It’s not surprising that history has been a bit negligent to Live Skull — after all, Sonic Youth released Sister the same year as Dusted, and any shred of competition between SY and their New York contemporaries (including Live Skull) would be obliterated with the follow-up release of Daydream Nation in 1988. Frankly, when a shadow that huge is cast, it’s easy to overlook where it falls. To compare the two bands on that basis is unfair, but they are worth linking, as Live Skull’s general sound often strikes me as a spikier progression of what Sonic Youth evoked on Bad Moon Rising: unease and dread in the shape of eerie, foreboding noise-rock. Dusted is just where Live Skull hit a cohesive peak.
One of the more unlikely things about Dusted is that the more a copy of it ages — i.e., the more its outer jacket becomes tattered, the more surface noise it collects — the creepier it becomes. The album’s cover photo of a decrepit, abandoned warehouse becomes more sinister when the LP sleeve is warped and creased with water damage, as my copy was when I bought it for a pocketful of change. Of course, it helps that tracks like the sickly and desperately haunted “Kream” and “5-D” manage to be both ghostly and viscerally physical, and while Martin Bisi’s production has yielded a bit flat with age, that cavernous 80s drum sound lends itself fittingly to the abandoned warehouse mystique.
Dusted was also the introduction of Live Skull’s new lead vocalist, Thalia Zedek. Zedek’s husky yowl — think of Kim Gordon after consuming a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes — is gripping. The rest of the band sings on a few songs (the Marnie Greenholz-led “W/ The Light” opens with a particularly engaging wall of guitars), but Zedek’s presence more often matches the band’s musical intensity, poised somewhere between audible confrontation and struggle. Take Dusted’s opening track, “Machete” — while it may not be an anthem on the level of “Schizophrenia,” it’s still a hell of a way to introduce Live Skull’s new line-up, all memorable guitar parts, driving rhythms, and Zedek’s straining rasp as she repeatedly seethes “burn.” So while Live Skull’s previous album Cloud One has some better songs, I find that Zedek’s commanding voice, alongside the apparitional harmonic guitar interplay of Mark C and Tom Paine, makes Dusted the slightly better record.
One reason why Live Skull have seemingly been relegated to footnote status among 80s noise-rock bands may be that, despite possessing qualities often associated with New York-based noise-rock in the years following no wave (e.g., chiming harmonics, alt-tuning sound textures, feedback), Live Skull didn’t concern themselves so much with innovation or experimentation, opting instead to reel in elements of this sort of post-no wave sound into a more tightly constructed rock. It’s a type of sound that was really picked up upon later in the Pacific Northwest: Unwound really mastered and set a new level for the dynamic and atmospheric ends of this sound by the end of the 90s; today, Broken Water seem to be carrying parts of that torch. I won’t link this all back to Live Skull, as their influence is suspect given relative historical obscurity, but the sound links are uncanny and worth hearing.