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Richard Skelton, "Towards a Frontier"

cover imageBilled as Skelton's most ambitious composition to date, Towards a Frontier is a 66-minute epic that is part of larger multimedia project assembled during three trips to rural East Iceland. Characteristically, this is an album very much shaped by the natural environment that Skelton was immersed in as this piece was gradually conjured into being. More specifically, Towards a Frontier draws its primary inspiration from the changing seasons as experienced from an Icelandic mountain range. While less instantly gratifying than some of Skelton's other recent works, this album has a masterfully paced slow-burning majesty and mesmerizing elemental power that gradually reveals itself with repeated, attentive listens. Notably, nature does not seem particularly benign here, but Skelton keeps the mood intriguingly ambiguous as the piece unfolds, hinting at the primal, cosmic horror of our insignificance while simultaneously evoking something akin to religious ecstasy.

Corbel Stone Press

The epic scope of Towards a Frontier unexpectedly took me some time to get fully acclimated to, as it seems to unfold at a glacial pace more akin to a geological time scale rather a human one.For example, it takes roughly two minutes before the slowly swelling and blurry drones finally cohere into form (in this case, the languorously see-sawing pulse of an endlessly repeating two-chord progression).If listened to casually, it initially feels like Skelton is on autopilot and is simply treading water with his melancholy string swells.If I pay closer attention, however, it become immediately apparent that there is considerably more happening, as the two chords gradually start to bleed into one another and the underlying thrum steadily darkens and grows more menacing.In fact, much of the brilliance of this piece lies in how imperceptibly Skelton changes the mood and amasses increasingly complex and dissonantly oscillating harmonies: the snowballing power builds so subtly that it is impossible to pinpoint the moment where Frontier stops feeling like business as usual and starts feeling transcendently heavy and mesmerizing.What was initially a distinct and constant pulse sneakily becomes something quite different altogether: a distended and slowly churning simmer.Even the crests of the initial chord progression begin to submerge at a certain point, leaving a tense and murky river of mingled drones that gradually births a bleakly elegiac melody of sorts.

That feat of production prestidigitation alone would be enough to make Frontier a compelling and distinctive addition to Skelton’s sprawling discography, but the piece unexpectedly breaks open into a whole new vista around the halfway point, as Skelton's shivering melodic swells begin to overlap and intertwine to cast a spell of quivering, epic melancholy.Soon afterwards, an even more dramatic transformation occurs and the contrast between the various textures intensifies: the droning backdrop takes on a harsh, almost icy tone while the strings become deeply groaning and immediate, like they stopped being a bleak abstraction and suddenly became an actual human somberly bowing a double-bass just a few feet away from me.That is the point where Towards a Frontier makes the leap into something truly magical, as the cold washes of sound begin to swirl together with moaning bass swells and a warm haze of flute-like tones. Once reaching such a lushly immersive heaven of rich textures, complex harmonies, and heavy pulses, Skelton wisely decided to stick around: this section is Frontier's big centerpiece and would be a wonderful place to linger indefinitely.Eventually, however, the piece moves on, revealing that Skelton improbably had yet one more trick remaining up his sleeve.I suspect this begins the "spring" portion of the seasonal voyage, as the piece takes on a somewhat brighter tone, albeit one disrupted by some surprisingly harsh and howling crescendos.

Curiously, there is also a pointillist motif of brass (or woodwind) whimpers and pulses, which takes the piece's final act into quite an unexpected place indeed.In fact, it sounds a lot like one of Philip Glass’s Errol Morris soundtracks (Fog of War?), albeit slowed waaaaay down and torn apart with viscerally grinding snarls (nature, unlike Philip Glass, is not mannered and meticulously ordered).It is different enough to not feel at all derivative, yet similar enough to feel like Skelton has repurposed the modern classical aesthetic into something more primal, physical, and raw.That crescendo is probably the most radical and striking passage in Towards a Frontier, as well as a fascinating convergence of some of Skeltons many guises.In fact, the entire piece feels like a seamless and unhurried trip through much of his recent evolution, touching on deep drones, vibrant bowed acoustic strings, heaving displays of immense elemental power, and soundtrack-like gradual shifts in mood and atmosphere.

If Towards a Frontier has a weakness, it is only that the first third seems deceptively uneventful as Skelton slowly and quietly sets the stage for the piece to blossom into epic and achingly beautiful full bloom.As a result, this album asks a bit more patience and sustained attention from listeners than much of Skelton's other work, but the long, slow build makes the sustained pay-off feel both well-earned and hugely satisfying–this album could have taken no other shape.To my ears, Towards the Frontier is easily one of the more essential releases in Skelton’s oft-stellar canon, as it is both a unique entry compositionally and a wonderfully substantial, powerful, and absorbing tour de force.This feels like the sort of album that an ascetic hermit would obsessively compose (or, more likely, channel) over a frantic, sleepless week after witnessing the face of God in the clouds (presumably dying from exhaustion/rapturous joy seconds after recording the final note).