ALBUM REVIEW: Richard Skelton – ‘These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound’: enthralling, organic electronica arising from the earth itself

MUSICIAN, free versifier, deep landscape investigator; psycheogeographer, artist, publisher: British polymath Richard Skelton is all of these things with a singular focus and identity.

He turned to the sphere of music in 2004 after a close personal loss, making albums with a fierce geographical, experiential focus – initially very much about the undervisited, bleak West Pennine Moors west of Chorley and Clitheroe; shorn of the limestone pretty-prettiness of the neighbouring Yorkshire Dales, a landscape if anything under-imagined and limned, most often left alone to brood under their own skies, all sour earth, soft, wet hills and abandoned extractive industries.

Often the instrumentation was constructed and sourced from those self-same moors; what you heard was a fierce, unbridled, and primeval tonal language which sounded more like the land singing to itself, the other-place of the humans not really in evidence, Richard way back behind the curtain. 

It may only be a decade and half that he’s been making music, but it’s fair to say it’s a form Richard has somewhat taken to. Under his own name, and with such aliases as A Broken Consort, Clouwbeck, Riftmusic and others he’s now released something like 50 albums all told – at least if a quick straw poll of Discogs may be believed.

It’s a music that’s often discomfiting, always immersive, absolutely of verity, and unafraid to reach as far in (and out) as possible.

Gradually over the past several albums, during which time he has also relocated from Lancashire, he’s moved to a more electronic blend; filtering, decaying, obscuring the original sound sources and compositions in processing and process.

He’s about to release his first album for new home Phantom Limb, These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound,  and in line with the seemingly unstoppable rebirth of the format, it’s to be his first on vinyl in more than a decade.

And he’s also, into his half-century as it were, made the full leap across from the acoustic to the digital for this album; although the earthy, organic musics you’ll find within, which sound like they’ve arisen from his chosen scape unbidden and of their own sonic volition (in this particular, the Scottish border country, a land of undefined ownerships, broad valleys, fortified farms and scattered communities).

Take the opener on These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound: “The Viscid Substance”. Lexically it speaks of a time long before processors and 24-hour connectivity and instant access. It has a tonal palette very much consanginous with the freer moments of Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, all evocatively imperfect sustain and exhilarating drone in 125 seconds. And unlike the parent band, the godhead of so much of what’s followed, Richard has taken the opposite course to Mark Hollis and co in embracing the electronic.

Follower “Against All Tendernesses Of The Eyes” has a real rural-small i industrial quality. The sweeps of melodic midground bring to mind ridges of hills under thunderhead skies; the grittier drones are (again, wholly lower-case) metallic; the sparse percussion sounds like distant stone-breaking. If this is an album of the Borders, then this song is an abandoned quarry in the hills.

Richard Skelton, photographed by Autumn Richardson

“For Either Deadened Or Undeadened” slowly rolls across your mind until it fills it; a haar of a song, it’s very Kranky in its luxuriant drone melancholia. It’s a transatlantic cousin of Stars of the Lid, but coming in from pure electronics. Have a listen; we’ve embedded a Bandcamp link to this track – click on the miniature album artwork right at the end.

“For The Application Of Fire” has a really eerie quality that, in terms of atmosphere, rubs against fellow Lowlands travellers Boards of Canada. Tonally it’s very different, and might yet soundtrack something like a remake of The Stone Tape. Richard teased this as a single a few weeks ago; we reviewed it and commented: “On a resonant and ominous two-note bass march, it unfolds with overhanging clouds and sheer brood. It’s an incantation, a movement, a sound-cycle for calling on the other.”

By now you may be noticing the incantatory nature of the track nomenclature: it is, we are informed, following a schemata based on “19th-century translations of Anglo-Saxon ‘leechdoms’: ancient medicinal remedies, some of which required the recitation of charms to aid the efficacy of the cure. 

“In times of increasing societal anxiety and paranoia these recordings are auditory charms: spells for the annulment of fear, incantations against the darkness.”

“For An Inward Wound”: now there’s a title. It raises its spectre from dark synth thrum to ride forth on a high, slowly mutating five-note motif, two layers of pulse and electronic exhalation underneath. At the halfway stage of the album it’s the most pure track yet in electronic texture; it’s the most akin to the electronic musics arising from the South Yorkshire cradle in the late 70s. You wouldn’t entirely be happy to encounter at a moorland meeting of tracks at dusk.

“For A Swarthened Body” is equally eerie, abrading drift. The dominant tonal thread comes on all Basinski meets Tim Hecker; it enthralls, it transmutes, demands. It’s joined behind by a subterranean, mechanical clatter of a rhythmic suggestion. Again, of this is the music arising like a Jack o’Lantern from the land, it’s one of rock-tumbled hills, vistas, pylons and unfenced shafts. It’s an exhilarating, uneasy highlight of the work for me. It whisks you somewhere well off the tourist routes and properly deep into the musical topography. Now, should that be topographical musicality?

“Against Bite And Rend Of Snake” would find a home on a Boards of Canada album, I think, had it applied for one of those big deep breaks with which Adam and Eoin underscore their work. Instead, it sits up in the higher end of the clefs, more potent for that near-total lack of rhythm, a very occasional one-note kick almost like the final pyre march from The Wicker Man: an absolute economy of propulsion. The sufficient. Again, a simple and eerie melody holds the edges together, out at the edges of which is a sweet, sharp roar of a thing that adds grit and life and dirt.

“For All Cleansings” is (just about) a mellower beast; it again uses those motifs of a drone line chafing hard against discordancy and a whole deep space of subservient counterpoint and very distant percussion; the effect here is a inchoate hankering, perhaps in line with the catchall blessing of the title. If these are indeed mantras to protect us from 2020, and with the predicted October reoccurrence of the ‘rona looming, every posy, charm, spell we can gather is not to be scorned; and this one has a real breath-catching lift.

At just a second shy of the 11-minute mark, “On Each Of The Six Fives Of The Moon” resolves the album in a slower unfolding. To me, there’s something more waterside, perhaps even coastal, about the way this track laps and recedes, laps and recedes; some albums like to exist through a coda, a lessening, allowing you to land at your home quay softly. Richard has no such intent. He wants to take you all the way in, open you up to the clustering tones, the melody bending out grandly and imposingly at its own limits.

Richard’s move into wholly electronic composition is then, less of a leap, more of a growth, the way a bramble will reach out across to the other side of a barely used track, seeking; it’s by turns beautiful, eerie, dronesome, unsettling, organic and arresting.

Richard Skelton’s These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound will be released by Phantom Limb on digital and double vinyl formats on September 25th; it’s available to pre-order now at the label’s Bandcamp.

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