The Skull Defekts by The Skull DefektsRelease date: February 23, 2018
Label: Thrill Jockey
Swedish avant-rock heroes The Skull Defekts self-titled swansong sees them keep on pushing forwards right to the finish line. Last year, in a statement titled ‘The Beauty of Creation and Destruction (or Death to Skull Defekts)’, Joachim Nordwall wrote a brief history of the band and announced that this new album would be their last. So long then, Skull Defekts.
His statement is by turns informative, insightful and emotional. The one thing it fails to shed much light on is why band had to end “we started working on a new album. Huhta was not involved at all. Higgs was gone. Energies had definitely changed”. But can it really be about personnel? Higgs only joined the original four for the last couple of records (he contributes the artwork for this one) but it also sees valuable contributions from a new member, Mariam Wallentin. All of them have always had other projects on the go and founders Nordwall and Hendrik Rylander have an album by a newer project Orchestra Of Constant Distress released on the same day as this.
Something central and true to the band seems to have altered then, although as their output was constantly surprising and changing it’s hard to nail that down. Still, it seems the record is self titled as if to double down on an idea of what The Skull Defekts were, even as that remains a slightly elusive thing. Other options are clearly available here, two of them head up that very statement. ‘A Brief History Of Rhythm, Dub, Life And Death’ would also have been a pretty great album title and it makes for an impressive opening shot. It rattles in on tense industrial percussion bursts that are soon drowned out by great, vicious chunks of guitar noise that seem to be hitting the side of a metal building with force. Beneath them the dub of the title starts to space out the taut percussion, pushing it about the soundscape, rolling it into the corners. It’s like something 23 Skidoo might have done, basically six minutes of crashing and banging noises and yet it’s gripping and thrilling and then weirdly fades out on the faint sound of sleigh bells.
Although they formed in Gothenburg I’ve never before considered The Skull Defekts to be a goth band but, in a particular way, this is a very goth record. Wondering if this was a slightly new turn in their always evolving sound I went back for a listen to their last album ‘Dances In Dreams Of The Known Unknown’. Opener ‘Pattern Of Thoughts’ – “This is the dance, pattern of thoughts, that was carved in stone, Found in a cave, Sealed with human bones, This dance is ancient, prehistorical, I think it was for – sex magic rituals… “. Hmmn, okay then, none more Goth.
Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention but when I say this record is goth I don’t mean as the spooky caricature it quickly became but as that strain of post punk more concerned with art and magic than politics or theory. The anti-rock gestures and strategies explored in a lot of that music are revisited and redeployed here to great effect. The drums are mostly rolling floor tom rhythms of the kind always considered vaguely ‘tribal’ back then, pushing things on but low on flash fills and cymbals, the guitars slash out chunks of metallic and atmospheric sound, rock ‘n’ roll song structures are broken down “circular, ritualistic, monotonous rock music” as Nordwall called it.
‘The Dance’ sounds like the midpoint of Wire and the Banshees around the time they might have conceivably been on the same bill. The Siouxsie echoes get louder when Wallentin provides vocals on ‘Slow Storm’ chanting stray words over rolling drums and squalling guitar that sound like, well, a slow storm. It appeals to think of the band in the studio, making a final album, knowing it’s over and adopting some of the moves of a musical subculture associated with the undead, creating a voice from beyond their own grave. The Skull Defekts are certainly smart enough to have considered it but their approach seems too open and organic, they’re just not that arch.
Still, on ‘Powdered Faces’ this tendency reaches an apex that borders on parody or at least self mockery as Wallentin sternly intones “for the mouth, for the face, for the hole in my face” and then icily repeats “Whipped Cream” over and over. It’s to their immense credit they manage to get away with this, it’s simultaneously hilarious and brilliant, which is a neat trick.
Further confusions abound, they name check themselves during ‘All Thoughts, Thought’ but ‘A Message From The Skull Defekts’ is instrumental. Another contender for a better album title it’s a thundering Killing Joke assault stripped of everything but an irresistible and exhilarating forward motion. Finally ‘The Beauty of Creation and Destruction’ makes a mantra of its title over a Kraut-Goth hybrid of driving bass and moody electric piano clanks. In his history of the band Nordwall asserted that Peer Amid and the tour that followed was the high point of the band and that ‘Dances In Dreams Of The Known Unknown’ was “A great album I think.”
He’s unlikely to encounter much argument on that assessment and this one, clearly a sibling to ‘Dances…’ is, I think, at least as good if not better. A fine way to go out.