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Bragging in its press kit that it doesn’t want to be a professional working band, Skull Kontrol has little to worry about, because no one is going to confuse its ugly screech of a record, Deviate Beyond All Means of Capture, with anything by Third Eye Blind. Shouting and strutting like a hipster in a new pair of tight-‘n’-shiny pants, Skull Kontrol rips angular punk songs and hollers slogans in a way that would never sell corn dogs at the state fair, or sell many records for that matter. Which ain’t a bad thing, either.
In avoiding the professional-band tendency to practice, write, record, and tour aggressively, Skull Kontrol did a little of each to prepare this record while refusing to commit to a follow-up. Reportedly, the band members plan to play few, if any, additional shows and don’t currently practice together—or live in the same town, for that matter. This remoteness might have given Deviate a hollow one-off or side-project feel, like an underground-rock version of Temple of the Dog—which luckily didn’t happen. Skull Kontrol sounds like a real band. The tracks have the consistent feel of releases by a real band, and the album has the stones to be more than a vanity project by a bunch of ex-members of other, better known groups.
Ironically, the band does little to deviate from where its members have been before. In fact, if you know that they were in Circus Lupus, the Monorchid, and Delta 72, you have a pretty good idea what you are getting before the first track. Chris Thomson yells over rockabilly bass thumps supplied by Kim Thompson, and Andy Coronado’s no-wave/funk guitar riffs, which would have to sue James Brown for paternity, all collide in a rare example of the sublime meeting the “done that.”
But Deviate’s sounding like what it is doesn’t mean that you should ignore the record. Each of the members’ previous bands, which were, for the most part, excellent, might have trod the same ground, but this crew has the skill and the vision to keep tromping along. The songs explode out of the speakers and, as a rhythm section, Thompson and drummer Brooks Headly positively swing through “New Rock Critic,” whose fun shines through via a fine pop hook. “What this town needs is a new rock critic,” Thomson sings before being joined by the snotty-sounding backing vocals of Thompson, which add a sinister, singsong feel of cherubic mocking.
Coronado made the Monorchid pound with his bass playing, but on guitar for Skull Kontrol, he fritters around the edges of each song, filling in the gaps the rest of the band leaves. He makes art-noise sound like rock, and vice versa. His brief riffs on “Camouflage” noodle between garage and art rock. Same thing on “Satan Is Jesus to Me,” in which he sets the verse with a little note-by-note ditty before ripping into a noise barrage that howls in pain during the chorus. Two things can happen when an accomplished bass player switches to guitar: The musician either plays with an overly percussive style that sounds like a bass player on guitar or overplays the additional strings. Coronado does neither.
Skull Kontrol focuses its barrage into songs that mostly run under a couple of minutes each—an inclination that keeps the intensity of the material from wearing out its welcome. By not aiming for a lot of range (midtempo rants follow quick and angry punk songs), Deviate keeps you engaged. It would be a lot to ask if the band expected you to pay attention to 10 four-minute tracks that all scream and tear, but the focus of the musicians is wisely on the record’s gestalt. They want to play a certain kind of song and recognize that it needs to be heard quickly.
Despite the group’s twee claim that members “collectively feel that something had to be done to remove the layers of bullshit that surround today’s music,” I’m not sure that Deviate is much help. For starters, it’s only 17 minutes long. Spend 17 minutes watching MTV or listening to commercial radio, in fact, and it will be clear that the problem can’t be solved. Ever. People who buy releases in big numbers don’t want the challenge of listening. As great a song as Deviate’s “Robot Man” may be, most people want a soundtrack to their lives, not a song that requires a careful listen to hear the beauty that occurs when rhythm undergoes an attack from dissonance. It might be charmingly naive if a young band made a mission statement like Skull Kontrol’s with starry-eyed optimism, but from this lot, it sounds a touch cynical. CP