Gardens of Some Vast Star” is a case in point, a monolithic cathedral of guitar feedback, raging distortion and high-pitched screes. All forward momentum, in the traditional musical sense, is lost, the piece just sits, static and angry, and unloads. It’s impenetrable. And the whole album follows this deranged model, from the more brittle rasping of “Saragossa”, in which a choked guitar solo is subsumed by a wall of high-pitched distortion, to the feedback overload and doom-laden chords of “Dwarf Thunderbolt”, via the chattering electronic screes of “Dying Venice”. Tribulation is an ear-shattering onslaught that stretches over an hour before ending as abruptly as it started, and one of the most uncompromising albums in the Skullflower catalogue, and indeed of any band, ever.

But even as the different tracks melt into one another without pause, the shifts I mentioned above, as the guitars recede ever-so-slightly to let in clatters of digital noise, for example, mean that to call Tribulation a noise album would pretty much be as redundant as calling it a metal one. Tribulation can actually be seen as a release from such categorisation, as Bower uses his guitar noise to channel dark, mysterious and occult themes in a purely abstract manner. Releasing the shackles in this way takes Bower’s sound and vision beyond the conventions of metal, doom and drone that he had already radicalised from the first notes of Form Destroyer, de-contextualising these genres by unhinging them into pure harsh noise. In Matthew Bower’s pursuit of the fine balance between bliss and assault, of the terrifying sublime, something hindsight shows he’s probably been working on since the eighties but has been crystallising since Orange Canyon Mind, he quite probably never came as close as he does on Tribulation.

Pure Imperial Reform (Turgid Animal, 2008) & The Paris Working (23/4/2009) (self-released, 2009)

In the wake of Tribulation, Bower would kick into overdrive, with a slew of limited edition and/or live releases, such as Abyssic Lowland Hiss and Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Die, often self-released. Most of these are hard to track down, and, whisper it, probably not essential to the appreciation of the Skullflower story.

However, I have managed to get my hands two of these off-the-cuff releases, both live ones, and, for a purist such as myself, they have a “holy grail”-esque feeling, mostly because I have not yet had the chance to see Skullflower live and worship at the altar of Matt Bower and his guitar (I was fortunate to see him as part of his duo Voltigeurs, which was pretty sublime in itself, and certainly an extension of the Skullflower sound of recent years).

Of the two, I ever-so-slightly prefer the more recent Paris Working (23/4/2009) CD-R, which features a full band line-up, including Dennison, plus fellow guitarist Lee Stokoe (of Culver) and Voltigeurs’ Samantha Davis, who appears to play strings and guitar. It was released in the wake of the superb Malediction album (more on it below), which also featured the aforementioned line-up, and of which this is very much a companion piece. As a live experience, I find it captivating. The opening seconds feature the muffled sounds of the band gearing up, but within moments they have gone from this near-silence to a perfect wall of sound, in which muted violin drones line up alongside buzzing, shapeless guitar noise, all underpinned by Dennison’s shifting, shaking, scattered back-beat. I am always in awe of the latter’s ability to display the deftness of touch of a seasoned jazz man whilst keeping things heavy and manic at the same time. As such, The Paris Working feels very much like a pure improv session, as if Skullflower are channeling the spirits of Derek Bailey and Throbbing Gristle into their darkly metallic drone edifice. It’s another hardy reminder of the band’s ability to meld volume with elegance and mystery. Oh, to have been in the audience that night!

Pure Imperial Reform in contrast, feels slightly less coherent, though it is certainly no less virulent and soaring. In the grand tradition of Harmonia‘s Live 1974 album or the likes of Les Rallizes Denudes and Keiji Haino, the audience supposedly present for this show is inaudible, either drowned out by the pure wall of sound, or too enraptured to speak. In the tradition of most recent Skullflower albums, there is no starting point on the album, even in the live setting, the disc just fading into a deluge of guitar feedback, from the twin assault of Bower and Lee Stokoe, his most frequent post-2003 collaborator. Three tracks here, rather unhelpfully merged into one on the CD, which makes differentiation and appreciation of each track’s intricacies a bit tricky. Essentially, Pure Imperial Reform follows on from Tribulation, with noisy guitar squalls completely unhinged from any rhythmic or traditionally melodic frame that could allow listeners to contextualise and absorb what they’re hearing. Instead, like the best harsh noise, this is music that you are forced to endure, and then lose yourself in, as Bower and Stokoe fumble their way through unending solos and feedback. The Wire writers have made a lot of Bower’s apparently bloody-minded desire to conjure up some sort of darkly ritualistic, tantric and cosmic transcendence in his music, the aforementioned “terrifying sublime”, which goes beyond the noise and black metal Skullflower originated out of, as if tying My Bloody Valentine to SUNN O))). I still feel he achieved this best on Tribulation, but Pure Imperial Reform and The Paris Working are great examples of it happening before the eyes of an adulating audience (turned followers?). Lucky bastards.

Taste The Blood of the Deceiver (Not Not Fun, 2008)

Taste the Blood of the Deceiver (what a title!) followed hot on the heels of the Tribulation-esque Desire for a Holy War (Utech Records, 2008), which didn’t do much for me, seeming to be just a set of outtakes from its predecessor, but which I probably need to track down a CD copy of at some point (the artwork is stunning!). This time, Bower and Stokoe rock up on weird American label Not Not Fun, home of Pocahaunted and, more aptly, perhaps, Robedoor. Recently, the label has become the home of America’s foremost hypnagogic pop and neo-New Age artists, but Taste the Blood of the Deceiver sees Skullflower continue to probe at the sublimation of brutal noise that has so preoccupied Matthew Bower of late. The Wire’s David Keenan has noted that recent Skullflower works, worshipping at the altar of that most heathen of instrumental gods, the electric guitar, are increasingly tainted by black metal of the sort popularised in Norway in the early nineties, those stark, aggressive, saturated paeans to diseased minds and arcane rituals. As such, even if a lot of Skullflower’s music is anchored in a noise tradition, it tends towards a sweeping, dramatic post-goth theatricality.
Such ambition was evident on Tribulation, but the Wagnerian majesty was dissolved into a brittle noise texture that only really found an echo in black metal via the portentous song titles. Taste the Blood of the Deceiver really feels like metal music untethered, like a fire-damaged boat drifting aimlessly through deep, hostile waters. Bower and Stokoe remove the human sense of self that, for all its dark musings and satanic worship, is at the heart of black metal. Taste the Blood of the Deceiver is portentous and dramatic, yes, but Skullflower’s take on the guitar sound, equally lo-fi and enveloping, with the simultaneous never-ending emphasis on certain notes and edification of impenetrable sound walls, and the disconnected, abstract and sparing use of vocals elevate the sound on this album to something Keenan has even compared to “magick”. Whilst I do not know enough about such occultist things to properly analyze such a take, I remain in awe at the transcendent power of this music. Along with Tribulation, Taste the Blood of the Deceiver is my favourite post-reformation Skullflower album.

Shortly after this, Bower released a monstrous 3-CD set called Circulus Vitiosus Deus on Turgid Animal. A limited edition, it has since sold out and is near-impossible to find, an especial downer for me as I would relish the chance to check out the supposedly beautiful artwork and packaging. Sad face…

Malediction (Second Layer Records, 2009)

Malediction is something of a curve ball, really, featuring, as I mentioned, a full band line-up, which really is not something seen on a Skullflower album since the mid-nineties (previous noughties albums tended to be composed of Matthew Bower + one or more collaborators, and Tribulation was a solo affair). However, anyone expecting Malediction to be a step backwards would be mistaken – for starters, like just about every other Skullflower album since Orange Canyon Mind, this one also starts in the midst of the maelstrom. Bower’s tendency to refuse to allow build-up or gradual immersion into his world (even on live albums, as Pure Imperial Reform showed) is remarkable, and a key part of his current musical exploration of late. In many ways, it reflects the misanthropy of noise music, a genre he has neither properly extirpated himself from, yet equally never sat comfortably in. Thus, where Whitehouse or Prurient might articulate said misanthropy coherently and aggressively, Bower’s reduction of the human interaction in his music (he often -though not here- refuses to credit himself or others on Skullflower recordings) seems more distant, metaphysical. In a pursuit of something more elegiac, Bower has diffused the humane behind a wall of saturation and feedback, but rather than a rejection of the humane in music, it seems to be an attempt at transporting the psyche of his listeners to somewhere more esoteric, and celestial. Whether he achieves this is ultimately down to you.
It is no different on Malediction, though the heavily-prominent presence of Stuart Dennison’s ramshackle drums, Samantha Davies’ distorted strings and Lee Stokoe’s added layers of guitar; plus a grimly apocalyptic quote from John Webster in the packaging, give this album a warmth Bower had until now seemed determined to annihilate. I do not share The Wire reviewer Nick Richardson’s belief that the dramatic track titles and doom-laden ambiance of this album are, and I quote, “silly”. I do not know enough about the occult, magick or satanism to properly comment on Bower’s approach to them, but my feeling is that this is serious “head” music, the kind of attempt to conjure dark and primordial forces that has long dominated the metal and drone scenes, particularly in the US, but which stems from traditions going back centuries. Skullflower, being British, seem more detached, as they disconnect their sound from clear references, preferring to let themselves -and us- be absorbed by the music. Not silly, try transcendent. A great album, a bit of a UFO, between the free metal of Obsidian Shaking Codex and more recent explorations in black metal doom.

Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament (Neurot, 2010)

The Skullflower formula of recent years has now, you’ll have gathered, been well established, as dis-articulated guitar noise is built up into walls of unstoppable, indifferent sound, which are then launched, untethered and unreferenced, on the band’s audiences. Increasingly, this has seen Bower blur the lines between Skullflower and his other acts, be they Hototogisu or, more recently, Voltigeurs, his guitar noise duo with Samantha Davies. In fact, Voltigeurs (whom I had the pleasure, nay, delight of seeing live) are very similar in sound to the Skullflower of Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament, but with perhaps a more “wall noise” structure. But I digress…
The concern I have is that Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament feels somewhat like a closing statement, first of all through its incredible length (nearly two hours spread over two CDs), and also because it seems to be an attempt to crystallize the dark ritual nature of recent Skullflower albums to an almost absolutist degree, as tracks meld into one another and any distinction between instruments is rendered impossible. It still retains the grandeur of the black metal that supposedly inspires Bower these days, but he pushes the formlessness, the impenetrability, to the nth degree, making Strange Keys to Untune Gods’ Firmament his most difficult album yet. The somber, literary track titles (“Enochian Tapestries”, “City of Dis”, “Blackened Angel Wings Scythe The Billowing Void”) hint at occult arcana, but I am happy to just let the noise absorb and wash over me. I hope that this will not be the last Skullflower album (and have no reason to believe it will be), and, until Matthew Bower next decides to unload a dark, tantrically satanic sonic ritual on my adoring ears, I’ll be waiting, clutching my Skullflower CDs, assaulting my senses with the doom-laden metal of Xaman, the hysterical free-jazz-cum-hard-heavy of Carved Into Roses and the sheets of transcendent noise of Tribulation, a senseless grin on my face. ALL HAIL THE GUITAR, THE AMP, AND MATTHEW BOWER!!!

Conclusion

I’m aware that this long, rambling, repetitive and probably incoherent piece maybe does not do justice to the majesty, elegance and fiery fury of Skullflower. I’m aware that there may be historical inaccuracies and gaping holes that all my web scouring could not enable to rectify. I can only hope that, one day, I might be able to meet the people involved in this magnificent journey, and interview them to get the insider’s view on the Skullflower story. Until then -and many might argue that the mystery is part of this singular band’s appeal- I can only give my honest appraisal of what I know. Which is that Skullflower, for all their familiar references in industrial, power electronics, doom, shoegaze, noise and black metal, are a unique proposition, the sincere, disturbed and metaphysical expression of one man’s gloriously primeval vision. And if words like “tantric” or “transcendent” mean fuck-all to you, then whip out a copy of IIIrd Gatekeeper or Malediction, turn the dial up to maximum, and allow the sonic genius of Skullflower to sweep you away on a river of noise. I promise you won’t regret it.

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