For a while, we knew what to expect from Richard Skelton. But there was a definite shift away from the wide-screen drone work towards the gathering of folk song-inspired pieces on Border Ballads. That was an unexpected flowering of acoustic space in a concise, delicate work, that felt like a cleansing rain shower on a bright Spring morning. It was, about a year ahead of its time, the record we needed in 2020 because an album of piano and strings is an ideal salve for the fevered brow and it’s also a particularly good soundtrack for all those little hobbies we started in lock-down.
It’s all change on These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound, though. For the first time since 2009’s Landings, a Richard Skelton album is appearing on vinyl, through the good offices of Phantom Limb. According to the release notes, the acoustic instruments have been banished and there’s a more electricity-inspired feel to the compositions. If that gives the impression that Richard Skelton has suddenly gone all Autechre on us, it really shouldn’t; the sound will be recognisable to listeners familiar with his previous work. The change is the removal of the physical presence of the instruments; where on earlier work you could hear the bow scrape the strings, on These Charms… the tendency is for the sound to come out cleaner. The drum sound on “Against All Tenderness Of The Eyes” is just that; a sound rather than the imprint on the ears of a mallet hitting skin. It’s a shift that has been gradually occurring over time; but now, the chattering background tones of “For Either Deadened Or Undeadened”, which would have once been recognisably acoustic and atmospheric sounds are audibly the fizzing of circuits and treated tones.
Skelton’s earlier works felt like they were at one with nature; you could sense the physical earth beneath your feet, and be transported to a remote misty moorland where water dripped on mossy rocks; when it could be prehistoric times or last week. There’s a distinct sense that These Charms… is dragging us away from the natural world into a more industrialised environment. The ground is being pulled from under us, cultivated, shaped, used. Machines beat out rhythms that underpin several of the tracks here; drones sweep in at unanticipated moments. “Against The Bite And Rend Of Snake” could almost be mistaken for an ambient dub track, a realisation that creeps up on the listener over the track’s duration – is that a hi-hat pulsing away there? – and is the furthest Richard Skelton goes in this new direction.
If much of Skelton’s work has been in and of the landscape, the elements and the earth, then arguably Border Ballads was indicative of the arrival of people; you don’t get borders or ballads without humans. These Charms… takes the narrative further by underlining the physical impact we have on the environment around us. There has been a gradual evolution of Richard Skelton’s sound over the years, and the subtle shift to electronics has resulted in one of his most powerful albums so far. (Jeremy Bye)