Graded on a Curve:
Eat Skull, “Where’d
You Go” 7″

Eat Skull first announced their low-fi noise-pop presence roughly six years ago and subsequently made quite an impression with a handful of limited-edition singles and two very fine LPs. Nearly three years have elapsed without a recording from the band, but happily they’re back with a brand spanking new 3-song 7-inch on the Volar imprint, and the mixture of new twists and a reliable lack of polish bodes well for their upcoming LP for the Woodsist label.

A few years back, the Portland, OR/Bay Area band Eat Skull was asked by Vice magazine to contribute a mixtape as the impetus for a web article on their particularly potent brand of contempo noise-pop, an intersection where low-fi recording practices and highly conceived melodic sensibilities were known to collide, the fine wreckage that ensued getting them lumped into a genre/category called, if you’ll please pardon my French, “shitgaze.”

The response from members Rob Enborn and Rod Myers proved interesting. First, in filling the request they actually bothered to dub an actual cassette (buncha Luddites), and second, the songs they picked provided some real insight into the musicals interests that helped spawn their sound.

Alongside old school ringers like Neil Young and The Velvets there was early UK DIY (Instant Automatons), New Zealand classique (The Chills and The Renderers), Aussie indie pop (The Cannanes), deep Krautrock (Amon Düül 2), ‘80’s underground psyche (Spacemen 3), and a big steaming diaper’s worth of punk junk (Circle Jerks, D.R.I., Flipper, Corrupted Morals).

A fair amount of the stuff frankly wasn’t all that surprising, but overall the selections did reveal a wider range than expected, opening with good ol’ Kirsty McColl, for Crimoney’s sake. And yet after a few listens and some thought, the whole thing definitely connected as something other than arbitrary. Which is nice, for that sorta frustratingly random designator of shitgaze can provide more than a whiff of The Emperor’s New Threads, the dubious term quite likely designating it as an example of a callow new micro-genre, high on style and low on substance.

And to be sure, anybody that felt the early ‘90s manifestation of low-fi as proffered by the early recordings of Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, and Pavement were ultimately just a bunch of shoddily-produced jive will probably not find much to love in the music of Eat Skull. But those with fond memories of that scene and an enduring love of tape hiss should definitely check into the back catalogue of this raggedy unit if they haven’t done so already. The only sketchy thing about them is their name, which persists in reminding this writer of the late-‘80s Madison, WI kid-punk novelty atrocity Old Skull. And to be succinct, that’s not a good memory.

But it also can’t be denied that the moniker brings a certain level of punk ambiance to the equation, and it’s an element that’s certainly a component (if one often largely implicit) in Eat Skull’s sound. And this makes sense, since Enborn and Myers are both ex-members of the highly regarded ruckus-inspiring San Fran combo the Hospitals, with Myers even figuring as a member of ‘80s hardcore bands Necromancy and Puppet Show. However, right from their very auspicious start, specifically a self-titled 3-song 7-inch on the Meds label that appeared in ‘07, the band proved restless enough to resist being easily pinned down.

“Seeing Things,” the first song on that EP’s a-side was a prime slice of echo-laden, tinny, keyboard driven fuzz-pop, not at all far from the gist of early Times New Viking (not surprising since Enborn had collaborated with TNV’s Beth Murphy in the short lived low-fi folk duo Hole Class), the kind of anthemic buzzsaw attack that positively begged to be turned up very loud.

But the following cut “Stuff Reverse” was far strummier and somewhat reminiscent of the early K Records’ aesthetic, combined with the sort of stuff Dennis Callaci was releasing in the early ‘90s via his Shrimper label. And b-side “Things I Did When I Dyed My Hair” started out like a pissed-off early Clean in full-blown amp overload, and then sped up into a total VU-inspired mess, the whole thing seemingly captured by a 45-year old four-track recording device getting one last workout before going to that great audio depository in the sky.

From there Eat Skull continued to spit out 7-inches (like the blink and it’s gone 300 copy run of “Dead Families” for the Skulltones label) and hooked up with Tom Lax’s Siltbreeze enterprise for two LP’s, ‘08’s Sick to Death and the following year’s Wild and Inside. The former was a gangly, 14-song spurt of crudely recorded but smartly executed mania, and the follow up brought considerable growth without any concessions to the norms of studio technology, a turn of events that differentiated them from the general progressions of the American low-fi antecedents listed above (and the murky beginnings of many of their contemporaries, come to think of it), flaunting a stubborn if far from stagnant attitude that was similar to the vibe (if not necessarily the sonic thrust) of those Kiwis that constituted the grand Xpressway advance of the late-‘80s/’90s. No wonder Siltbreeze was so keen on ‘em.

But much of Wild and Inside climbed to a place remindful of UK DIY post-punk, making the inclusion of Instant Automatons on that homemade mixtape totally appropriate. And with this twist any doubts over Eat Skull’s existence as quality concern were a memory long distant. In 2010 the excellent 3-song “Jerusalem Mall” 7-inch came out on the prolific and diverse Woodsist imprint, and then it was bupkus from Eat Skull on the recording front for almost two years.

And that’s a long time, especially when it’s considered that these guys are far from painstakingly neurotic studio perfectionists. Indeed, some might worry on the band’s behalf that such a lengthy layoff would lose them a fair amount of their following, what with so many current music fans having such a complete disinterest in a quaint concept like delayed gratification. But concerns of this sort essentially miss the point of what makes Eat Skull such a worthy proposition. They’re not a band that seems particularly concerned with expanding their fan base, electing instead to simply knock out a new release when the songs are ready.

Eat Skull have a new 3-song 7-inch available on Volar Records. It’s a very nice affair and one that finds the band examining some unexpected sonic terrain. For starters, the first sound heard on “Where’d You Go” is a confidently clacking drumbox beat, a rhythmic choice that momentarily brought Métal Urbain to mind. And a general aura of post-punk (guitar-pop division) definitely becomes palpable as the song progresses, joining up with a vocal bent descended from The Ramones to produce an overall heft that’s not all that far from a more contempo unit like the underrated Crystal Stilts. So it’s a quite fine, if unsurprisingly brief twist upon the band’s considerable past achievements.

Brief enough that the a-side holds another track. “Medication Time” features real drumming on a ‘60s-esque pop ditty that’s more in keeping with Eat Skull’s prior stuff, and the catchiness of the fully-fleshed number drives home a huge part of what makes the band so worthwhile, that being strong songs.

It’s just that they seem determined to not take the very predictable plunge into “real” studios with actual engineers and producers. I doubt these guys even have a manager. How punk. But don’t confuse this dedication to a low-fi ideal with non-evolution; “Medication Time” reveals that Eat Skull have come a long way from the dizzy din of “Seeing Things” from way back at the beginning. The atmosphere is more relaxed and dare I type it, a little more mature.

And relaxed and mature is a good way of describing b-side instrumental “Jefferson Angel.” The drumbox returns, but it percolates mildly, lending structure to a blend of strumming acoustic and submerged electric guitars that’s cumulative effect is downright pretty and even mildly psychedelic. It rounds out an overdue return from high quality band, one that hopefully won’t get lost in the contemporary shuffle.

A new full-length on Woodsist is due out in February, and if it the music included on this 7-inch is emblematic of the LP, it should assist them in getting the attention they deserve. Eat Skull have been at it for over half a decade now; not such a long time in the grand scheme of things, but it surely indicates they’re far more than just another fleeting low-fi entity on the scene.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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