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The Skull Defekts
Peer Amid Michael Dix , February 18th, 2011 08:28

Gothenburg’s Skull Defekts have spent the last five years building up a reputation – in their homeland at least – as one of the most thrillingly brutal rock bands currently in operation. Having served time in such interestingly-named combos as Lucky People Center, Union Carbide Productions, Satan Power and Trapdoor Fucking Exit, the group are seen as a Swedish equivalent to Sonic Youth or The Ex; omnipresent figureheads of the country’s alternative underground. Incorporating elements of circular composition, droning psychedelia, minimalism and ritual music, they have earned plaudits from the High Priest himself, Julian Cope. And the quartet are nothing if not prolific, putting out at least an album a year since forming in 2005 along with numerous live and split releases, each offering a different spin on their particular brand of razor-sharp industrial rock.

Peer Amid, their latest long-player, serves well as a beginner's guide to Skull Defekts, combining the myriad styles the band have toyed with previously into a streamlined weapon of rock & roll mass destruction. Joachim Nordwall and Daniel Fagerstroem’s guitars still fire out buzzsaw riffs and crunching power chords, while Henrik Rylander and Jean-Louis Huhta cast a rhythmic voodoo spell over proceedings with hard-hitting motorik drumming and trance-inducing tribal percussion. There are also subtle glimpses of the analogue synths and fizzing electronics that have flavoured some of their more avant-garde releases, occasionally shining through the barrage of noise like shards of broken glass picked up by a cyclone - small reminders that the band are as adept at experimentation as they are at the kind of primal rock that dominates the album.

Perhaps the most significant element here is the presence of guest vocalist Daniel Higgs. The band's Thrill Jockey label-mate and former Lungfish main man has enjoyed something of a renaissance of late, releasing a two-disc solo set (Say God) and an interesting but decidedly odd collaboration with sound-artist Twig Harper in the last year, but Peer Amid is the most successful reminder of Higgs’ former glories. Pitched somewhere between Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, the singer’s salty growl is the perfect fit for the Defekts’ grinding boogie; equal parts conspiracy theorist, horny preacher and surrealist showman. Like the late Captain Beefheart, Higgs rides the waves of chaos with an almost supernatural ease, throwing himself from one end of his impressive vocal register to the other and back again to match the ebb and flow of the band’s attack. Even though he does his best to avoid detracting attention from his collaborators, the singer is a magnetic focal point throughout.

From start to finish, Peer Amid is simply one of the best rock albums in recent memory. The opening title track sets the scene perfectly, a master-class in tension and release with a chugging, bass-led rhythm and Higgs’ fire-and-brimstone wailing giving way to bursts of electronics and howling guitars. 'No More Always' is a breakneck post-punk thrash built around Higgs’ endlessly repeated “Nobody nothing nowhere no more” mantra, while 'Fragrant Nimbus' sets a fever dream about a giant raincloud against a driving beat that erupts into a thunderstorm of clattering percussion. Things get gloriously messy on 'What Knives, What Birds', which sounds like a free jazz ensemble deconstructing a Suicide song, and even when the tempo drops on the raga-like 'Gospel Of The Skull' and drum circle jam 'In Majestic Drag' the intensity levels keep pushing the needle way into the red.

By the time the hypnotic 'Join The True' brings proceedings to an end, it’s hard to decide which impulse is stronger; the need for a few minutes respite to catch your breath or the urge to hit play and start over again right away. Along with bands like My Disco, Skull Defekts are recapturing the spirit of joyous adventure absent from much of today’s experimental music, and despite the cult status of those involved this is a record that deserves to be heard by more than just those on the chin-stroking fringe. Admittedly the album presents a version of the band that might prove a little too accessible for long-term fans, but there is no denying the good a few memorable hooks can do, and in Higgs the Defekts have found the perfect foil as well as a new lease of life. Fingers crossed Peer Amid isn’t just a one-off collaboration.