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Skallander - Skallander

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Artist: Skallander

Album: Skallander

Label: Type

Review date: Sep. 18, 2007

The eponymous release by New Zealand's Skallander eschews the scattered experimentation found on their domestically released 2005 disc, The Camels, and in doing so ends up being a much more singular and striking listen. The band is a collaboration between electronic minimalist Bevan Smith, a.k.a. Signer, and jazz composer Matthew Mitchell, and unlike on their previous release, there's hardly a hint of either members' home-genres to be found. There's no glitchy electronics, minimal beats, or forays into straight-up ambient or down-tempo. The electro-acoustic fusion found on Skallander, the cloaking of Mitchell's beautifully intricate finger-picking in Smith's electronic ambience, is so subtle it's barely perceptible. Skallander is an aural Gestalt of morose folk, bringing to mind Nick Drake, the more contemplative moments of early Belle and Sebastian, and even Simon and Garfunkel. Catchy and un-flashy at first listen, Skallander reveals itself to be layered, almost proggy, when listened to closely.

Following "Haala," an opener that mimics the form of an orchestral tune-up, the disc manages to be ornate indie-pop, yet still avoid the surge into "chamber-pop" as you might expect from a band of this ilk. The enchanting “Forgiven" maintains a façade of folky minimalism, but its drawn out stretches of complex vocal melody hint at something more baroque, with a style of singing near reminiscent of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

The subtle complexities continue throughout Skallander. Somber, sleepy harmonies lull and intone cryptically throughout and soft, chiming pop hooks permeate, but the most interesting parts of the disc remain in the details. Tracks, like “Dismemberment” and “Time is Only a Revolution,” are grounded in the unforgettable bounce around that B&S’s The Boy with the Arab Strap is built, but take on their own life as wistful folk songs. “Time is Only a Revolution” finishes out in a wash of unsettled near-chaos. Similarly, “Flesh Born Constellation” starts out in straightforward singer-songwriter style and departs into a swirl of dreamy atmosphere, before returning to its main theme.

These experimental flourishes keep Skallander interesting, and the imperceptibly organized layers of ambience make it particularly emotive. Employing electronic beds as instruments rather than ends in themselves, the disc is sometimes able to add a whole new layer of feeling to spacious, organic folk. On a few tracks, most notably “Surviving in 45 Below,” it waxes a bit too slow and lugubrious, losing an element of its pop appeal, but many of the songs offer melodies that’ll stick in your head, that’ll make you wonder if you hadn’t heard them somewhere else. If the little-heard The Camels was an exercise in obvious experimentation, Skallander is exactly the opposite. Almost surreptitiously innovative, it finds the duo carving out a sound, using unique combinations to create something that doesn’t sound all too far off the beaten path, but resonates memorably.

By Matthew A. Stern

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