Skullflower has gone through several sonic permutations since its inception in 1982. As the only permanent member, Matthew Bower (Total, Sunroof!, Hototogisu, Mirag, Youngsbower) has shown considerable flexibility and growth: his more recent work is a far cry from his early efforts, which were fleshed out with drums and bass grinding along at mid-to-slow tempo beneath hails of noise bullets wrangled from his guitar. While no two fans may agree on the high and low points of their back catalog, the more recent Tribulation (Crucial Blast, 2006) and Taste The Blood Of The Deceiver (Not Not Fun, 2008) are certainly high water marks. Thankfully, Strange Keys To Untune Gods’ Firmament falls into this category as well. It may be something of a litmus test for newer listeners due to its uncompromising severity and double-album length (I’d suggest either of the aforementioned full-lengths, which are somewhat more manageable), but longtime advocates will no doubt be pleased.
Consisting of 12 tracks across two discs, Strange Keys’ intentions are made clear within the first seconds of oppressive, paint-peeling guitar feedback and ominous, atonal skree. And it picks up right where Taste The Blood Of The Deceiver left off. While the sound of that album was often described as Wagnerian noise — partly because of its overly bombastic take, and partly because the melodies submerged beneath a layer of murk that look to early European folklore (both Germanic and Norse) for inspiration — both discs take these ideas and develop them even further. Damaged black metal and harsh Japanese noise are audible in these compositions, combining the raw, treble-heavy tremble that typified early works by bands such as Burzum, Emperor, and Immortal (minus the vocals, blast beats, and tremolo-picked guitar parts), with high-end bird-whistle feedback à la Metal Machine Music and mid-90s-era analog Merzbow (arguably his most fruitful period).
Although there are random elements of the psychedelic wah-wah (which drenched early Skullflower recordings) weaving through the dank fog of hiss, little else is left to indicate that this is the same band that made albums like Xaman, Last Shot At Heaven, and IIIrd Gatekeeper. Just like other recent works such as Desire For A Holy War and Tribulation, Strange Keys has no discernible bass or percussion. And while those early recordings rely on repetition to ram a boatload of guitar noise down your ear canal, these recordings are all about constant flux and dramatic transition to punctuate the crumbling walls of fuzz.
As is often the case with double albums, it becomes necessary to either justify or criticize whether the ideas represented demand this length or struggle to fill it up. In the case of Skullflower, this is even more difficult to assess. Bower has already released several double albums in the past (Sunroof!’s Silver Bear Mist and Hototogisu’s Ghosts From The Sun come to mind), so this isn’t meant to make some epic statement of intent or to offer up tangential directions in the same way that rock opuses like Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness or The Wall have. What’s presented here is a document, one whose consistency and scope provides some of Skullflower’s greatest work yet. It’s fitting that recent photos and live video show Bower kneeling before a tower of rumbling amps in a prayer-like position: Strange Keys To Untune Gods’ Firmament is a summoning of hellfire and brimstone, a trip across the river Styx through the heart of the underworld. As Bower attunes himself with the lord of darkness, may he take you under his spell.