Personnel: Eric Chenaux (vocals, electric guitar, nylon-string guitar, melodica, electronics).
Audio Mixer: Radwan Ghazi Moumneh.
On 2012's Guitar & Voice, Toronto-based guitarist, songwriter, and producer Eric Chenaux delivered a wildly experimental yet often lovely slice of his solo ballad approach. That record showcased his mellifluous, airy tenor voice in a series of jazz-influenced tunes juxtaposed against a method of guitar playing whose rhythmic phrasing and tonal sensibilities were often dissonant. Skullsplitter furthers this approach. Chenaux goes deeper into the mystery of both composition and improvisation and reveals that the two starkly contrasted elements in his music are holistic. These nine tunes alternately sequence vocal tracks and instrumentals. There are pronounced qualitative differences this time out, but more on this later. Chenaux has long held an obsession with speakers of all types -- especially cheap ones -- and unique placements to get particular effects. Here, he and longtime engineer Radwan Ghazi Moumne experiment with physically swinging speakers and radical gating and panning, creating a sometimes gauzy effect where the physicality of the music shifted both texturally and dynamically. This is most apparent on the vocal numbers, where his clean, unaffected signing (that resides somewhere between the phrasing of Chet Baker and the stark earthiness of Jeb Loy Nichols) croons amid warbled, shifting guitar backdrops. Check "Spring Has Been a Long Time Coming" and the breezy, soul-inflected "Poor Time" as shining examples. Chenaux is apparently interested enough in this approach to revisit his catalog: the title track appeared on 2006's Dull Lights and "Have I Lost My Eyes" on 2008's Sloppy Ground -- the previous incarnations were full-band versions and these are not merely different, but superior in that even amid all the experimentation, they communicate directly. As gorgeous as the vocal tracks are, it is in the instrumentals where one can best appreciate the weight and adventure in the production. But more than this, it's the sometimes startling evidence of how completely unique Chenaux's playing is -- even when he recalls iconoclastic pioneers such as Noel Akchote, Marc Ducret, and Loren Mazzacane Connors. On "Le Vieux Favori," multi-tracked, fingerpicked bass strings lie just under the surface of layers of bowed ones, creating a woozy chamber music whose roots lie in Celtic and Appalachian melodies. Its arrangement is simultaneously lush and spacious. "My Romance" uses a fuzzed-out elliptical melody atop droning, rounded, sometimes backmasked stacks of single chords that resemble a church organ that shifts throughout the mix. The instrumentals on Guitar & Voice felt more like interludes between songs, here, they are songs. The album's title, for all of its heavy metal connotations, may actually regard the different sides of the brain and the way they interact: the creative, mercurial right with the carefully ordered left. For all its sonic investigation and ellipticity, Skullsplitter is an intimate, even readily accessible offering that is quite human in its unhurried exposition of emotional depth and vulnerability. ~ Thom Jurek