The Skull Eclipses
Known respectively for their independent work as Botany and Lushlife, Austin producer Spencer Stephenson and Philadelphia emcee Raj Haldar selected their collaborative mantle and debut album title, The Skull Eclipses, when the project became more than just a one-plus-one combination of their individual sounds. These tenured creators initially set out to pay homage to the genres that convergently inspired them to start producing music in the late 90s and early 00s-- jungle, breakbeat, drum’n’bass, trip-hop, electronic ambient, etc.-- and bring them into the context of contemporary hip-hop. The outcome is a heavy-hitting, eleven-track post-rap montage that seeks refuge from the present by opening doors to the past, winding up with something altogether more futuristic than either of its authors had consciously intended.
The title The Skull Eclipses was originally given to a demo that Stephenson sent Haldar in 2014, but it quickly became apt for the darker subject matter and emotional tone that the record and project assumed. Accordingly, Haldar’s lyrics are a free-associative expression of grim frustrations that he and Stephenson felt could be lost behind the perceived sunniness of their solo identities: the value of life amid a growing population, Islamophobia directed at people with brown skin (Haldar himself is Bengali), poverty, pharmaceutical abuse, mortality, mental illness, international conflict, police shootings, and the continual failure of the drug-war that began when the album’s creators were just children.
Haldar’s words and vocal performances were written and recorded during a weeklong artist residency in Tulum, Mexico. Indicative of the arcane crossmedia inspirations behind The Skull Eclipses, this spot was chosen partly for its connection to the obscure Federico Fellini and Milo Manara graphic novel Viaje a Tulum, but also for the city’s history as a center of conflict, worship, and ancient mystery. However, what was glimpsed there instead fueled the grievances of the album’s more earthly subject matter. “Tulum is where wealthy ‘ecotourists’ spend thousands of dollars a night, while the locals’ hard work never stops,” Haldar remarks, “so the increasing problems of wealth distribution were never out of sight or mind, even in a place that looks like paradise.” Still, the location allowed a space for the rapper’s personal identity to manifest. On The Skull Eclipses Haldar appears as himself in unguarded turns alongside his Lushlife persona, contrasting it with subdued delivery and melancholic admissions of auto-biographical turbulence like on the record’s Free Design sampling midpoint “Take My”.
The Skull Eclipses is not without a well-suited guest roster. On “Pillars” Felicia Douglass from the Brooklyn band Ava Luna lends an infectious chorus, while Shabazz Palaces’ less verbal half Tendai Maraire provides the percussion beneath his most prominent verse yet released. Lojii borrows the spotlight for an immaculate, off-the-cuff performance on the dancehall-laced album highlight “Gun Glitters”. Open Mike Eagle lists a few of the infamously inexcusable reasons for police shootings in recent times on the mournful “Gone”. Though perhaps the most surprising appearance is ambient luminary Laraaji who contributes his trademark electric zither to “Yearn Infinite II”, a slow churning interlude that precedes the album’s double-timed breakbeat closer “Spacecrafts in Rajasthan”.
Even with strong contributions from Haldar and guests, rap vocals on The Skull Eclipses become part of the Stephenson’s nebulous instrumentation, alternately congealing and dissolving around the beatwork. Stephenson’s trademark fractalline style is noticeably more inclement here than on the tie-dyed psychedelia of his Botany records, and it provides ample buoyancy for the vocalists to float atop throbbing bass, gothic chants, somber vinyl samples, and tape-destroyed speech. Tracks are glued together with interstitial bad-trip creep-ups: melting choirs, doomsday evangelists, and the Judica-Cordiglia recordings that are purported to have captured the sounds of Russian kosmonauts burning up on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. As grim and esoteric as that all may seem The Skull Eclipses might be the most directly gratifying product either of its head creators have ever issued. It’s the result of a rapper entrusting himself to a single producer, made all the more cogent by their kindred perspectives, offbeat mutual touchstones, and commitment to making albums that provide deep experiences in lieu of playlist-ready one-offs.