Skeleton Key – Obtanium

Skeleton Key

Although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when abrasiveness and ugliness (both of the lyrical and sonic variety) entered the consciousness of the average music buyer, it stands to reason that for most of the history of popular music, smooth and soothing sounds were in. Probably not until the psychedelic rock scene started turning up images of white rabbits and mangled feedback-choked Hendrix guitar solos did rock turn overtly subversive and fulfill the promise of those who had been fearing that the music would turn their kids into pill-popping sex freaks. Since then, however, a certain amount of repulsiveness has been a constant in rock, from the blood spurting theatrics of KISS to the aborted fetus collage that formed the back of Nirvana’s In Utero album. Somehow, the very things that would seem to push away at some level also draw us in. Skeleton Key understand this, as well.
Led by former Lounge Lizard jazzbo Erik Sanko, Skeleton Key are a caustic stew of loose-limbed junkyard funk, soaring radio-ready choruses, snaky distorted guitars, and enough manicured angst to appeal to the average rap-rock reject. In short, the resulting set is a bit puzzling, off-putting as much for its accessibility as it is for its lyrical obscurity and musical abrasiveness. The thumping bass lines and crunching guitars of the opening “Sawdust” set the temper for an album that is built upon big hooks, clear (if rather indistinctive) vocals, and the sort of stop/start dynamic that wouldn’t be entirely out of place on modern rock radio. The incessant riffs follow in rapid succession, weaving in and around complex and off-kilter guitar lines and clanky kitchen sink percussion that when kicked up to industrial strength could almost be mistaken for an erstwhile Nine Inch Nails track.
Although the succession of rather predictable anthems grows a bit daunting, with the near emo of “King Know it All” and the standard indie rock of “That Tongue” never gaining much momentum. Of course, more than a few tracks earn their own identity, with the clank ‘n’ roll of “The Barker of the Dupes” and the no-frills clatter of “Roost in Peace” finds a certain parallel with Tom Waits’ own surreal death rattle. Similarly, the toys-from-the-abyss sound of the closing “Say Goodnight,” which repeatedly offers the song’s title over a black guitar line rising through the fog to strangle you, creates a most disturbed lullaby.
All in all, it’s hard to know exactly who would be the target audience for an album like this, as it inhabits a netherworld between all the recognized extremes. It figures that it’s probably not experimental enough for the post-rock crowd, not obscure enough for indie hipsters, too obscure for Top-40 radio, too scary for the weak of stomach, and not scary enough for black eyeliner set. Still, there is enough solid material to recommend certain pieces of it for all of them, and it’s challenging enough to at least hold the attention of the rest of us. Overall, Obtanium is a consistently mixed bag of material that rewards the tastes of the patient and eclectic listener.