LET’S face it, 2020 hasn’t really been a halcyon year for our beloved music in many ways; the absolute totalling of the live scene, fr’instance. My first year without a fest since 2009. So many gig acquaintances unmet, distant record shops browsed, pre-gig butterfly tummies missed.
But one silver lining is this: unable to get out on the road, musicians have redoubled their recorded output – what else can a true musician, someone bound up in the sound, do but keep creating?
In some cases, that redoubling has been literal. Take The Heliocentrics, who released the Afro-space jazz explorations of The Infinity Of Now earlier in the year, then came back with another album, the trippier krautrock of Telemetric Sounds, at the beginning of October.
Skinshape, the name used by Swanage’s Will Dorey when he’s fashioning fine grooves that aren’t easily definable (which is a good thing – it makes old hacks like me sit up and take notice, really attend to the fascinating and nuanced soundscapes he creates). It was only in the first week of September that he gave us Umoja, an album which was a love letter to African guitar music and which gave us soulful vocals, addictive Afrobeat percussion; that guitar sound of his, bright, sparkling, virtuoso, rhythmic (read our review here).
And now he’s flipped the dial for another album, Arrogance Is The Death Of Men, of which he speaks of a return to more of the sound he was espousing on 2018’s long-player Filoxiny: an album filled with trippy shimmer, languid downbeat, breaks, dusky atmospheres. But, as we shall find out, there’s also some lyrical bite in evidence too.
Arrogance … was put together between last November (or, as some of my friends are calling it with black humour, the Before-Times) through to this July, so deep into the pandemic; and you can hear Will living through it with us in the some of what he tackles lyrically.
The album, wrapped in arresting colours and graphics with a Thirties’ angularity, opens with “Tomorrow”: a lazyass hipgrind, built of funky chops, plenty of space, Will’s blue-eyed, blues-soul vocals looking ever-forward but with a certain nihilism: “I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow / And I don’t care, No I don’t care / The sun may rise on that morning / May be blue skies / May be grey skies.” His guitar swoops and slides, arpeggiates, brings a deeper melodic sheen. It’s music for the soul, full of sun and just a little shade. It’s the sort of track you close your eyes to and centre, healing in the sonics. And … relax.
“Sound Of Your Voice” – something (and especially if you’re Zoom-averse) that’s has been our best way of keeping important connections alive through this – has so much depth. It’s built out of pinging cymbal work, noir-jazz bass, graceful guitar washes, little bright organ vamps, all swathed in fine reverb, which gives it a lonely highway timelessness – I’ll certainly be grooving to it the next time I’m on the A35 after hours. It could’ve been made today, it could’ve been made in 1960, such is the adeptness of its sound.
The title track of the album, sliding in at third, was the first single Will teased us with from this album; and as such we’ve taken the liberty of embedding it below for you to dive into. It’s another sun-blissed shuffle, languid on the surface, and as such perfect for a day star-shaped on the wildflower slopes of the Purbeck Hills; but it has a concerned, conscious current of lyricism about where we’re at underneath. “Not able to be social / Afraid to go outside / Don’t forget to breathe today,” Will sings with restrained delicacy over bluesy backing coos and that nuanced guitar. Beauty, but with an angry edge in check.
“The Eastern Connection” sets those concerns aside for a moment for another valid and cathartic response to this mess: movement in time, the loss of self in rhythm and a tune, the being here now. It’s an uplifting essay of guitar, organ and drums in harmony with that unique Skinshape blend of jazz, funk, Afrobeat, psych asking that you let it go and sway. That has a sweet power all of its own.
“Behind The Sun” is an instrumental companion piece across the early middle of the album with a more stately progression; when he’s in this mode, his music is more akin to the Felt of Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death in its appreciation of the power of the cinematic instrumental. For my money, not enough artists do. “Behind The Sun” has a more Morricone thang in its DNA, more wide skies and contrails and scorched mesa, and very beautiful it is too.
The second single drop upfront was “Another Day”, already a fan’s favourite; it’s touching, has that strength through grace that arises from sadness. As with other tracks on Arrogance … you can hear a strong lyrical response to a year upended. There’s a softly elegiac feel as he sings: “Another day that I’m alright / Another day that I’m alive.” If anything it approaches some of the great tunes of late-Sixties pop in its unashamed tug of the heartstrings. “Losing My Mind” almost seems to have a late-Beatles’ kinda sevenths progression deep underneath the soul-psych shimmer.
“Flight Of The Erhu” is another beautiful instrumental curio, an early Seventies funk soundtrack thing built around a Chinese melodic grace and that most recherché of instruments: the erhu of the title, a two-stringed, bowed instrument akin to a violin that leads with a sweet, singing tone like an analogue theremin, courtesy guest player Wan Pinchu. As the track shifts up a notch, Will hits the wah-wah for some expert, echoic guitar chops. It’s simultaneously brings to mind The Hidden City and 110th Street, and it’s damn great. A real highlight.
“Watching From The Shadows” sways and lilts on phased guitars and a warming melodic descent, with some gorgeous flute trills. Will’s lyrics talk of alienation from the fraying juggernaut of our current societal construct: “I prefer to stay at the back of the room / Watching from the shadows, waiting for the right time.” Will says it’s about “standing up for yourself, and avoiding the limelight for your own good”: sage advice delivered in song.
Arrogance … wraps up in a four and a half minute gospel-soul of “Outro”, in which a warm undertow gives a lovely ground for Will to essay forth once more on multitracked tracks to converse with each other, a simple building falsetto saying so much more than the simple lyrics. Again, quite, quite lovely.
Arrogance Is The Death Of Men is such a different creature to Umoja: no doubt in the circumstances of its recording and composition as much as it what it’s arrived in our ears as. It’s got that guitar thing Will does so wonderfully, which personally I could quite happily listen to him jamming out guitar soli style a la William Tyler, all day; there’s three instrumentals and one semi-; lyrically, you can hear the catharsis of this year, the trials and tribulations. And yet for me personally it’s my favourite of the two. I’ll absolutely declare subjectivity and say, it’s partly because I adore the evocation of his instrumentals; but there’s something else at work here I can’t quite put my finger on.
Enough hair-splitting; a lovely record full of emotion and guitar helps usher in the end of this year. Win.
Skinshape’s Arrogance Is The Death Of Men will be released by Lewis Recordings on digital download, CD, trad black and clear vinyl on December 4th, and is available to pre-order now over at Bandcamp.