By George Bass | 4 January 2010
The other week I climbed into the Bavarian mountains. I think they were mountains, anyway (don’t know precise height criteria), but it was no easy feat, I’m telling you. It began with the wage-eating air fare—my laptop joke a bad idea apparently—revved up with a minus-ten start temperature, and peaked when I realised I was trekking alongside a horse, the Japanese, ski people, and gooses. My eyelashes froze. My lungs filled with ice cream. I thought, “This is it; I’m going to peg. They’ll bury me with a snowboard and a real leather necklace, because that’s how holiday people get stereotyped. Oh God. Here I go. Frank Sinatra time. Euuurgh.”
It’s at that exact point that one should pull a concealed cord and release Richard Skelton’s Landings into the air: when the head’s exploding with city-slicker angst and you need nature in all its glory to remind you you’re a speck. Skelton’s landscapes are magnificently spartan: no synthetic litter, no static, no babble of language—in fact, no other bastard except you, the listener, alone, you versus rolling, harsh, tundra-tipped expanses where the water is always close to freezing and everything’s pretty as a fairy cake. The Lancashire composer is unhealthily prolific (he changes names with nearly every album—screw you, discogs police!) and his “utterly unique music” has been checked as “both life-affirming and yet etched with memory and loss”; no wonder he’s been likened to Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt, then. He does some extraordinary things with the cat-gut, this boy, warping string instruments into wavering ecstasy that send the goosebumps racing to all manner of places. While highly adequate as interesting-plus background filler, this album’s exceptionally powerful on headphones, with tracks here, “Undertow” for example, sounding like whole Greg Haines albums: hoarse euphoria, light caught in moribund tree canopies, an orchestra playing for the ice shelves. I’m tempted to say it’s almost like opera but I can’t see the starch or cleavage.
Landings‘ rough delirium combines its strained layers like tattoos, the ones that get done from the outside in that take three weeks to get fully inked. In other words, patience is what you need when listening to these: “Scar Tissue,” with its knotted guitar line and perturbed birdcall, has little in common with the Chili Peppers’ namesake, but it does allow you to share its own this-a lonely view. This is no California; this is genuinely deciduous, brittle underfoot, an air that screams of January and a dread that makes you wonder why in the fuck you came to the forest. This is also ghost train drones and cauldron fumes galore, as “River Sons”’ scrapings of English witchery seem to hark back to occult shit from last year. On these songs the darkness swarms thickly, enough to totally infest the listener, but Skelton’s twisting of noise and acoustics always triggers a retro-rush of endorphines, allowing the previously at-risk listener to hold up in a PTSD vacuum. Bipolar rippling might make for a taxing/often bumpy ride, but then you try finding me a smooth piece of countryside. Landings are meant to be unsettling.
The record’s length—seventy bloated, generative minutes—adds to its I’m-so-lost factor, and I’m reminded of the wild yonder at practically every turn; I mean, “Threads Around the River” surely must allude to the Mississippi catfish technique, violins twitching like spreading flames. And while a track such as “Voice of the Book” isn’t quite so quickfire as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981 one) narrator, it still produces the same cosy mindscrew. If you like your instruments played at vapour-speed or hanker for the music you can only truly appreciate if you’ve found your way out of the undergrowth, I’d recommend you hit that Add to Basket button (or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org where he can offer you an ornate private press one). The botched beauty and lack of drums might ostracise the hyper white-knuckle crowd, but Landings could be viewed as something more subcutaneous, an invader under the skin producing white assorted other bits of your body for far more interesting reasons. Just listen to the range of activity in “Pariah”: sea bleeps, guitar, screws threading, and static, this all flowing into beautiful warm debris. As far as new decades go, what better way to begin than with something that seems both comprehensive and pregnant, as big as a continent and as intimate as osmosis.