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Richard Skelton, "Another Hand" and "A Great Body Rising and Falling"

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cover imageHot on the heels of the seismic sine-wave experimentation of Front Variations, this pair of EPs rounds out Richard Skelton's prolific winter with a welcome return to more familiar territory.  Both intended as accompaniments to his most recent book of poetry (Dark Hollow Dark), the two releases take differing themes as inspiration, but both paths ultimately lead to strong, slow-burning drone pieces.  Of the two, the darker and more primal Another Hand is the more powerful and fully realized work. Together, the releases complement each other beautifully to form an extremely satisfying and haunting diptych.

Aeolian

It is difficult to imagine a Richard Skelton release these days that does not have a thoughtful conceptual inspiration rooted in either arcane antiquarianism or regional geologic history.  In this case, Another Hand is explicitly indebted to the former, though it is not a great leap to see how Skelton's fascination with latter might lead to the same place.  More specifically, this EP blossomed forth from a notation in the only extant original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  The notation addresses a word that is "rewritten, over stain, in another hand … in darker ink over another letter."  That unintentionally evocative series of words became something of a guiding force for Skelton as he worked on the piece, triggering some deep reflection on how our own stories may be overwritten by "unknown - and possibly supernatural - agencies."  That phrase also inspired the artwork within Dark Hollow Dark, as Skelton wrote over handwritten texts from a previous book (The Look Away), erasing their original meaning and transforming them into a dense and enigmatic tapestry of layered symbols.

Such a process of accretion obviously mirrors the changing landscapes of the earth and provides a winning template for making great drone music, provided the artist has a good ear for loop architecture and an even better intuition for pacing.  Skelton has both, of course, and employs those talents to wonderful effect on this twenty-four-minute piece.  Opening with just a simple foundation of deep, repeating throbs, "Another Hand" quietly blossoms into a melancholy dream-spell of layered and undulating string drones.  It steadily accumulates further mass and texture as it unfolds, which is enough to make it a solid example of standard Skelton drone fare if that was all it offered.  Happily, however, he had considerably more compelling plans, as the drones gradually start to become subsumed by a ghostly repeating howl around the piece's halfway point.  That is the piece's only real transformation, but the half-grinding/half-spectral beauty of the new motif is more than enough to make “Another Hand” a wonderfully heavy and visceral piece.  Characteristically, Skelton stays true to his thematic conceit to the very end, as the coda that remains after all the howling fades away feels like a newly bell-like resurrection of the opening motif.  Perfect symmetry.

Samples can be found here.

cover image

A Great Body Rising and Falling also has some literary roots beyond its ties to Dark Hollow Dark, though they are a bit more modest this time around.  Rather than looking to an ancient manuscript from the collection of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, Skelton finds inspiration in his own words–specifically a passage from The Look Away.  It is a somewhat lengthy passage, but the crux is "…even then I feel movement.  Not the dull workings of my body, but something greater.  It is another body, massive and restless, shifting beneath me."  The greater "something" in the original quote refers specifically to the hidden and not-so-hidden movements within the streams and hills that surrounded Skelton at the time, but it is certainly evocative and poetic to contemplate even deeper and more unknown forces at work.  Naturally, Skelton does exactly that here, using the piece to abstractly explore the possibility of "sentience within the apparently inanimate."

In musical terms, that manifests itself in a longform drone piece that feels like a more melodic variation of the territory explored by "Another Hand."  Built upon a similar foundation of bass throbs, "A Great Body Rising and Falling" soon blossoms forth into a smeared and quavering descending melody that becomes the obsessively repeating central theme.  As far as such themes go, this one is quite an impressive textural feat, as the sequence of notes seems to become more blurred and feedback-like with each successive tone, weaving a gently oscillating haze over the underlying thrum.  Unlike "Another Hand," however, "A Great Body" feels like it is increasingly torn and pulled apart rather than allowed to snowball into an increasingly dense force of nature.  Naturally, Skelton had a brilliant bit of transformational sorcery in mind for this piece as well, as its harsh metallic undercurrent finally tears free of the surrounding music around the seventeen-minute mark and erupts into a brief passage that sounds like a chorus of howling phantasms swirling around a reverberant stone enclosure.  It is an absolutely haunting and harrowing interlude, but it is all too brief, leaving the piece to ebb to a comparatively anticlimactic close for the next several minutes.

At its zenith, A Great Body Rising and Falling easily rivals anything else in Skelton's oeuvre, but the composition as a whole is not quite focused enough to amount to a fresh masterpiece.  At least, not enough to amount to a masterpiece in "Richard Skelton" terms, as even his near-misses occupy quite a high plane of artistry, vision, and craftsmanship.  Moreover, given that this digital-only EP was quietly issued along with a pair of other releases around the cultural fallow period of Christmas, it might be more accurate to describe both it and Another Hand as delightfully expectation-defying surprises that beautifully fill the void while Skelton's next major statement takes shape.

Samples can be found here.
Last Updated on Sunday, 27 January 2019 18:47  


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