“Hill and bone. Skin and heather. A memory is nothing more than this. Nothing more than touch. Pressed forms in the cold, grey earth, and the river, ever yielding”
Albums by Richard Skelton are so bound up with context and circumstance that the act of writing about them as mere musical artefacts seems somehow to diminish them. And nothing I’ve written about to this point has ever felt less like a mere musical artefact than his new album. Landings is the long awaited culmination of an extensive exploration of Anglezarke on the West Pennine moors, in which he accumulated scraps of music, poetry and history – as well as bones and barbed wire. It is released on CD and double LP, but the accompanying limited-run book (a fragmented diary of the process, of personal reminiscences, of census data and associated trove) is an equal part. Whereas the background to Skelton’s work has previously been unsaid and implied, here it is set upfront, as we are made to participate in this powerful, at times almost ritualistic, study of death and decay, of grief and letting go, of rebirth and transformation, of landscapes and lifetimes and- above all – of the (im)permanence of the collective memory.
That this work is dedicated – as all Skelton’s works are – to his late wife, the artist Louise Skelton, is of utmost relevance. Initially the connections between this loss and the landscapes described seem to be via parallels with the decline of the ruined farmhouses of Hempshaws and Old Rachels, but gradually there comes a sense of release, of rebirth and of rebuilding. He recorded music in those locations (still – just about – visible on Google Maps), playing it back, attempting to reawaken them and engage them in continuing dialogue. The diary sets underlying field recordings of wildlife and rivers in fresh light, describing the water’s course and the arcs of the birds’ flights, seeing them as boundaries and connections, wires across the landscape which join and separate contrasting fields; Skelton sketching in his own lines by moving stones between the ruins, and by airing the sounds of one into the decrepit spaces of the other.
Of most importance is the boundary between existence and non-existence, and of that strange middle ground in between. When a bridge isn’t marked on the map, to what extent is it still there? A forest, newly planted, is it only “becoming”? What of a farmhouse, dismantled and reused to build a reservoir? Has it in fact been reborn in new form? And what of those who lived, but whose existence has been ill-documented? A piece like “Voice Of The Book” has an uncanny vocal undercurrent, as if a long-forgotten voice from the distant past is calling to assert its place in a largely unwritten history. “To erect a monument. To bequeath a legacy”. How many inhabitants were there of those now-derelict farmhouses, other than those whose miserable endings have been documented? The book tells us of “SP, daughter of JP and EB…On 3rd April 1881 she was a farm servant in Anglezarke. She died of drowning in a canal in 1887”. Is this all that remains? What did she achieve in her short life? What pleasure did she bring to those who met her? Who did she love and who loved her? All such detail has faded with time, decomposed along with the leaves, and along with the corpses of the sheep that litter the moors. Footnotes and asides. Initials in a census. Is that enough?
This dense tangle of detail weaves its way into the music. The landscape is mirrored, the water’s shimmering surface tension and the forest’s dark impenetrable thickets. Elements of music from one place are used in constructions elsewhere, such as the violin squeal from “Thread Across The River” which re-emerges later in shadow form in “Rapture”. As well as deep echo, there is distortion and degradation throughout, from the throaty groan within “Undertow”, to the unrecognisable, almost mechanical-sounding clatter which assaults “Voice Of The Book”. Moods alternate between one of inescapable despair, the locked guitar loops of “Pariah” being a case in point, to the more resolved and even optimistic-sounding “Green Withins Brook”. This is a collusion between music, place and subject matter, Skelton’s violin tracing the lines and making powerful connections.
The writings in the closing section of the Landings book make titular reference to previous Skelton works such as A Box Of Birch and The Shape Leaves. Landings is, without any doubt, the summation of his work to date. A monument and a legacy. A rich and unforgettable experience.
“Stones dislodged from a bitter and brittle dam. A well of music and memory. Alluvium and fragments of melody. Stirring in the still water. Finally flowing downstream.”