The music of Richard Skelton has always had roots deeply planted in the ground. It’s a kind of “dirty” ambient, which has the smell of soil and English moorlands on rainy days and which, to ethereal and impalpable sounds, has often preferred and contrasted the concrete and strident ones of acoustic instruments, which echo a real and not idealized nature. On the other hand, his gaze, not only in the field of music but also literary, scientific, ethnological, and anthropological (in fact, it should not be forgotten that music is only one of the fields of expression and study of Skelton) has always been directed at the relationship between the natural world and man.

For a few years now, however, the British artist has developed a fascination with the electronic instruments, which he used extensively, in a stimulating juxtaposition of the ancestral and the modern, in works such as “These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound” and “A guidonian hand” (which we talked about here and here). A fascination that was enriched by another element in the diptych represented by “A song to Epsilon Lyrae” and the wonderful “A song to Vega” (both released only in digital versions on the Bandcamp platform): the interest in celestial bodies, which led Skelton to turn his gaze toward the cosmos.

In recent years, the artist and his wife, the poet Autumn Richardson, have moved to the region of England, which is often referred to as the “Dark-sky region”, because of its minimal light pollution (and which for the same reason hosts the Kielder astronomical observatory).
As we had a chance to tell in our review of “Border Ballads” and the subsequent interview, Skelton considers the environment in which he lives a strong influence for his own artistic creation, and therefore, the move to a region where stargazing is optimal, could not help but exert an influence on his compositions as well.
This was not, however, a turn toward 1970s kraut-style cosmic music, but rather a completion of a human and artistic journey. The British artist does not look at space like a cosmonaut in a science fiction movie, but rather, keeping his feet firmly planted on the earth, as a further piece in the relationship between man and nature. Then again, the study of the stars has always been a reference in human history regardless of the perspective used (esoteric, religious or scientific).

Thus we arrive at “Selenodesy”, a work recently published by Phantom Limb. Selenodesy is, similarly to Geodesy for the Earth, a “branch of astronomy that studies the shape of the Moon and takes care of its measurements and graphic representation.” While suggesting in the title a scientific approach, Skelton’s gaze does not resolve itself into a cold musical interpretation of numbers and measurements, but prefers to “make use” of the astronomical and scientific element, to narrate in music his own subjective and emotional interpretation, as, for example, he had done in the past with the moraines and post-glacial landscapes of “‘Till Fabrics” or the landscape of the British and Irish peninsula of “Lastglacialmaximum”. It is a kind of memento to remind us that the rational gaze is only one way to interpret reality and that the filter of the viewer’s subjectivity can alter the perception of that measured and canonized form.
The press release then offers us another key to understanding: the record was prefigured by a period of insomnia and the relief found in stargazing, during which Skelton tried to transcribe his hypnagogic visions: “much of this music came to me in the early hours, in that nowhere state between dreaming and waking. I’d look out the window and the night sky would be swirling with stars. Mars or Venus would be hovering in the corner of the room. I’d lie there and watch the Aurora Borealis dance across the ceiling.”

But what, then, does the Moon look like as seen from Earth through Richard Skelton’s gaze?

The satellite is slowly revealed to us through the sharp, flickering synth gusts of “Albedo” which, overlapping in alternating stasis and motion, give us the glacial, distant image of a celestial body in perpetual change.
In later tracks we see the Moon mysteriously emerge from the darkness until it shows itself entirely (“Plot of Lunar Phases”), faint lunar rays bubble in the dark (“Faint Ray system”) and the satellite find its gravitational balance (“Isostasy”).To describe these phenomena, Skelton makes use of the many expressive possibilities offered by electronic instruments: low-frequency drones, sound waves full of echoes and reverberations, stilettos of typically “Skelton-ian” strident sounds, streams of noise, “orchestral” vamps (see “Impact Theory”), up to saber rattling of synths that recall the typical sounds of cosmic music and even, at times, the majesty of the Vangelis of “Blade Runner” (see the finale of “Faint Ray System”).

Richard Skelton - faint ray systems [official audio]

The record seems to trace the transition from the initial scientific approach, algid and rational, to a more human one, characterized by the prevalence of wonder and mystery. Gradually, some cosmic “clichés” also seem to make room for themselves. For clichés we mean images and sounds imprinted in the collective imagination, thanks mainly to “certain” science fiction cinema, namely the one which questions the mysteries of the Cosmos, drawing a parallel with the eternal existential questions of man. Tracks such as “Isostasy” and “Hypervelocity” and the concluding “Fallback” evoke with their slow movement and mysterious sounds balanced with silence, images of Kris Kelvin (the man) observing Solaris (the Moon) trying to unravel the mystery that lies beneath the enigmatic surface (the other side of the Moon?). Other pieces also appear imbued with cinematic suggestions: the cosmic magniloquence that sometimes peeps out, so atypical in Skelton’s music, seems perfect for us to describe the amazement and smallness of man observing what Werner Herzog called “The Wild Blue Yonder”. In equal and opposite fashion, “Lesser gravity” repurposes the author’s most typical clangors, immersing them in an infinite reverberation and evoking the fear that the cosmic void instills.

In short, we can say that the mission is accomplished. In “Selenodesy”, Skelton, immersed in the darkness of his natural observatory, succeeds in showing what is “his” shape of the moon, where two souls coexist: the scientific and rational one and the humanistic one which sees the moon and space as a perpetual and imaginative reminder of the mystery of existence. From a purely musical point of view, Skelton succeeds in being true to himself: he reiterates his own themes and stylistic features, such as the relationship between man and nature and between sound/noise and silence, but uses partly different forms. Taking full advantage of the expressive range that electronic instrumentation allows him, the English artist lets his music be led to new and stimulating places. The end result is, therefore, a fully successful work, which presents itself, also thanks to cinematic suggestions, as the most accessible and communicative work in his impressive discography.