Skullflower, IIIrd Gatekeeper (Head Dirt, 1992)
[originally posted 14Mar2000]
I love Skullflower. I have always loved Skullflower, and I will continue to love Skullflower. For those of you who may have not yet heard my Skullflower rants, describing their sound is monumentally simple. Imagine a seventies dinosaur-rock band– Mahogany Rush, for example, or perhaps Deep Purple in their heyday– getting really stoned (or, perhaps, staying sober is a better analogy!) and discovering really, really high distortion. You have early Skullflower. Later in life, they discovered the louder and more chaotic is not always better, and they started doing very minimal, soft, shifting guitar drone. Describing this sound is not quite as simple, but, umm, imagine one of those annoying shoegazer bands, say the Stone Roses, actually playing something in a minor key and not singing lyrics they came up with on acid. (More recently they’ve discovered Black Sabbath’s acoustic instrumentals… but we won’t go there right now.)
Chaotic dinosaur rock and minimal drone ambient are two entirely different things, and the same band rarely does both. No one has attempted a hybrid. Why? Because it’s a recipe for disaster. Drone does its thing by giving a surface of monotone and shifting what’s underneath it to crate an interesting sound canvas; dinosaur rock thrives on those long, meandering, drawn-out guitar solos a la Peter Frampton or Steve Vai. Unfortunately, Skullflower decided the two might work together (or this is, in fact, a transitional album between the older and newer material; hard to tell). And the recipe for disaster is, to some extent, fulfilled. A lot of this album is, well, boring. It’s like listening to Mahogany Rush with a skipping record; Matthew Bower gets away from the solos and ends up playing the same four bars over and over again at times, while the rhythm section (in this case Anthony DiFranco on bass and Stuart Dennison on drums) plows away in their usual all-out heavily-distorted attack.
Thankfully, the whole album doesn’t suffer from this problem. However, the parts that don’t sound a lot like, well, other stuff. “Center Puss,” the album’s best track, sounds a lot like what PainKiller were doing around the same time, but without benefit of John Zorn’s sax-playing genius. Some of the other tracks, especially “Godzilla,” are passable work, but they put one in mind of earlier Skullflower, and they just don’t measure up.
Overall, IIIrd Gatekeeper is one for the Skullflower completist. Definitely not a way to introduce the band to the wonders of Skullflower; a novice would be much better served by picking up either the brilliant Ruins (Shock, 1990), perhaps the best guitar-wank album the Brits have managed since Yes discovered acid, or the even more brilliant Obsidian Shaking Codex (RRR, 1992?), whose closing piece “Smoke Jaguar” is the standard by which all other drone/guitar ambient is measured. **