*AR Wolf Notes

[Type; 2011]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: pastoral drone, rural psychogeography
Others: Loren Chasse, John Cale, Tony Conrad, Machinefabriek

In both his many guises — including A Broken Consort, Riftmusic, Clouwbeck, Heidika — and his given name, Richard Skelton has earned a devoted mail-order following for his explorations of a sumptuous, acoustic drone that attempts to unite the territories of the heart with the physical landscapes of North England. His recordings on his private press Sustain-Release come mailed to you with seed pods, birch twigs, leaves, or other artifacts of his wanderings. When recording, he takes home pieces of bark, stone, pine cones, or bone to play with in the studio and stuffs his guitar with dirt and leaves. With his recent Landings project, Skelton records in the countryside, then leaves recordings in editions of one at the site where he recorded. Skelton’s music creates an aching, psychogeographic account of the relationship between place and mourning: each album is linked to a different, psychologically resonant natural environment, and almost all of his music, up to and including last year’s reissue by Type of his stunning Landings, has been explicitly dedicated to his late wife, who passed away in 2004. His newest project, a duo with Autumn Richardson, who also records as Autumn Grieve and to whom he is newly married, incorporates wordless vocals to those same masterful, elegiac sounds Skelton explored as a solo artist.

This album is dedicated to the Northern England region of Ulpha in Cumbra, and early self-released editions came with a booklet of poetry, mostly seeming to consist of Norse and Gaelic place names and Latin names of native flora. The album sleeve for this reissue gives the translation of the site’s Old Norse name — “the hill frequented by wolves” — and the duo’s very name refers to “an archaic place-name element found in river names.” (The asterisk indicates that it is a hypothetical, reconstructed form.) *AR seems to be seeking an original, authentic language through their ravishing, wordless music, something approaching the effortless evocation of thought and memory that Skelton perceives in nature: The original CD-R version of this album on Skelton’s private press came with a vial of “hand-mixed ritual incense,” composed of birch leaves, wild grasses, yarrow, and resins, presumably collected from the landscape. He calls these and other artifacts from the landscape — vials of water from the river, broken pebbles — “thing poems.” When the landscape is so articulate, it’s understandable that this duo is at a loss to speak back with anything other than dirt-caked strings and wordless sighs.

*AR follows Skelton’s usual instrumentation, consisting mainly of bowed steel — acoustic guitar strings, a violin strung with steel strings, unidentified found objects (perhaps, as on Box of Birch, a bowed barbed wire fence) — singing at the touch of his horsehair bow. “Inception” rises out of silence to bowed and scraped strings and delicately chiming and buzzing metal bowls. Layers of drone shiver and reverberate, off-rhythms slowly moving in and out of phase. When Autumn’s vocals emerge, they shadow a clear horn sound, low in the mix, gaining strength as the patterns build in volume. Multi-tracked and treated just as another layer, processed into synthetic bell-like tones, and following the dynamic development of the other instruments as they subside in “Rest,” her vocals approach pure abstraction, even as all the other instruments become more human: A wind instrument is filled with breath, producing a rhythmic aspiration, and Skelton’s violin produces ragged slashes that I take to be “wolf tones,” those overtones produced in a hollow instrument when the played note matches the resonating frequency of the instrument’s body.

The contrast between the unearthliness of Autumn’s vocals and the earthiness of Skelton’ strings is quite effective, but when Autumn’s vocals are unmasked — on “Rise,” especially — they sound almost insipid next to the complex overtones and grit of Skelton’s strings. Composed of wordless, open “ah’s” and “oh’s,” their lack of articulation and repetition approach movie-soundtrack Elvish fare. In comparison to the richness, both emotionally and tonally, of Skelton’s violin, Autumn’s vocals seem facile and slightly cloying. She seems to have nothing to say, and not in a good way. This album is being promoted as a “new chapter” of collaboration for Skelton, but in a way, he has never been a solo artist. Skelton’s entire musical project came out of a communion with his late wife’s memory: holding her guitar close to his chest and feeling it resonate as he played, layering her artwork in dense montages to accompany his albums. And the attempt to express his psychological overlap with the environment through his recordings is also a sort of collaboration. The gaps and traces left in Skelton’s music by both these efforts strike me as profoundly considered, which is perhaps why hearing the other side of this conversation finally voiced is slightly disappointing.

Links: *AR - Type

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