During the past decade, Richard Skelton has gone through many significant changes and in the process has become one of our most important modern composers. In the early days, his releases under various monikers were graced by personal dedications; special editions were encased in handmade wooden packaging. One of them even came with a full-sized boat. Okay, just kidding about the last one. For a long time, he was a well-kept secret. Then Box of Birch hit it big, Landings hit it even bigger, and the artist scored the cover of The Wire. And yet there remains about him an aura of mystery. Much of this is due to the nature of his music, whose deepest layers, despite the deepest listening, remain impenetrable. The simultaneously accessible and elusive nature of his artistry continues to be his primary attribute. While others have emulated his signature style, laying clear guitar or string lines atop entangled filaments, Skelton remains the reference point. When anyone familiar with his work reads the words, “sounds like Richard Skelton”, they know what to expect; this public understanding is proof of a unique talent.
In order to understand Skelton’s work, it helps to be aware of some of the shifts that have occurred in the artist’s life, his outlook and his music. The first stage of his recorded career came to a close with Skura, which collected his output until that point. This stage was one of grieving and dedication, a testimony of love for his departed wife Louise. It was also the end of Skelton’s concentration on the physical packaging, although thankfully the physical packaging still exists. Skelton continues to exude mournful sounds, but not quite as mournful; the timbre seems part of his nature. In works such as From Which the River Rises (as Clouwbeck), a graceful, triumphant tone was already beginning to grow. Trace this, perhaps, to new love, as Skelton’s marriage to friend and collaborator Autumn Grieve (A. Richardson) was a source of new inspiration. Other gradual shifts include a deeper focus on the connection between land and memory and a fuller utilization of the power of literature. This last aspect is most evident in the growth of Landings over its various incarnations, but is currently evident in the connection between Verse of Birds and Field Notes Volume One (specifically The Flowering Rock, which is collected within that larger work). Land, literature, love and music are all intertwined like the various sources of Skelton’s sound.
The introductory words of The Flowering Rock serve as an apt description of Skelton’s music:
From the water they rise and fall
blue hills breathing songs without words
While “songs without words” may be obvious, and “rise and fall” is not unexpected, “blue hills breathing” describes Skelton’s work in a parabolic fashion, which may be the only way to understand it. A sense of creation is apparent, as land rises from water and form rises from the teeming mass of strings and processed instrumentation. Skelton’s work, despite the lack of words, is alliterative; the chords serve as the vowels and consonants. Over this rests a synaesthetic veneer, a connection between color and timbre. Tracks such as “Grey-back” (an alternate version/vision of the selection “Cappanawalla”, from Ridgelines) intimate height and shade; these pieces were inspired by the karst hills on the west coast of Ireland, Ceapaigh an Bhaile. As Verse of Birds was born during a time of coastal excursion, one might conclude that the album’s first disc (including titles such as “Vessel”, “Promontory” and “Of the sea” is Skelton’s sea album. The Flowering Rock‘s references to bell stones, ghost islets, and arterial passages bear this out. The music explores caverns, dives below the surface, emerges to walk the wrack line. When the music ends, the listener somehow intuits that the music is still continuing somewhere, as constant as the tide.
If Landings is Skelton’s earth album, and the first disc of Verse of Birds is his water album, then the second disc is his air album. The Flowering Rock is as fascinated by the avian world as it is by the aquatic. The first four (of five) songs on the disc reflect the pursuit of a merlin by a skylark. In the first section, the lark ascends; this quieter piece sets the tone, lulling the listener into a sense of safety. In the second, the merlin appears. Even before one knows the background information, this piece stands out. It’s louder, busier, and more immediate, assertive and slightly menacing in tone. The skylark sings to the merlin while fleeing, mocking its ineptitude; but eventually, it succumbs. The title, “Little Knives”, refers to the talons of the pursuer. “A kill” is perhaps inevitable, but no less sad. From this point forward, the album makes a gradual sonic exit, culminating in the tender 18-minute closer “Domain”.
The artist continues to stretch his already-wide boundaries with every release. This new phase is off to an incredibly satisfying start. As Skelton wrote in 2010, “edge trees … will make a place for oak and ash and pine”. Out of these ashes has grown new life. (Richard Allen)