The Skull Practitioners are just about the ultimate Halloween band – but not in a campy way. There’s no way any other group could have played as genuinely menacing, or deliciously noisy a set as the trio of guitarist Jason Victor, bassist Kenneth Levine and drummer Alex Baker did that night at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick. The reason that their reverb-drenched noiserock assault works so well is because their songs are so catchy. They’re always going off the rails in one way or another, but there’s always a tune somewhere – even if it’s about to come unglued. They’re bringing their mix of savage jams and deceptively tight tunesmithing to Grand Victory in Williamsburg on December 9 at around 9:30.
These days everybody agrees that Victor is the best guitarist ever to play in Steve Wynn‘s band – and now, also in the Dream Syndicate, considering that Wynn has resuscitated his legendary 80s paisley underground outfit. And since Victor is always out on the road dueling with Wynn, he hasn’t had much time off for this project until the last couple of months, when they’ve been playing out a lot. That probably explained why they were as tight as they are their twisted debut cassette (which is also streaming at Bandcamp).
At the Halloween show, they got in and got out, Ramones style: seven songs in half an hour, then called it quits. Levine’s catchy bass riffage in tandem with Baker’s tersely bounding drums anchored Victor’s smoldering, anguished bends and swoops laced with shards of feedback when he wasn’t burning through a catchy chorus with the kind of rich Telecaster roar that few other guitarists – maybe Orville Neeley of the OBNIIIs – can generate. A tight, purposeful groove anchored the opening instrumental, Victor leaping through a cloud of reverb into a furious chorus and then winding his way through a rattlesnake of a string-wrenching solo.
A couple of friends of the band took turns hollering vocals that might or might not have been made up on the spot, just like much of the music. The band worked a biting, minimalist early 80s postpunk Gang of Four/Wire riff on the second song, but with more gravitas and edge than either of those bands. They segued into the ominous, Dream Syndicate-influenced third number, Victor flailing around wildly until he’d found his footing as the band took the song doublespeed and then back to a careening sway. The song after that had a chugging Train Kept a-Rolling style rhythm, Victor alternating between savage bluesmetal and raw, reverb-drenched noise. From there they hit an insistent, metalish attack, like a punk take on early Iron Maiden, then did a couple of numbers that could have been James Williamson-era Iggy Pop but more unhinged, Victor ripping his way through catchy Kinks-ish riffage, tense Dream Syndicate jangle, a funny Link Wray quote and a teeth-gnashing tremolo attack that pulled and eventually ripped away from the song’s central riff. So no matter how far out he went, the song never got lost. Listening back to a cheap recording of that show, along with a bunch of equally savage tracks the band cobbled together in the studio recently, is reason to believe the Grand Victory gig could be even more intense.