Emerging in the early 80s at the end of New York’s legendary No Wave scene, Live Skull reshaped the aggression of burned-out post-punk into heavy, guitar-driven rock.
Mark C and his fellow founder, guitarist Tom Paine, were inspired by the nihilistic sounds of No New York and the dissonant walls of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. Like their Manhattan comrades Sonic Youth and Swans, Live Skull funneled those influences into hard-edged music that valued melody as much as anarchy.
“We loved the noise and the chaos that was happening in the No Wave bands,” says Mark. “But we really tried to fit it into a song.”
Over the next decade, Live Skull released five albums and three EPs with a rotating cast of 11 members, all of whom added new ideas to the group’s evolving sound. Themes of struggle and chaos egged them on. Their constant progression inspired New York Times critic Robert Palmer to call them “as challenging, as spiritually corrosive, and ultimately as transcendent as Albert Ayler’s mid-’60s free-jazz or the implacable drone-dance of the early Velvet Underground. It’s one of the essential sounds of our time.” Live Skull stopped playing in 1990–but for Mark C, there was still more to be said. So he reformed the group in 2016 with bassist Marnie Jaffe and drummer Richard Hutchins. In 2019, an updated line-up with C, Hutchins and bassist Kent Heine recorded the first Live Skull album in nearly three decades, the urgent, forceful Saturday Night Massacre. The following year, joined by guitarist Dave Hollinghurst, they returned with Dangerous Visions, and this time everyone from the entire Live Skull history is involved. “In A Perfect World,” which opens Live Skull’s new LP, is fraught with the tension of our times, as gritty guitar sounds and the incessant beat of the drum and bass line charge forward. Next up is a fiery update on “Debbie’s Headache” (originally found on the 1987 album Dusted) and then, a live recording of “Day One Of The Experiment” from a 2019 European tour.
Though performed with joyful energy, the new songs also confront our current darkness. As Mark C puts it, the marching “Dispatches “plays out in a dystopian landscape and is a cry for help or at least understanding when things start to go wrong”, while the pounding double bass line on “Twin Towers” forms “an ode to living through disasters that could have taken you down, be it anarchist bomb making in the West Village or planes crashing into the World Trade Towers.”
Side two of Dangerous Visions reaches back to the late 80s, offering a slew of previously-unreleased material. The first four tracks come from a 1989 appearance on John Peel’s BBC radio show. Recorded during a tour for the album Positraction and featuring Thalia Zedek on vocals, the session includes two songs written after that final release. “We hear where Live Skull might have gone next if the band hadn’t been destined to break up within the year,” explains Tom Paine. “The emotionally raw and somewhat unfinished-sounding “Someone Else’s Sweat”, and “Adema”, a jacked-up smash-n-grab that still makes a pretty fine impression.” Also included are “Alive Again”, a free-form outtake from the Dusted sessions, and an alternate mix of “Tri Power”–with Mark on vocals and, for the first time, Zedek on guitar–from the 1989 compilation Like a Girl, I Want You to Keep Coming. Such a wide range of sources could make for a scattered album, but Live Skull’s singular approach to music making unites everything on Dangerous Visions. The band’s new tunes tear into the air with the same ferocity of their early material, while the unearthed tracks are still vitally relevant today.
Four decades since they began, the world still needs music from this band that never stops evolving and pushing itself–because there’s still no one who sounds like Live Skull.