Don't enter Strange Keys to Untune Gods' Firmament-- a 12-track, 2xCD, two-hour-plus marathon of feedback-and-distortion charges for electric guitar and electronics from Britain's Skullflower-- casually. Sure, released by Neurot Recordings, it's one of the few titles in the band's two-decade run to have a substantial marketing push, but it's also one of the most extreme. Built on depth charges and swan dives into razing nine- and 14-minute instrumental immersions, and forgoing any pause between them, Strange Keys overpowers and exhilarates, the sort of record that rewards the commitment it demands with intensity and brutality.
The history of British experimental legend Matthew Bower is perhaps the only thing more overwhelming about his discography: Since the early 80s, Bower has been a persistent if oftentimes overlooked presence in international sound exploration, first with his projects Pure and Total and then with Skullflower. That's the band that took Bower places, particularly to North American audiences, thanks to 1992's IIIrd Gatekeeper, reissued stateside on Crucial Blast in 2007. A lumbering, playfully psychedelic record that cut big-beat paths through a world of weird guitar tones and stretched riffs, IIIrd Gatekeeper served as an introduction for Bower, who's since proven to be one of music's most restless and prolific souls, rivaled in his own spheres only by Jandek and David Tibet for variety and output.
In 1996, though, Skullflower disbanded. Bower busied himself with the often still, stately collaborations of Sunroof! and the earliest releases by his power electronics duo, the Hototogisu. After a seven-year break, Bower revived the handle for the LP Exquisite Fucking Boredom, a sprawling, gorgeous record that seems to revel in reverse. But on the closing track, "Celestial Highway IV", the sound bristles, the melody and beat wheezing beneath the pressure of static, noise, and a guitar line that won't sit still. By track's end, you can kind of trace a melody.
That concept-- burying and occasionally revealing something familiar beneath a harsh flood of sounds-- has served as Bower's chief compositional device with the second incarnation of Skullflower. It's loud music-- really loud music-- that demands you sit close and listen up. Strange Keys ups the ante: Though "Gateway to Blasphemous Light" and "Enochian Tapestries" settle into moments of warped bliss, Strange Keys is generally relentless and tremendous, burying its themes in kaleidoscopic distortion. It's as if the comparisons that Bower has earned in the last seven years-- Merzbow, Wagner, second wave black metal-- finally took magnificent hold.
All of those comparisons compute, too. In fact, together they are only parts of a much bigger musical picture, where dozens of sounds connect in a dense though meticulous web, waiting to be teased out and untangled by the listener. And in the end, devoting two hours at a time to Strange Keys and chasing down whatever phantom sounds you think you might hear at work is what makes this such a rewarding-- if difficult-and-demanding to irritating-and-impossible-- listen, especially on return spins.
Something about "City of Dis", for instance, suggests the mechanical flux of a breathing machine, though its wide peaks-and-valleys motion recalls an all-star noise team scrambling the Death in June discography-- rigorous and mean with drama-- and dredging up an album that sounds nothing like the source. Similarly, "Gateway to Blasphemous Light" sounds as though every cheap black metal recording in the world-- you know, those early ones so loud that everything sounds like a smear-- was dumped into a 14-minute space and blurred together into one tidal piece.
Most illustrative, though, are "Rheingold" and "Blood Mirror Streams", two seven-minute pieces on the altogether more-finessed second disc. They pile pounding sheets of noise above gentle, distended riffs, which poke out of the maelstrom like lone rays of light. In its loudness, it faintly recalls Fuck Buttons' "Sweet Love for Planet Earth", where ruined tones hovered above house beats and chirpy keyboard melodies. That's all to say that, for its controlled destruction and distortion, there are moments here that suggest the possibility of redemption. Listen for them: You at least know you're bound to hear something else, too. - pitchfork