The Skull Mask and Midwich: Six Angles (Hairdryer Excommunication/Cherry Row Recordings CDr and download)
When I started We Need No Swords, Rob Hayler’s Radio Free Midwich site was one of my inspirations. Rob and his team’s passion and knowledge for underground musicking, not to mention their unflagging commitment to bringing these sounds to wider attention, ensured that RFM is an unparalleled resource for anyone interested in the noise, psych, drone and improvisational works produced by what Rob refers to as ‘the no-audience underground’. For that reason, when Rob gets fired up about an artist, I know to pay attention. And one of those artists is Ciudad Juarez-based guitarist and noisemaker, Miguel Perez, who produces work as the Skull Mask, La Mancha del Pecado and many other pseudonyms. Rob’s been evangelising about Miguel’s work since … ooh quite a while now, documenting the avalanche of CDrs, tapes and digital releases erupting from Perez’s northern Mexican base with an enthusiasm that can’t help but be infectious. And so he should. Miguel’s work is bloody marvellous. When I interviewed Rob at the TUSK festival, he summarised his attraction to Miguel’s work thus:
“There’s a heart to it, a sincerity that is absolutely raw and unadorned. It shines through all the projects he’s involved with. It hits you on a level that’s underneath the verbal, it’s very direct but it’s done with such skill.”
“It is beautiful, compelling, raw, ego dissolving stuff. To listen to The Skull Mask is to stand facing the hot, abrasive desert wind.”
Yeah. What I really dig is Perez’s uncanny ability to crystallise a diverse set of sonic elements – as well as the drone, noise and improvisation you’d expect from an artist championed by RFM, Perez packs black metal, folk picking, flamenco, Indian ragas, avant-garde composition and traditional music from all over the place into ongoing process of creation that is wholly original. Miguel’s influences and preoccupations are like some huge bubbling cauldron, continually spitting out tasty gobbets of sonic goodness to whoever happens to be around to feed upon them. I can’t pretend to have processed even a fraction of what Miguel’s put out over the years, but the stuff that I’ve heard, I’ve loved. Interested listeners should start with the releases described below, and then skedaddle over to Miguel’s Bandcamp, with Radio Free Midwich’s comprehensive directory of reviews as a guide.
All of which takes us nicely to Six Angles, a collaboration between The Skull Mask and Hayler, operating as Midwich, released on Hairdryer Excommunication and Cherry Row Recordings back in 2014. Its two longform tracks are in some ways atypical of both Miguel and Rob’s work, nevertheless it is a relatively trauma-free point of entry for Skull Mask newbies. Opener Five Angles cuts together several pieces of source material from the duo (two guitar and one organ track by Miguel and two synth tracks from Hayler) in a sort of playlist-yer-drones kind of way.
Those disparate chunks flow together pretty well, mind. Perez’s guitar interventions hiss and ring, coiling like metallic serpents across hot aluminium, the deliberate atonality of his playing creating sheets of echoing shimmer that prickle with supressed tension. Hayler’s synth tracks, meanwhile, provide some relief, the first huffing and puffing in airy but surprisingly busy soundscape, the second offering up a warm bubble bath of burbling oscillations. Listening to it is like sitting in a train carriage on a journey across some unknown continent, watching all manner of marvels unfold outside your window.
Companion piece Written in Sand takes similar sound sources but integrates them into a sinister, undulating composition, with Perez’s guitar evoking ritualistic frenzies of bowed gong and cymbal, while Hayler’s synth textures create a churning, disturbing low-end force that sucks you towards the darkness with the gravitational pull of a collapsed star.
Skip forward to 2016, and a clutch of releases give us a clue to where Miguel’s current preoccupations lie. In La Muerte Es Sabia, on Invisible City Recordings, layers of reverberant guitar improvisation spring from Perez’s dextrous fingers, swirling in the air like dust clouds erupting from the bare desert floor.
Each note and chord is swathed in so much echo and delay that they’re almost unrecognisable, with Perez’s playing transformed into swarms of abstract tones – yet there’s still just enough of that steely twang for us to place these four pieces as emanating from the guitar. Con La Sed De Luz’s picaresque explorations have an austere fluidity that is reminiscent of the best flamenco picking, and is similarly full of blood and sand, and its epic machinations evoke the eternal wanderings of some lone seeker across the scorching wasteland in search of enlightenment, Morricone crossed with Jodorowsky in an epic of spontaneous composition. In contrast, Sombras creates a more tranquil mode, its gently questing melodic lines like the cool shade of a church after a day spent in the blazing heat. That Perez manages to channel such a diversity of moods and textures from the same effects-pedal-ornamented acoustic guitar only adds to the tape’s charm.
My particular favourite is Ojos Viperinos, in which the insistent, slashing chords take on a Haino-esque edge, that familiar strumming-at-the-bottom-of-a-well sound that characterises Haino releases such as Next, Let’s Try Changing The Shape, Perez’s echoing shards bouncing across and above each other in a clanging tempest. La Muerte Es Sabia is a much less desolate affair than Haino-san’s recordings, however, with an introspective meditation that tints even its darkest corners. As Perez himself says: “This inspired improvisation praising our dead was done in one of the most deep states of mind while meditating about life / death.”
Live At Café Oto captures The Skull Mask on Miguel’s first visit to the UK, playing a London gig before heading up Gateshead to play four (!) times at the Tusk festival – once as The Skull Mask, twice at the Tusk Fringe event curated by Culver/Matching Head guru Lee Stokoe, in duos with Yol (under the Neck Vs Throat moniker) and once at the Fringe after party in a late night grindcore jam as part of Oppenheimer. While not of the highest fidelity, the recording showcases Miguel’s lightning quick chops – with relatively little delay and a few simple loops, he’s free to strike out in a virtuosic display of post-everything improvisation. It may not quite hit the heights of The Skull Mask’s completely pedal-free set in Gateshead, but it’s still a great document.
You want it darker? Well, take a listen to Walls of Convenience, a tape released by Lee Stokoe’s Matching Head label at around the same time as La Muerte Es Sabia. The grim irony of the title sets the tone – Perez’s guitar, swamped in even more layers of echo, spits out glowering clouds of echoing rumble, the crumbling repetitions of his delay pedals giving his plucked and strummed fragments a juddering, almost painful quality, hammering the air like the throbs of a migraine. The result is an oppressive fog of a record that seems capable of seeping in through your ears and cloaking your brain with tar.
It would be easy, given recent events in the news and the mournful nature of the sounds herein, to ascribe a mood of resignation to Walls of Convenience, but I’m not so sure. The looping miasma that wraps this album in damp clouds of grey is depressing, sure, but it’s not despairing – it may hold within it a cynicism about the political process (why, really, would you build a something as useless as a wall, unless it was a convenient way of scoring political points and appealing to base instincts?) and a wariness about the future – but Perez’s act of creation itself is a small act of resistance in the face of racist and xenophobic populism, a tiny seed of optimism planted in the harsh ground. It may yet flower.
Note: Matching Head has no Internet presence. Check here for how to get hold of Walls of Convenience.