Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Skull Defekts-Peer Amid (Thrill Jockey)

Life is full of surprises. Some good, some bad. The prolific output of Daniel Higgs is hardly a surprise anymore, but a new release in which he fronts an electric band? Indeed, that is a fine, fine surprise for Disaster Amnesiac.
After several years of listening to Higgs play banjo, mouth harp, small/toy percussion, etc. to accompany his mystical/meta-physical lyrics., along with visually feasting upon his many poetry and art books, it's a joy to hear him fronting a full band again. The former expressions are great and lasting, mind you; that said, Higgs has been such a riveting Rock front man, a unique vocalist and lyricist; his absence has been noted and felt within that sphere.
Daniel's vocal development of recent years is fully on display here. His alto registers have become more reedy in some sense, more weathered and aged. Think perhaps of Billy Holiday's later recordings. The qualities of Higg's voice have begun to take on the same sorts of qualities that Lady Day had toward the end: less physically strong, but all the more powerful for their necessary restraint. Along with these apparent qualities comes his recent characteristic evangelical-styled delivery. Lungfish lyrics always hinted at a religious aspect, and Higg's delivery likewise hinted thus. As also displayed on 2010's Say God, on Peer Amid Higgs goes there. Disaster Amnesiac lived for many years in an apartment in which his Grandma would warble old hymns as she accompanied herself on an out of tune piano; the overtly religious tone of some of Higg's lyrics are no bother to me. That said, in a post-Modern world, people may find this kind of earnestness quaint or even unsettling. That response is up to the individual, of course. For those who are repelled by overt evangelical tone of delivery, fear not, as for the most part the lyrics on Peer Amid, while being delivered with a preacher's urgency, remain ecumenical in their meta-physical/mystical subject matters.
It would be tough for a band to reach the high levels of focused minimalism that Lungfish did without ceasing to play altogether. To their credit, Skull Defekts provide great musical accompaniment  to Higgs. Their sound retains a lot of their earlier aesthetic, a big, post-1990's guitar band approach, but one can hear a significant pairing down, a la Lungfish. Whether this is due to Higg's presence or developments within Skull Defekts will have to be conjectured, but it's a welcome development either way. In comparison to Lungfish, the guitars of Joachim Nordwall and Daniel Fagerstroem are less locked-groove in approach, and more garage-ey in tone and style. The drumming of Henrik Rylander  has a more "big beat" feel, which seems to be in keeping with so many Scandinavian Rock drummers' rhythmic style. All comparisons aside, Skull Defekts sound on equal terms with Higgs, whether on more conventional tunes like No More Always and Gospel of the Skull or signature percussive experiments such as In Majestic Drag. This is, after all, Rock music, and at no time is there a feeling of "Daniel Higgs backed by the Skull Defekts". Even the appearance of Higgs on solo banjo and noise on the last track, Hidden Hymn, can not diminish this full band feel.
Peer Amid's mix is live and even, and in keeping with the collaborative Rock feel, the vocals never overpower the instrumental mix. Engineer Stefan Brainstrum did a fine job.
In the liner notes to his great CD collection, Monster, David Thomas recounts how Pere Ubu's Song of the Bailing Man was pressed to 45 rpm, in order to obtain higher fidelity from the vinyl. Peer Amid's vinyl edition shares that aspect of said Ubu LP, and this is an aspect noted at the Thrill Jockey web site. The sound is great. Another victory for the vinyl comeback, one would hope.
With great cover art by Swedish artist Frederik Söderberg, added to it's heavy sound, Peer Amid would undoubtedly make a great addition to any sound collector's archive. Now, if only this group would add some West Coast U.S. dates to their upcoming tour!

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