Though Erik Sanko continues to be an intriguing and accomplished musician in many an indie-rock circle, it would be difficult to argue that conventional wisdom has placed Skeleton Key on a downhill slope of sorts since the release of the band’s mind-bending Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon in 1997. For all its strengths, 2002’s Obtainium — released on Ipecac Records — was a collection of interesting asides that didn’t always seem to hit the target, an 11-track disc that seemed miles removed from Fantastic Spikes.
It could’ve been the personnel changes. It could’ve been the production, the way even the band’s junk percussion sounded, at times, so sanitized and processed. But, after two years of relative silence, Skeleton Key seems to have rediscovered and recaptured the formulas and bizarre majesty that really made it was it was.
Live at Metro, 06/13/04 shouldn’t be discarded or written off as some half-hearted online-only project meant to bide time between studio releases. It’s a disc worth downloading, burning, and placing on the shelf right next to Fantastic Spikes, Obtainium and the band’s 1996 Motel Records EP. And, while it functions perfectly well on its own merits regardless of definition, Live at Metro, 06/13/04 also isn’t so much an energetic addition to the canon of live indie-rock recordings as it is a precursor to the band’s potentially approaching fourth release.
After a set-opening performance of “One Way, My Way,” Skeleton Key hits its stride at Metro with “Gravity is the Enemy,” a new song that winds around a slinky bass line Sanko could have saved for Ui and launches from atmospheric verses right into big-guitar choruses without batting an eye. That’s followed with another great new track, the bouncy “Little Monster,” where choppy guitar falls into the background only long enough to lend the spotlight to Skeleton Key’s familiar refrain of pounding drums and junk percussion.
Far from the more processed fare of Obtainium, the band’s new songs pay homage to the peculiar angles and raw, frayed-nerve instrumentation writ large on Fantastic Spikes. Though they still feel tentative at moments, the new songs are also, surprisingly, among the best of the live set. The thud and wallop of “Everybody’s Crutch” — where Sanko unleashes an extended roar right from his gut over a mean and pounding succession from the group’s rhythm section — are downright incredible. The fact that the song makes such an impression when placed between two classic Fantastic Spikes tracks (a spirited rendition of “Dear Reader” and an even more energetic reading of “The World’s Most Famous Undertaker”) is alone worth noting.
While Skeleton Key fans will rejoice at hearing passionate and sharply recorded live takes on “Sawdust” and a furious, live-wire “Spineless” (that gem last heard as a collaboration on Melvins’ The Crybaby), the new tracks really steal the show and the format almost seems to be an accomplice of sorts. Even decent live recordings can be marred by excessive applause and heckling in the midst of a song or the tempo-killing demon that is pointless between-song stage chatter, but Skeleton Key has the good sense to let the music do the talking. A few comical but stage-typical comments aside (“Thank you very much. For the first time in, like, a million years, we have new shirts. A fine garment, the shirt. And they’re for sale, coincidentally. This is a new song so if we fuck it up, I apologize in advance.”), the record feels more like eavesdropping on a studio rehearsal than catching a band ply its trade in a smoke-stained club.
What’s also staggering is just how prominent the band’s new material is presented on Live on Metro, 06/13/04. Of the set’s 11 songs, only two hail from Obtainium and two from Fantastic Spikes. (To be fair, “The World’s Most Famous Undertaker” also appears on the Skeleton Key EP.) The new songs — many of them clustered in the increasingly intense second half of the band’s 45-minute set — are more than worth the stage time they’re given. From the emotional explosions and tight guitar/bass/drums/junk patterns of “Smile” and the quirky pseudo-balladry of “Roses” to the sweeping “Iron Fist Alchemist,” some of these tracks may come to be counted, when released more formally, among Skeleton Key’s finest. That’s hardly the epitaph for an act whose creative peak has come and gone.
Maybe those waiting for a return of the ingenuity and vitality from Fantastic Spikes should take notice. With Live at Metro, 06/13/04, Sanko and Co. may be sounding an early call to arms. You listening?