1. Lost in the Blackened Gardens of Some Vast Star 2. Black Wind 3. Saragossa 4. Dying Venice 5. Tribulation 6. Void of Roses 7. Dwarf Thunderbolt 8. Silver Stars Rot Mindlessly... 9. In the Depths of the Stagnant Pond
Few names in experimental ‘rock’ and drone command the gravitas and respect of Skullflower. Led by Matthew Bower (with intermittent company), the group essentially wrote the book on the UK’s guitar-based sonic experimentation through the mid 1990’s. After a lengthy hiatus (approximately seven years), Skullflower returned in 2003 and continues the comeback with ‘Tribulation’, one of the group’s most uncompromising albums to date.
The first impressions of ‘Tribulation’, with its the perpetual drone layers over piercing feedback and manipulated tonalities, are uncomfortably reminiscent of the dentist’s chair; the low, steady bass hums dull the senses like Novocain while the whirring drill stabbing between the cracks of the skull. It is simultaneously a trance-like and abnormally tense experience, however opposed the two may seem at first.
The secret to this disorienting technique is that beneath the surface layers of ultra-range frequencies, ‘Tribulation’ is hiding actual melodies. While these tracks could hardly be defined as traditional ‘songs’, also including rhythm and harmony, there are indeed melodic motives scattered throughout the album that build subtly and break apart nearly as soon as we become conscious of them.
The title track is one of the strongest instances of this, with its single cavernous crush of distortion and a higher guitar’s feedback beneath it struggling to be heard. It is, in fact, rather redolent of recent Deathspell Omega’s most ambient moments, wretched in its agony but so calculating in its delivery. But generally, these melodies are so tenuous that they almost seem imagined, as if the mind were trying to ascribe to this mess some sense of pulse or order.
What further makes ‘Tribulation’ so strenuous is its ceaseless presence. With its instrumentation severely limited even by Skullflower’s standards, the experimental sounds that Matthew Bower does employ are so similar to the ubiquitous buzz of distortion that there isn’t a moment’s respite throughout ‘Tribulation’s entirety. Furthermore, each track immediately cuts to the next with not a moment’s pause in between. The hitch in tonality gives each ending away, but as soon as each strophe falters it immediately is replaced with another, nine times over at approximately seven minutes each, making ‘Tribulation’ essentially an hour-plus of uninterrupted industrial-grade demolition.
Let it be made clear (as if it were not already): this is neither rock nor metal music by any stretch of the imagination. This is not the album for a metalhead to throw on to try to impress his friends with the diversity or alleged sophistication of his aural palate. ‘Tribulation’ is not to be trifled with—Skullflower has driven that point home well enough on its own, and the equally sadistic Scott Hull mastered the album to twist the knife remorselessly. This is the album for the veterans, for those who recall the pioneering names of Godflesh, Swans, Throbbing Gristle, and their more obscure but no less significant company as more than just the stepping-stone predecessors of today’s Jesu and SunnO))).
Wielding the catastrophic sledgehammer of drone as only Bower knows how, Skullflower crushes the skulls of our modern day amateurs. ‘Tribulation’ is a gauntlet—a well-titled test of the listener’s mental endurance and stability. Leading by merciless example, Bower needs none of the modern stage gimmicks or mysterious studio lore to legitimize his offerings. ‘Tribulation’ speaks well enough for itself, with a voice both hypnotic and repulsively cruel.
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