Friday, January 30, 2009

Skeletons Out - In Remembrance of Me (Students of Decay CD-R)

While nearly all musicians use technology in their craft, few do it so literally as Skeletons Out members Howard Stelzer and Jay Sullivan; Stelzer plays tapes while Sullivan opts for vinyl. Despite a means of production that would appear to require a reconfiguring of previously recorded material though, Skeletons Out instead concoct a barren piece of industrial architecture from the sounds of the tools themselves.

Consisting of one long piece, In Remembrance of Me is a study in the sounds of playback. Stelzer's tape heads roll over dirty cassettes, Sullivan's vinyl scratches grind the needle to dust, and faint radio playback hums beneath intimate mechanical manipulations. The result is a dark and static sound world that more closely resembles the sound of cars in a tunnel or the inside of a vacuum cleaner than overt destruction. It is a grim and demolished listen but also a rich one, full of detail and warm physicality.

Opening with the familiar crackle of cassette hiss, the piece unveils its elements patiently. Distant taps and sliding holes of sound reel among each other as rusted frequencies emit themselves. Indeed, Sullivan and Stelzer often seem more initiates of a process—albeit a guided one—than controlled musical catalysts. As tape is run over heads and odd distant hums murmur beneath whispered vinyl shifts, a refreshing freedom manifests that is largely devoid of any standard forms of musical expression. There seems a near academicism to it all in fact, more in line with the output of Stockhausen's "Kontakte" works than the turntablism of Christian Marclay or the noise efforts of Merzbow.

As the piece progresses, it continues to unfold into pockets of process whose sources are difficult to identify but highly varied in nature. Caked in a thick layer of analog dust, each sound is given a character apart from its means while still maintaining its sense of industrial reworking. One moment, there is the sound of contact mics rubbed against rotating vinyl; the next, the turning is allowed to speak for itself. There are pockets so dense that it is nearly impossible to decipher what sounds are coming from where, yet there are others that are stripped down to what sounds like the white noise created by the instrument's very existence in the room. That all of these modes contain the restraint and inwardness that they do is an impressive feat, and one that provides the work with a near ambient, timless quality.

By the time In Remembrance reaches its end, with its increasingly distressed nature, it becomes clear that this is a work born from the great care of veteran experimentalists. Its mechanized nature is impressively stagnant yet engulfed in movement and constant change, giving it an organicism that is too often ironically lacking in music made from far less automated means.

1 comment:

Justin Snow said...

What a fantastic review. "There are others that are stripped down to what sounds like the white noise created by the instrument's very existence in the room." That's such a great description. Love it.

I had the honor of seeing these two play together as Skeletons Out. Individually, they frequently play the Boston area but rarely together as SO. Sullivan actually had two or three records placed on top of each other, all spinning at once. It was an amazing show. If you haven't already, I highly recommend seeing either Stelzer or Sullivan whenever you get the chance.

Nice blog, btw :)