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An Intuitive, Hard-Edged Grace – Sky Lions’ Debut Album “Inside the Circle”

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There are bands partnerships and combos made up of musicians, writers, dabblers and (often arrogant) fools and then there are those, rare though they are, for whom the art at the heart of the thing isn’t simply an essential element of what they do, some too-often vague underlying mission statement but, rather, the point to what they do, not so much as a matter of rigorous discipline – though that obtains, certainly and inescapably – but because, by definition, there is simply no other operating criteria.

These are the driven ones, driven not by an ambition rooted in material gain nor by the asinine measure of clicks or fleeting virality, but rather, solely and, to be honest, helplessly, by the irrepressible need to make surpassingly good, achingly honest art. Laying aside for a moment how sad and absurd it is that that goal, stated or much more often displayed in the work, has come to be judged in the commons as ‘pretentious, it’s that laser-like focus on what is a notoriously amorphous but none-more-rewarding goal that sets those reaching for that one and only worthwhile gold ring apart, whether they ‘succeed’ by whatever metric or not. Say what you will about the perceived bloat of the early-to-mid 70s but in their time and still, despite punk’s attempted teardowns, your Roxy Musics and King Crimsons are far more lauded than lambasted for pursuing their craft – others opinions be damned – with a remit that privileged creative expansion over commercial success, and it can be strongly argued their embrace of the former is what guaranteed their undiminished, ongoing receipt of the latter. All that established, meet Sky Lions.

Having met as kids at summer camp – true story, not apocryphal – which led eventually to the two turning their daring teenage curiosity toward the making of music before life, that bastard, pulled them in separate directions, Radio Sloan and Outer Stace have always, in the manner of true lifelong friends, remained in touch, the former co-founding the boundary-breaking queercore band The Need as well as stints in Courtney Love’s short-lived backing band The Chelsea and handling bass for Peaches’ ensemble The Herms while the latter, at a later date, was founder and vocal focal point, with drummer husband XavierX, of the brash and powerful electro-postpunk bands Photona and TIMEBITCH. That maintenance of a loving friendship now leads us, with great serendipitous fortune, to the long-mooted finally realized collab between the two in the form of a debut full-length and my lord what a rich, bold, coruscating debut it is.

Called Inside the Circle and self-released at the end of August, the album, if nothing else (and there’s plenty else) could not more clearly reflect the fact that, beyond its sheer elemental quality, the two what made this fierce gem have no fucks to give and not a shred of doubt harbored. Confidence lashes about everywhere on here, a sheet lightning feel attending pretty much its entire length, lacerating with a cut-diamond brilliance across one’s listening sky, if you will.

Emerging out of the fraught silence with a phased keyboard effect that suggests Baba O’Riley’s long-lost orphaned runaway love child just returned from the wasteland, opener “No One Knows” rather seamlessly slips into the Sky Lions groove, a groove that’s intense with craft and confidence that’s also, as it happens, quite quicky addictive. We’re compelled to listen and listen we shall, fixated on the unrelenting flow of the brash and the beautiful pulling at each other with an intuitive, hard-edged grace.

From there we reel into the title track, a piece that in essence and deed rather calls for its own treatise. Luring one in as if on the the cusp of a dawn as it creeps through shadow and mist – a bass, a lone and gently reverbed electric in slo-mo staccato, an exhalation of synth suggesting the breath of day itself – Stace’s vocal gradually unleashes itself and one senses the coming catharsis and yet, even with that expectation in place, the power of that release nonetheless hits like a sudden liberation of sorts, an epiphany, even. That said, the irony inside the jewel is the extent to which it’s empowered by restraint and that, my reader friends, that tension, is of course the very core, the operative apparatus that makes art work, reflecting as it does the eternal – and eternally fascinating – tussle between head and heart that defines the human experience. In short, it’s what moves us, and the the two DBA Sky Lions not only know this but wield a command of it that in practice is breathtaking in its intensely subtle application. Certainly their age and experience helps explain that but, really, there’s zero doubt such understanding is a trait as bestowed by DNA as eye color and height. They can’t, in other words, help being this good.

The prepossessing intrigue and gloom of the slow-surged “Werewolves,” the line “we won’t be talking of the same or the usual” staking out, unblinkingly, the kind of bleak territory we all trust is awaiting us (and speaking of Inside the Circle‘s lyrics? Fervent with commitment, on message like a mutha and, most important, honest to a take-no-prisoners degree; lyrics, in other words, that we’ve long been longing for more of), “1692 Moon” that deftly brings the medieval to the brink of now and tips it over the edge, personal fave “Hello Firefly” that not only carries itself along on a melody that shudders with intimate beauty but also manages the tastefully epic in less than two-and-a-half minutes, the great – yet also delicate, somehow – loomingness of “Psychic Gifts” that presents like a haunting under pressure (and, again, that bloody immutable melody), the wonder that is “Spirits” that besides containing one of the record’s most arresting couplets in “nothing left to say or do/she found that she was turning blue“), bursts with a translucent power made all the more stark by that pluck of banjo throughout that brings both a homey and eerie feel while also underlying the full-on, keenly unobtrusive prowess of Radio’s presence inside and all over this particular circle.

Ripping with confidence and riven everywhere by those understated, astute decisions and touches that betray an utter devotion to craft – that single moment of double-tracked harmony on “Inside the Circle,” the furtive phase-shifting quality of the unknown voices glancing off the edges of “Click Here to Enter Hell,” dozens more beside – this record, a long time coming so therefore carrying a fair amount of weight to the finish line, could just not be better realized. At some point early in the listening/writing process your correspondent muttered to himself ‘It’s just so masterful, this record’ and he wasn’t wrong. It is, plainly put and from every vantage, a joy to behold. [get yourself Inside the Circle here]