As a longtime Richard Skelton fan, I have been watching his recent trajectory with quite a bit of fascination, as he has been restlessly diving into increasingly varied and arcane territory while distancing himself further and further from his brilliant earlier work with each new release. ¬†While there are still some lingering vestiges of that vibrantly harmonic-strewn string work in his *AR project with Autumn Richardson, Skelton's solo work as The Inward Circles is explicitly (and increasingly) intent on exploring an aesthetic of "burial, obfuscation and mythologization." ¬†In fact, The Inward Circles often seems like a rather perverse name, as Skelton has seemingly ceased burrowing inwards and thrown himself into the epic, timeless, and vast. At times, that newly cosmic scope falls uncomfortably close to dark ambient (a genre that I am generally quite happy to avoid), but it can sometimes yield absolutely crushing and awe-inspiring results as well (Nimrod is Lost). ¬†This latest opus does not quite sustain the lofty heights of some previous Inward Circles classics, but it compensates with a slow-burning majesty that builds to a sustained and wonderful crescendo.
Unusually, this particular album does not seem focused upon a particular theme, though its digital-only sister release Scaleby centers around the discovery of a deerskin-clad "Ancient Briton" in the peat moorland of Northern England (a truly Skelton-esque inspiration indeed). ¬†For Right Lines, however, there is just a cryptic scattering of Nathaniel Tarn and Sir Thomas Browne lines that may very well be clues to nowhere. ¬†There is an unintentional theme to the album, however: it sounds better and better the louder I play it. ¬†The reasoning for that is quite simple, as its charms are generally not melodic ones. ¬†Rather, Right Lines seems to traffic in something approximating vast cosmic horror and existential dread, as early pieces like "The Soul Subsisting" are all about ominous, cavernous swells and gloomy, menacing harmonies‚Ä¶at least at first glance. ¬†At more extreme volumes, the textural richness begins to come out, as does the sharpness of some of the individual notes. ¬†Experienced in that engulfing and visceral way, the album's seemingly weaker moments become kind of a crunching, grinding, and nerve-jangling nightmare. ¬†I have no idea if that was Skelton's intention, but the immensity of his scale is scary regardless, as no one likes being confronted with their insignificance in the face of infinity or geological time. ¬†It may not necessarily be the sort of fare that I look to Richard Skelton for, but it diverges enough from artists like Lustmord to be relatively compelling.
Things start to get more inventive and lively with the album's third piece, however, as "In An Hydropicall Body" is a shifting and oscillating cloud of feedback swells that would make Kevin Drumm proud. ¬†It even sounds like there is a processed high-hat or maraca in there at one point, conjuring up the surprising illusion that I am hearing an actual band of amplifier worshippers. ¬†Again, that is not traditionally Skelton-esque fare at all, but it is an intriguing experiment and it leads nicely into the trilogy of excellent pieces that comprises the real meat of the album.
The first is a brief exile from the Scaleby variations, "Scaleby, X," a simple and perfect blur of woozily looping and quavering drones. ¬†The following "Nitre of the Earth" initially seems to reprise the brooding ambient gloom of the album's earlier pieces, but it eventually blossoms into something more complex and gripping when a sharp and pulsing harmonic motif tears through the haze to give the piece some genuine bite and a wonderfully ugly cloud of dissonant harmonies. ¬†"Necks Was A Proper Figure" rounds out that hot streak with an aesthetic somewhere between "Scaleby" and "Nitre," unveiling a muted and forlorn melodic loop that is disrupted by eerie swells and something that resembles a shuddering and garbled deep space transmission. ¬†As it progresses and obsessively repeats, it gradually snowballs in gnarled ferocity until it becomes quite a dense and vibrant howl of harsh textures and uncomfortable harmonies. ¬†Skelton could have safely stopped the album right there, but he opts to include one more substantial piece in the harrowing sustained roar "If The Nearness of Our Last," which sounds like an dissonant mass of harmonically clashing choral samples over a layer of phase-shifting grinding. ¬†It is certainly heavy, but a bit limited.
The album draws to an unexpectedly quiet close with the muted "Scaleby, XI," which feels a lot like a submerged version of its predecessor. ¬†It is a solid (if unexceptional) end to a solid (and occasionally great) album. ¬†Trying to maintain some semblance of objectivity when I am passionate about an artist is always hard, as I am unavoidably in the thrall of preconceived expectations and want every album to be better than the last. ¬†Richard Skelton, on the other hand, has completely different priorities than I do: namely, 1.) not repeating himself, and 2.) absorbing an eclectic array of new and often non-musical influences into his artistic vision. ¬†On those grounds, Right Lines is a very successful album, albeit one with a few weaknesses (an occasional over-reliance on the power of amorphous cinematic brooding, a few comparatively less inspired pieces, and a weaker thematic focus than usual). ¬†Those grievances are mostly eclipsed by the awe-inspiring elemental force Skelton unleashes when he hits the mark though. ¬†Also, a few pieces, such as "Nitre of the Earth" and "Necks Was A Proper Figure" easily stand with some of Skelton's finest work. ¬†As "Scaleby, X" and "In A Hydrologicall Body" are not far behind, it feels apt to view¬†Right Lines as a stellar EP that has been padded out with a few experiments that do not quite fully connect...or perhaps an extremely promising transitional album. ¬†Either way, there is a lot to love here, even if it does not quite add up to a fresh masterpiece.