Original Photo: David D'Ath
Skeptics III LP | 1987
In 1985, like so many artistic types before and since, The Skeptics left Palmerston North and relocated to Wellington. They arrived a musically prickly and awkward band looking for an artistic next step. They wanted a better way of making and recording the sounds rolling around inside their heads. They found it - and the bonus was that they also found a way of capturing and manipulating the noises that crept through the environment around them. In Wellington, they started tinkering with new technologies on an industrial scale, met fellow musicians who shared their vision based on dense and dynamic textured sounds, and together built a studio called Writhe and recorded some remarkable records.
Photo: Writhe Studio, Walter Street 1989 (Bob Sutton Collection)
Guitarist Robin Gauld had left the band for an academic life. Nick Roughan, Don White and David D’Ath kept the name 'The Skeptics' and struggled with their sound for a while. The Ponds album was recorded at Wellington's Frontier Studios, which they released on their own label in 1985. It’s an evolutionary effort; the vocal efforts a little calmer, the music less fragmented and the band more proficient than what is on offer on Chowder Over Wisconsin (Flying Nun, 1983). But overall, it still has an ungainly feel with the band seemingly unsure of themselves and the music they are playing. One suspects the quandary is not “will our audience like this” but “are we happy with this yet”. But the sense of progress is there - the band is more cohesive and there is less jerky musical indecision.
In Wellington they found like-minded musicians in John Halvorsen and Brent McLachlan (of Bailter Space and ex The Gordons). The band were forced to move their base in 1986, but there was compensation, so extra funding was available for somewhere new. A new space was found on the corner of Vivian and Walter Streets (between Victoria and Cuba) that could both be a studio and also accommodate all of the interested parties. The building is still there with its distinctive round glass tile windows. Everyone, The Skeptics along with John Halvorsen and Brent McLachlan, got involved and built the studio with a 16 track tape machine at its heart. Writhe Studio became a sought-after recording facility which produced an income stream and a base to work on the new electronic world that had opened up to them.
Photo: David D'Ath
Just as sampler technology started to appear in New Zealand, singer David D’Ath bought one. This was the turning point for the band. Here was the technology that allowed the band to electronically explore, develop and record the sounds they carried in their heads and could not express via traditional rock instruments. Don White was also in on the new technology handily, making his own electronic drum pads before eventually returning to the warmer sound of traditional drum skins. With Robin Gauld gone they did find the experience of performing without a guitar musically dispiriting, so John Halvorsen stepped in to fulfil that role.
The musical development based on the new sampling technology went into hyperdrive with David D’Ath building a big collection of found sounds that could later be manipulated for recording or live work along with Don White’s triggering drum pads. The band were now a mix up of proven traditional electric instruments and new electronic devices. It was an exciting time and it would result in a new album in 1987.
Skeptics III Front Cover
The band were back with Flying Nun and no one there knew what was coming, apart from a few good but vague words from people in the know. There were delays with the John Halvorsen painted cover, but the finally-glimpsed minimalist blurred image of a distorted face gave little away about its sonic contents. When Skeptics III arrived back from the pressing plant, everyone knew from the opening bars of 'Affco' (the first song on Side 1) that this immense musical noise was something special. Instrumentally it rumbles on deep bass notes and a crowd of dense threatening noises, free ranging twangy sampled rhythms race with controlled momentum and David D’Ath’s authoritative vocals, no longer incomprehensible, are focused, meaningful and commanding. And that’s just the opening track.
Skeptics III LP Back Cover
'Feeling Bad' is slower and might have given the listener some time to rest and reflect, but the intensity returns in the form of gigantic crushing unrelenting rhythmic samples. 'Agitator' starts off as a more smoothing effort with David D’Ath singing (yes, he is singing on this album) over a conventional sounding keyboard. That abruptly clangs into a running piece of sampled randomness before it segues into the final third of the song which dips into a near hallucinogenic soundscape of huge slow-moving bass heavy textures, voice and guitars. This is music that is grand and technologically symphonic. 'Turnover' changes the pace and turns on a heavy bass grind with a “thistle” and David D’Ath's voice flitting above the monstrous musical churn below before the song mutates and embarks on one last bout of crushing rhythm.
Side 2 opens with 'La Motta' and it instantly sounds ominous with a slowly building sampled soundscape, with clangs with metallic collisions accompanying D’Aths imposing vocal “I see stars”. The soundtrack is crowded with more found sounds before fading. 'Notice' feels straightforward but slowly transmutes in and around its rhythmic core through the hard metal environment in which it exists. 'Rain' opens with some excellent Nick Roughan’s bass playing which is extraordinary throughout this album. There is soon a lighter, almost dinky keyboard motif repeated here but the song isn’t in danger of slipping anywhere near the conventional. 'Luna' has some impressive drumming from Don White holding everything together and making sense of the song while trumpets squawk and the orcas sing. The album ends with 'Crave', which has its own heavy rhythm machine thing going full bore, drilling a grapefruit sized hole in your already badly compromised head. Why would anyone want to listen to heavy metal when they could live with this album?
Two videos were made for songs on this album. The band had played some shows with the Headless Chickens and were impressed with their visuals and felt they needed some too. Antonio Cornaga, who had worked with Fetus Productions and had already contributed some film that the band had used as projections when playing live, made a video for 'Agitator', where we get an often ghostly sense of David D’Ath’s look and movement.
Music videos were important for bands all throughout the 1980's. For the right song, a “well-made” video would get repeat screenings on the few outlets available on Television New Zealand. Stuart Page's video for 'Affco' was memorable in a way that Antonio Cornaga’s “ethereal” 'Agitator' wasn’t. Cut sharply to the song and featuring animals alive then slaughtered, with David D’Ath smeared with blood and wrapped in cling film, the video was very strong visually. Too strong for Television New Zealand who declined to show it. Both of these videos offer rare moving image glimpses of the late David D’Ath at the top of his game as singer, frontman and extraordinary person.
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
Skeptics III was the first recorded output by the phase 2 Skeptics. There had been a subtle shift in the line-up, but a huge change to the band's outlook. They had new found confidence and they were experimenting with a free and adventurous exploration of new technologies. The songs and the new sounds are well arranged and it felt as though David D’Ath had found his voice. The influence of John Halvorsen and Brent McLachlan is not to be underestimated. Engineered by Brent McLaughin and Nick Roughan and produced by Brent McLachlan and The Skeptics, this is the album that announced that Writhe was a first class New Zealand studio. The Skeptics had finally found their sound and it was truly formidable - they had arrived.