Droning and dragging rusty guitar streaks and deep stormy basslines as dark as bus exhaust, Live Skull combine great grating sheets of guitar shimmer with deliberately monotonous vocals to create swirling intense tunes that you couldn’t hum if a loaded gun were aimed at your head. As part of the same New York avant-noisy scene that spawned Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch and the Swans, Live Skull records come complete with creepy lyrics, circular melodies and nod-out drum beats designed to lull you into their macabre world.
The quartet plays slow, grinding hypno-rock on Live Skull; there are vocals buried in the mix but you won’t notice them much. The relentless wash of semi-organized guitar noise is clearly the band’s focal point. The promising Bringing Home the Bait features livelier tempos; some tracks move along at a good tear. Guitar textures vary from an atonal din to Killing Joke-style ringing quasi-metal; parts of “Skin Job” sound exactly like Hüsker Dü. Newly prominent vocals, whether by bassist Marnie Greenholz or guitarists Mark C. and Tom Paine, are all appropriately snarly.
Recorded by the same lineup (as usual, working with producer Martin Bisi), Cloud One is quite similar to Bringing Home the Bait, although a temperate mood, increasing tightness and undercurrents of mutant pop melody (in the title track, for instance) hold the promise of more widely accessible artistic realms in the group’s future.
The live Live Skull album, Don’t Get Any on You, was recorded at CBGB in New York at the end of 1986 and contains brutal dominance-and-feedback renditions of “Skin Job” and “Sparky” (from Bait), “I’ll Break You” and “The Loved One” (from Cloud One), several previews of the upcoming Dusted (including “Debbie’s Headache”) and Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” (Live Skull had previously issued their studio version of the song on a 12-inch single) and others. The cassette adds “Brains Big Enough,” a live track recorded “somewhere in Europe.”
Bostonian Thalia Zedek — who had previously exercised her rant’n’roll vocals in Uzi and, before that, Dangerous Birds — joined Live Skull in time for Dusted. With her tuneless intensity giving the band a solid kick back towards anarchic clamor, the album returns to deliberate noise storms, now with the added benefit of maddeningly repetitive singing. Make no mistake: Zedek’s the perfect sparkplug for Live Skull, but one really has to be in a certain frame of mind (or on a loud subway train) to appreciate such baleful cacophony. (The CD and cassette add a bonus track.)
Zedek’s stylistic integration into the group’s music is much better on Snuffer. (All six songs possess one-word titles like “Was,” “Step” and “Straw.”) Besides sinking her deep into the mix along with the other loud instruments, the effectively textured record benefits from a variety of tempos and the complex, interwoven guitar figures. Far more listenable than Dusted, Snuffer focuses the band’s power enough to give it impact.
Sonda Andersson (ex-Rat At Rat R) replaced Greenholz on Positraction, an occasionally excessive but generally likable song-oriented record that strips back the noise to reveal succinct and dynamic rock with atmosphere and distortion. Mark C. and Tom Paine have become extremely adept at building interconnected guitar lines, and Zedek’s strength has been channeled, at least part of the way, into emotional expression of such hardhearted sentiments as “Anger is a crowbar that you must learn to fight for.” The material isn’t especially noteworthy but, as an indication that Live Skull is willing to come into the sonic open, Positraction is a most welcome development. (The CD appends Snuffer.)