Sound Scene Express

Host Skull Subverts the Expected with New Avant-Rock Album, “Destruction”



Local indie collective/record label Golden Magnet is at it again. On Saturday, July 29th, they’ll debut their seventh release (and fourth album) since their inception last year: Host Skull’s Destruction. The occasion will be marked with a release show at Casey Droege Cultural Productions Gallery downtown, beginning Saturday at 7 PM. They will be joined by an eclectic group of artists, including Phil Jacoby of fellow Golden Magnet founders Sleep Experiments. This ten-track record has been a long time coming. The writing and recording process started in Santa Fe in 2013, with much of the groundwork being completed there, before migrating back to Pittsburgh for overdubs and additional instrumental/vocal layers.

This speaks to the unconventional, bi-coastal nature of Host Skull itself. It officially consists of David Bernabo and Will Dyar in the studio, with Bernabo joined by Erik Cirelli (guitar), Christopher James (bass), and Rich Kawood (drums) for local live performances. The band also has its own label, Ongoing Box, which produces creative projects in the realms of music, books, and film. And they’re a strong believer in offering unique physical forms of their media—limited edition, handmade CD’s will be sold at the release show.

If Host Skull is not your typical rock band, it makes sense that Destruction is not your typical rock album. In fact, it’s unapologetically weird. Pleasantness can be found, but that’s not the primary goal. Experimentation, expression, pushing creative limits—these are what take precedence. The duo incorporates elements from a variety of influences: jam band, post-rock/post-punk, noise, indie rock, even occasional flirtations with ambient and singer-songwriter genres. This has the potential to be messy, but Host Skull are confident and practiced enough in their craft to hold it all together, and make something compelling and impressive in its risk-taking. The deliberation and careful construction that went into this release is obvious. If a conventional rock record is the latest summer blockbuster, Destruction is a short film playing in a modern art museum.

So if you’re after an easy, straightforward listen, look elsewhere. But even if (like me) experimental rock isn’t often the first thing you pull up on your playlist, this is a good album with which to step outside of your comfort zone. For every jarring moment (like the distorted static buzz in the instrumental of “Form Destroyer,” and the punctuated, discordant ending of “No One Else”), there was a charming or cool one to match it (like the entrancing tribal rhythm and pretty acoustic guitar riff in “Novel,” plus wherever the warbling keys made an appearance.) If you have any particular love for the guitar, you’ll also appreciate how it’s used to its full capacity here. Driving, crunchy, punkish riffs; moody, mournful solos; jamming phrases and patterns that take melodic risks; all with varying levels of distortion and effects. This range is impressive, and crucial for creating the variety of moods Destruction evokes. And the consistent comfort of Bernabo’s distinct, slightly muted vocals are a connecting thread throughout.

Nowhere does Host Skull more clearly deviate from the formulaic than with their percussion. It often dominates the musical landscape: shifting gears drastically within songs; pausing and attacking, repeatedly; each hit lining up exactly with a guitar or bass note. All this energetic, technically impressive activity (most concentrated in the rallying second track, “Animal Head”) is effective at keeping you on your toes. But it’s balanced with subdued, slower tracks, which still have their own standout moments of strangeness. The resigned melancholy of “My Possessions,” the wandering contemplation of “Dan in L.A.”, and the gorgeous, surprising ambient soundscape in the last half of the closer, “Big Tan”—all provide valleys relative to those higher-octane peaks. The result is an album that realizes the importance of pace, and of riding waves over its duration. No matter where on the spectrum from “totally bizarre” to “radio-ready” you lie, too much of a single sound or energy on a record is a bad thing, regardless of how good it might be at first. For Host Skull, this is a non-issue.

If you’re looking for something new to spin as the summer winds down, something that challenges you and reminds you that weirdness and originality are alive and well, Destruction is definitely worth your time. To quote the first track, “Book of Blood:” “I wouldn’t have it any other way/It’s not a feeling, but it’s here to stay.”

Destruction will be available on Host Skull’s Bandcamp, and other electronic music platforms, on July 29th. You can preview six of the ten tracks there right now. The release show is happening at the Casey Droege Gallery (937 Liberty Avenue) the same night, with Jacoby kicking things off with a solo guitar set at 7 PM. Flautist Zoe Sorrell and the improvisational trio How Things Are Made (of which Bernabo is a member) will follow, with How Things Are Made interpreting Host Skull’s songs. Donations of $5-$10 at the door are encouraged in lieu of set ticket prices; more info at the event page here. Check out Host Skull on Facebook here, and Golden Magnet here.

Additional instrumentation on the album provided by Ben Montgomery (trumpet), Erik Cirelli (guitar and slide guitar), and Kelly Miskis (backup vocals.)

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About The Author

Melanie Stangl

Melanie, 25, is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, and has been contributing both articles and photos to Sound Scene Express since April 2016. Her work has previously been published on Huffington Post Women, feminspire.com, and in the New York University textbook Mercer Street. Her goals include diving deeper into music journalism, traveling the world, and eventually being stable enough to own two dogs.

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