Imperial Valley


Inspired by Dorothea Lange’s images of Depression-era America, the fourth part of Richard Skelton’s ambient project swings from the unmitigatedly moody to something much more curious, finds Daniel Hignell

The fourth outing for Richard Skelton’s Imperial Valley project continues the artist’s focus on ‘projective ethnography’, which has something to do with ‘imaginary’ field recordings that are supposed to conjure some aspect of Depression-era America. IV is comprised of a single track, ‘This Machine and Power Age’, thirty-eight minutes of foreboding, gloomy drones dragged roughly through a black terrain. It’s a far more acoustically-minded work than its three predecessors, preferring to eek out despair from the glacially-drawn strings of a violin or cello, sharp edges lost to a fashionable din of reverb and delay.

The aesthetic is somewhat reminiscent of the more experimental bits on a Mount Fuji Doomjazz record, or perhaps a moodier Sarah Davachi, though with its penchant for rather heavy-handed processing eschewing some of the subtlety of the latter. It’s somewhat of a shame that Skeleton has opted for such a prominent display of atmospheric wash – though it adds no small amount of tension and drama, I can’t help finding it obfuscates the instruments themselves. This is, no doubt, deliberate, and the balance between ‘probably acoustic’ and ‘probably electronic’ sounds is rendered nicely, just perhaps at the expense of some of the quieter details buried beneath.

You might be forgiven for thinking thirty-eight minutes of drone music would lack meaningful structure, but Skelton employs some rather distinct sections throughout. Initially, dragged strings fight against rising overtones, a shifting palette of inharmonics, before, some ten minutes in, bowing through surprisingly musical congregations of notes and chords, each underpinned by an impossibly low growl. For a while we even move towards some well-trodden Zimmer-isms, the very real threat of a tedious BRAAAHHM ever on the horizon. Thankfully, Skeleton takes things in a far more interesting direction. Pained, repetitive screams gather in the distance, their animosity juxtaposed against the soft clunk of someone moving furniture in the foyer. The bold, low-end drones of the last ten or so minutes notable now for their absence, leaving only a shadow, the fragile trace of a pad that slowly drifts into nothingness.

Having so brazenly shown his hand in the first half, Skelton allows restraint to emerge in the second, its drones no longer about power and unmitigated doom, but instead cutting an almost hopeful air. Short pauses between the soft scratch of violins provide much-needed relief, a space of reflection soon augmented by the addition of text: an austere, commanding voice ruminating on an abandoned American democracy that never was. Bereft of its melodramatic posturing, IV creaks and stumbles into a domain of genuine curiosity, reframing its first half as a bombastic set-up for the delicate contemplation of the second.

Whilst detouring slightly from some of Skelton’s other work, IV nonetheless retains much of his signature approach to moody, modern drone composition. Pleasingly, the Imperial Valley project as a whole (and IV quite specifically) offers a certain maturity that extends beyond the normal ambient/drone repertoire, its nuance and complexity revealed in those moments where the composer is brave enough to give his sounds the space they deserve.

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