Skee Mask – Pool (2021) – Album Review

With the release of his third full-length album, Bryan Müller a.k.a. Skee Mask has surely established himself as one of the leading figures at the vanguard of electronic music. His 2018 album, Compro, rightfully found itself near the top of several year-end lists, and now with a bumper selection of brand new tracks drawn from the same musical landscape, he proves himself master of the ‘breakbeat techno’ genre he helped create.

As well as being a clear contender for electronic album of the year, Pool is also noteworthy due to the fact you won’t find it on Spotify or other major streaming platforms. The record was released with practically zero fanfare or promo activity as a Bandcamp exclusive, available to purchase for €18. Right away this could deter casual listeners, but it’s a risk Skee Mask is clearly willing to take. A few days before Pool’s appearance on Bandcamp, he tweeted his intentions, telling fans they’d need to ‘pay more than one microcent’ for it – a reference to the pitiful sums most artists earn from Spotify streams. With all the available vinyl copies immediately selling out and a higher number of digital versions shifted, it seems like his gamble is paying off.

Whether or not you’re someone who’s accustomed to stumping up the best part of twenty quid for digital music, with 18 full-length tracks totalling 100+ minutes in duration, Pool is undeniably good value. Skee Mask employs a sound palette of soft sweeping tones bathed in lush analogue warmth, and paints on a canvas of epic proportions. This is true as much for the beat-driven tracks as for the ambient cuts that make up around a third of the album. Because his music is so free and untethered – seeming to float weightlessly above the mire of contemporary genres and fads – it’s hard to describe in terms other than the brute language of movement, space and physical force. ‘Breathing Method’ sounds like the convulsions of a giant mechanical robot, as it spasms and stomps across a landscape of wasted buildings. Opening track, ‘Nvivo’ fizzes and bubbles – an intoxicating cocktail of fidgety acid – and ‘DJ Camo Bro’ feels like a POV simulation of a ride in the cockpit of a jet fighter, barrel rolling to avoid a barrage of laser fire before soaring up and over the clouds to escape into the sunset.

In a recent interview, Müller explained how many of the tracks arose out of an altered approach to music production, with an increased focus on hardware, and that around three quarters of the album is the result of analogue jamming sessions. There’s certainly a live, free-flowing feel to the music; the beats duck, weave and bob and the synth pads are soaring and expansive with featherlight melodies that zoom hither and thither like birds in flight. On the slight downside, it does mean that Pool lacks the tight cohesive flow of Compro – but that’s always going to be the case with an album of this length. In the same interview he also admitted that, rather than having some unifying concept, this release could be seen as something of a ‘best of’ from the last five years. If true, this suggests an exceptionally high hit rate, given he’s already released four EPs in the intervening time since his last album – all equally impressive.

Among the 18 tracks here, touching on everything from moody dub techno, to blistering breakbeats, to exploratory acid workouts to lush ambient, it’s hard to pick favourites. However, ‘Testo BC Mashup’ is a clear standout, with a simple chiming melody that emerges from a fog of radio static, while thunderous breakbeats explode like fireworks overhead. For the breakdown Skee Mask lets the melody take centre stage, the delayed organ chimes playing off muted beats, before everything erupts again in riotous celebration. It almost feels like a child at play – building a precarious tower and then smashing it gleefully to pieces just because he can. This carefree and intuitive interplay between melodic prettiness and masterful manipulation of breakbeats calls to mind another wunderkind of electronic music, Aphex Twin. An artist who once released a double album of music with little fanfare, rushing out 2001’s Drukqs after he reportedly left an mp3 player on a plane, supposedly containing a cache of unreleased tracks he feared would be leaked. Drukqs is one of my favourite electronic albums of all time, so I don’t bandy the comparison around lightly, and though Skee Mask is no Aphex Twin quite yet, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to mention them in the same breath.

With the release of Pool, effectively ‘clearing out’ his hard drive, I hope for the next one Skee Mask changes up his creative process once again. His touch as a producer and sound designer is second to none and in the musical landscape he’s perfected on Pool, he is unquestionably master of all he surveys. Maybe it’s greedy to be already speculating about what he’ll come out with next. But then what cemented Aphex Twin’s status as a legend was his constant willingness to surprise and confound the music world. From the self-assuredness of his recent track record, I feel Skee Mask could be capable of something similar. And hey – in the meantime we have 100 minutes of fresh, forward-thinking, transcendent electronic music to enjoy.

This review originally appears in Still Listening Magazine.

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