Without being too assuming, Skeleton Key set out in the mid-1990s to deconstruct musical conventions and aesthetic standards, challenging their audience to find music in what was literally junk. That is, they built their instruments out of was left curbside: circular saw blades, fifty-five gallon metal drums, propane tanks, wood scraps, et cetera. This unique industrial energy (not in the Nine Inch Nails sense of the word) captured on their 1997 debut Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon, and even better during live performances, was some of the most stimulating and experimental music coming out of New York City in the late-1990s, placing them in a music pantheon shared by the likes of Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and Sonic Youth.
With Obtanium, Skeleton Key has traded the angularity of previous endeavors for a more linear accessibility. While still managing to pique the curiosity of the listener, this album seems a bit uninspired. Noise and chaos have been supplanted with a more calculated production, resulting in something that is not all that challenging. The first half minute of “Sawdust,” the album’s opening track, is likely to precipitate tremendous anticipation in those familiar with the band’s earlier work. But the crescendo of scuzz, clanging metal, electronic looping and a funky beat gives way to a song structure that is not all that interesting and vocals that sound like a bad imitation of Trent Reznor. This vapidity, once foreign to the band=EDs junk-rock innovation, plagues most of the album. Throughout Obtanium there is a flatness. At times, Skeleton Key sounds a little too much like post-Mother’s Milk Red Hot Chili Peppers, when the influence of funk was subsumed by the platitudes of pop and grunge.
This is not to suggest that Skeleton Key is anywhere near breaking into the mainstream; their soundscapes are still far too exigent for the sensibilities of Brittny Spears and Blink-182 acolytes. Despite Obtanium’s shortcomings, there are a few engaging moments. “The Barker of the Dupes” and “Roost In Peace” are fine examples of what can be seen as the Skeleton Key “sound” — if there is such a thing. It is a visceral and impromptu feel: seemingly meaningless lyrics traversing the sound of “junk” being manipulated, yet not forced to conform to a specific structure, propagating something that is simultaneously shrill and melodic. The heavy bass angularity of “Dingbat Revolution” evinces a Shellac-feel, without Albini’s pretentiousness. Obtanium is indeed a departure from what is expected from this band, yet these few bright moments avow that Skeleton Key remains a welcomed voice as popular culture continues to revel in its nadir.
Ipecac Records: http://www.ipecac.com