If you've never heard of Skeleton Key before, and their new album happened to fall into your lap, you'd look at its darkly artsy album cover (sorry, CD booklet) and esoteric title, and think these guys are a Tool knockoff. Then once you hear the music, you're hit with a twisted blend of clanky percussion, strange guitar noises, and weird samples. But you quickly realize that, instead of getting the feeling that the band is keeping you at an arm's length with their clattering noise rock, you find that what's buried underneath all the noise is some surprisingly accessible, and fairly enjoyable music.
It's been close to five years since Skeleton Key's last album Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon (which was nominated for a Grammy award for its innovative artwork). After label hassles, side projects, and a grimly facetious message on their web site that stated that two members of the band had perished in Antarctica in a desperate act of cannibalism, the band, led by singer/bassist Eric Sanko, have returned, this time on Mike Patton's (Faith No More) Ipecac Records label. Less abrasive than their previous effort, the new album, Obtainium,is a combination of cacophony and melody that feels like sitting in with a friendly old hermit in a shack cluttered with piles of junk, as the old coot entertains you by playing blues-tinged ditties with egg beaters and garbage can lids.
Equal parts Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, the Jesus Lizard, Faith No More, and Primus, Obtainium tries hard to keep you entertained, and manages to do so, rather adequately, for 35 minutes. All the aforementioned influences can be heard on the first track "Sawdust", which contains a nasty, clangy guitar riff, some wickedly funky bass playing, a subtle hint of drum machine, and layers of bizarre percussion, with Sanko's playful singing keeping things from getting too strange. The result is a blast to listen to. "One Way, My Way" sounds like Don Van Vliet trying to write an alternative rock hit, with another deliciously off-kilter bassline and more of the band's cool junkyard percussion touches. "Candy" is a dank, ominous song that resembles Morphine's more moody work, "Kerosene" compares two subjects that no rock band has ever considered doing before: sex and solvents ("She peels back the sheets and coats my spine / And she strips faster than turpentine"). "Dingbat Revolution" has the band playing a potent concoction of skanky blues, as Sanko screams and howls in his best John Spencer impersonation.
As good as their more melodic moments are, though, Obtainium really hits the mark whenever the band gets really weird. "The Barker of the Dupes" is a flat-out riot of a song, with Skeleton Key doing their own version of Tom Waits's Bone Machine album, and doing it extremely well. It's a feast for the ears: a loping, muted guitar riff, tons more of that noisy percussion (what the heck are they playing?), screechy guitar solo licks, and an overblown, distorted, elephant-like, straight-outta-Spinal Tap's-"Big Bottom" bass that tries to drown everything else out. The bluesy tune is brilliant, three minutes of glorious noise. Starting off with the sound of someone winding up a metronome, "Roost in Peace" is mellower, but no less strange, as several band members contribute percussion from whatever seems to be lying around and a simple, understated guitar lick plays as Sanko sings about the benefits of being a loner.
After the inspiration heard on "Roost in Peace", it's a bit of a disappointment to hear the band get so blandly mainstream-sounding on the next two tracks. "King Know It All" and "That Tongue" are both exercises in dull alternative rock; they just don't fit, like following up Einsturzende Neubauten with Collective Soul. Even the creative percussion fails to save such formulaic music.
Thankfully, Obtainium comes to a strong close on the creepy lullaby "Say Goodnight", which reminds me of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas trying hard to be kind, but winding up scaring the daylights out of kids. As Sank sings gently, the rest of the band pipes in with off-tune plucked strings, more of that freaky percussion, and an ever-increasing drone of guitar feedback; the result is a lullaby intended to induce nightmares. In other words, a fitting end to such an eclectic, up and down album, one that makes you wish was so weird all the way through.