Out To Phalange

Skeleton Hand sent us three records in early 2022, although one of them might not actually be by Skeleton Hand. The first two certainly are, but they look very similar and have the exact same title, so we had to do a little sleuthing to figure out which was which.

The “Yellow” one came first (I think) and was issued as a cassette on Hand Drawn Hand as HDH 008. We have an improvising trio featuring C Joynes on one of his rare jaunts on the electric guitar (he’s perhaps more widely known for his acoustic folk-ish blues-ish picking, which is exemplary). Martin Elsey plays the cello and the drummer is Kamil Ziobar. The trio may have its origins around 2016-2017 at something called the Cobra Sessions in Cambridge; an underground secret society, a rebel academic debating club, or an endeavour working to embody the strategies of John Zorn? What’s impressive is that all the music here (and on the second release) came out of a single 3-hour improvising session.

Compared to other Joynes projects (although nobody could claim there’s a “typical” Joynes record), Skeleton Hand seems extremely loose and porous on the strength of what’s going down here in the chamber of Truth. They are also proud of their musically omnivorous tastes, and namecheck a huge variety of styles and genres that surface in the middle of these bilious brews – jazz, free jazz, New Wave, free improv, post-punk, movie soundtracks, krautrock, and more…every band, project, solo act and person with a mixing desk these days likewise will attempt to include about three paragraphs of “influences” on their music press release, presumably aiming to “tick all the boxes” and get coverage from as many media outlets as they possibly can, while also projecting the impression that they’re incredibly hip and versatile. Pah. No use claiming to be a good musician on the strength of your record collection; what about the craft, and the hard work, of playing? The fact is that Skeleton Hand not only deliver on all their promises, but they also do it in a very natural and unforced manner, and all the music here flows like a torrent of Kevin Ayers-approved red wine floating in casks down the Granta.

…Except when it doesn’t flow. At those times, the trio here exhibit every desirable trait from angular, ill-fitting blocks of weird sound to haunting, contemplative passages where they are genuinely thinking about how to interact and find a way through the brambly thickets of Doubt. In this way Skeleton Hand instantly transcend any generic or stylistic labels we may wish to throw in their direction, and those gummed journalist labels refuse to adhere to their hides, be it the porcelain tortoise shell of Joynes, the slippery coat of Elsey (alias “The Eel”), or the horny skin of Ziobar (who resembles a pangolin). Suffice to say that if you like good music in any of these genres – or if you just like good music – Skeleton Hand will inhabit your ribcage and scour your skull. Only Sun City Girls have been as wildly experimental (if you want a similar guitar type trio) and as prolific as I hope Skeleton Hand will be. Fave cut: possibly ‘Rock Drill’. Possibly all of them.

The “Grey” album / cassette was released on the exact same day – St Valentines Day – as HDH 009. It’s more of the same as the above, only it’s completely different. What’s coming over on this spin is how the threesome lock their arms and legs together as surely as if sewn together by a mad anatomist keen on building on the lessons learned from Doctor Frankenstein. I mean that the three instruments find tiny caches of space to play in the least expected parts of the musical flow, inserting themselves with lightning speed and occupying that space like a globule of mercury (an element much prized by good alchemists). This seems to be a process much more rewarding, and productive, than the average improvisational mode, where ever since 1969 players have spoken furtively of “intuition” or “ESP” to account for their phenomenal collaborative results. Skeleton Hand may have worked quite hard at developing this mode of theirs, or maybe it’s more natural than I realise, but the results are never short of surprising and nine times out of ten produce the hoped-for Roman Candle inside a can of Sprite. Or a Catherine Wheel nailed onto your forehead.

Compared to the “Yellow” banana above, this “Grey” porpoise may contain traces of rockabilly guitar, meaning that I believe Joynes may have applied foot to reverb pedal set on the “Use Sparingly” mode, which means that I’m able to fantasise that every other track is in fact a lost backing track to a Charlie Feathers song, except the musicians were all thinking backwards and hanging upside-down at the time. It also means the cellist is happy to play the part of a double bass when the occasion demands it, which is where the spartan-and-minimalist vibe comes in again, creating all that angular tension. The other great thing I’m noticing on “Grey” is how the players also rein themselves in while pursuing total freedom – they don’t feel the need to chase down the muse at breakneck speed, as if hunting a quarry which must be sought with thimbles and care. This is in stark contrast to Sun City Girls mentioned above – so that comparison no longer applies – who quite often seemed to be in a tearing hurry to blow the listener’s mind with weirdness and death. Well, Skeleton Hand will find your treasure, but they do it methodically and effectively, with no short cuts, and no hiding behind walls of noise or high speed blast-outs.

Fave cuts – ‘Korasowka’ (astonishing and unexpected changes of direction in less than three minutes) or possibly ‘Fearful’, or possibly all of them. Except maybe ‘Danger is Interesting and Necessary’, which has a great title, and it probably acts as the informal motto of the three as they don their spectral cloaks to stalk the streets by night’, but musically it’s a shade tamer than their usual exotic fare. Even so, few bands can do as much with what might be termed a “pedestrian” rock shuffle beat.

All they need now is to add a Farfisa organ player to the team and perhaps the UK will finally have a credible rival band to Can. Both the above from 10 February 2022.