Richard Skelton was atypically quiet in 2016, as he and Autumn Richardson seemed to be focusing primarily upon their publishing ventures, poetry, visual art, and Skelton's esoteric and multifarious research projects. Fortunately, however, the duo managed to release this EP in December to accompany a series of collages they completed during a month-long residency in the Orkneys. While it only clocks in at a lean 20 minutes, Earth by Means of the Currents is one of the more focused and powerful releases in the duo’s collaborative oeuvre, featuring both a solid foray into their warmly beautiful drone comfort zone and a buzzing, gnarled plunge into its negative image.
In classic Skelton fashion, the residency where this album was birthed was both hyper-specific and geological in nature, as this work is part of a commission for ØY, a “festival of island magnetism.” Since this EP is not a radical divergence from typical *AR fare, it is unclear how much that commission directly shaped the couple's musical decisions, though there are apparently field recordings from Papa Westray used throughout the album. I suspect most of them are well-concealed and subtle textural touches, however, as I could only pick out the sound of waves washing up on a shore in the opening "The Primary Menstruum or Mother-Liquid." Much more evident is the commission's impact on the song titles, as "primary menstruum" was Evan Hopkins' description of the ocean in his 1844 book On the Connexion of Geology with Terrestrial Magnetism. That book was the subject of Skelton and Richardson’s collage series.
To the duo’s credit, "Primary Menstruum" certainly sounds appropriately oceanic, albeit far more like a calm and sun-dappled bay than a raging sea. It is quite a simple and organically flowing piece structurally, built from warm and slow moving swells of strings embellished with a Siren-esque nimbus of Autumn’s hazy, wordless, and cooing vocals. While it is a strong motif on its own, a lot of secondary appeal lies in the piece's nuances (such as sneakily massing harmonic overtones) and subtle dynamic shifts (the gently churning and throbbing undercurrent). The undulating harmonic cloud that it leaves in its wake as it fades away is especially beautiful. Beauty was presumably not the intention for the following “The Winding of a Galvanic Wire” though, which seems to be inspired by Hopkins' theories about the world being turned by a powerful current. Naturally, the piece feels suitably like a deep and terrestrial electrical hum, as its core motif is a densely buzzing and oscillating bed of shifting drones from a tone generator. There are a few ominous and cavernous sounds in the periphery and some twinkling, buried, and fried-sounding strings to give the piece a bit of an epic and massive feel, but the meat is primarily just the mass of thick, buzzing drones. It is an enjoyable and effective piece as a counterbalance to "Primary Menstruum," but it would not stand with the pair's finest work on its own, as Skelton has previously channeled crushing elemental force far more viscerally on The Inward Circles' Nimrod is Lost in Orion and Osyris in the Doggestarre album.
Given that Earth by Means of the Currents was created to coincide with a series of visual works, it is probably not entirely fair to judge it as a stand-alone work. However, that is presumably how most people are going to experience it, aside from those who snapped up the limited edition booklet. Happily, it holds up quite well to that unintended scrutiny: it is certainly a rather modest release, but quite a strong one too. Both pieces flow nicely and feel like they have been painstakingly chiseled down to their clutter-free essence. While "Galvanic Wire" is a bit of a departure, the stronger and more characteristic "Primary Menstruum" is the EP's true centerpiece. As such, Earth by Means of the Currents unavoidably feels a bit like *AR treading water creatively and perfecting familiar themes between more substantial endeavors, but they certainly manage to do that beautifully: Skelton and Richardson's instincts, craftsmanship, and attention to detail remain in peak form.
- The Primary Menstruum or Mother Liquid
- The Primary Menstruum or Mother Liquid (excerpt two)
- The Winding of a Galvanic Wire