Richard Skelton ~ selenodesy

‘Skyglow’ sounds like it should be the name of an Ambient compilation we’ve been sent for review: a hazy, neon-washed collection bathed in a nocturnal shimmer. It is, rather depressingly, the name for the effect artificial lighting has on our environment at night. You will, no doubt, be familiar with the scenario: you’re travelling home from a gig in a nearby town through the quiet countryside when you look up, and there’s an orange glow on the horizon. Home! And only, what ten? 20 miles away? There may be some comfort in knowing there’s not far to travel, but that comfort is outweighed by the impact of the artificial glow on the natural world.

A recent report in the journal Science concluded that the brightness of the glow in the sky has increased every year since 2011. For example, if you live in an area where you could see 250 stars eighteen years ago, you will have ‘lost’ over 150 stars in the intervening time. This scenario is – obviously – not a good thing, particularly given the cost of electricity. People can’t afford to heat all the rooms in their houses, yet there’s money to light up a cathedral, or a town hall, overnight? Yes, the lights in cities look lovely from a satellite image. But compare that with seeing the cosmos from the earth, and I know which I would pick.

A satellite view of the UK reveals a light-free area where Richard Skelton resides, near Kielder Observatory, which is in an official ‘dark skies park.’ This is likely a benefit of his tendency to live in remote locations, the better to appreciate the earth and the weight of millennia in the soil, rather than something he has consciously sought out in the past. Still, there is a change of aspect on selenodesy – he looks up.

The effect of stargazing in a location free from skyglow and cloud is to provide a sense of perspective. We don’t just see the constellations and the occasional planet we can see in a city, but the longer we look, the greater the expanse becomes; not stars alone but galaxies. We don’t just see space, we see time; the light of stars takes millennia to reach us. It’s this weight of time that, I think, taps into Richard Skelton’s thought processes. Time – particularly the larger units – is a recurring theme in his work. We might see a valley: he imagines a glacier’s slow progress carving out the dale over centuries. We see a broken-down old house; Skelton imagines the lives, poetry and music that existed there long ago.

selenodesy retains much of Richard Skelton’s usual methodology; the beautifully crafted, weighty drones pummel the listener, with a greater electrical charge than some of his earlier, earthier compositions. A vinyl and digital release, the eight tracks are by necessity more concise than many of his other works. But this brings a greater focus than we might normally anticipate. There’s little time to layer drones over a lengthy build; we’re thrown straight into billowing waves of static, or the despairing scream into the void. There’s no room for moments of peace and reflection here; this album is like a lightning storm, full of electricity and uncertainty from beginning to end. It is music to be played loud (so let’s hope for a good vinyl pressing).

The album’s title and track names stem from a much closer neighbour to earth; selenodesy is the branch of astronomy that deals with the moon’s surface and gravitational fields and – apparently – was first used in the 1960s. By contrast, the word Selenography, meaning the study of the moon’s surface, and used by Rachel’s for one of their albums, is some 300 years older. But, without wishing to second-guess Richard Skelton’s inspiration and motivation, this album feels like it goes beyond the moon and planets to explore more philosophical quandaries regarding our place in the universe. Those are the kind of thoughts that selenodesy brings about, along with an increasing frustration that the glories of the heavens are, all too often, lost to our cities’ nocturnal glow. (Jeremy Bye)

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