Skeleton Key created a noise rock carnival act on Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon

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Skeleton Key Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon

Give the People What They Want is a recurring feature and editorial experiment in which Treble explores individual albums as suggested by Patreon supporters. The albums are all over the map—albums we know and love, albums we like but from artists we don’t know that much about, and some that represent an entirely new avenue of exploration for us. Every few weeks, we will dive deep into albums that, by and large, have yet to be canonized.

For two years in the late ’90s, MTV aired a program called Oddville, MTV, a peculiar variety show that combined late-night-style celebrity interviews and musical performances with circus sideshow stunts and a slightly unsettling mascot in a giant monkey costume. Launched from a New York cable-access show called Beyond Vaudeville, Oddville ostensibly presented a Gen-X-ified version of carnival curiosities in a Times Square studio: strongmen, contortionists, people who hammered nails into their nose, singing saw players and a peanut gallery of puppets. That it lasted as long as it did seems remarkable, especially given that it was one of very few opportunities to catch left-field music on a mainstream cable channel.

Not every musical guest lived up to the show’s celebration of the baffling and the bizarre; one of its first guests was Hanson, performing their massive hit “Mmmbop.” But more often than not the show’s bookers hit the nose-nail on the head: trout mask replicants Clawhammer, cartoon-twee Glaswegians Bis, lo-fi comedy rock group The Frogs and, naturally, Ween.

New York noise rock group Skeleton Key, likewise, seemed to be at home in the show’s surreal, carnivalesque atmosphere. In 1997, the band appeared on the show, performing “All the Things I’ve Lost,” a weirdly funky standout from the band’s debut album Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon (album title: also carnivalesque). The band grooves and jerks, scratches and struts, the rubberband-gun swagger of the song evidence enough of why the band drew comparisons to Primus and Devo alike. But the focal point is junk percussionist Rick Lee, whose animated presence of flailing limbs and blaring no-wave toy horn squeal nearly draws attention away from the rest of the band’s slither and scrape. I’d wager the band won more than a few new fans during that airing solely on the spectacle of Lee rhythmically hammering away at a pony keg.

In 1997, even amid a period in which major label rosters were overstuffed with indie buzzmakers, Skeleton Key stood out as an oddity all their own. The group balanced post-hardcore punch, a pop songwriting sensibility and Beefheart-ian skronk blues like they were juggling chainsaws. And on Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon, released through Capitol Records just three months before Radiohead’s OK Computer, they manage to keep the perilously thrilling dance going for the whole of its taut 34 minutes.

The members of Skeleton Key had backgrounds in both punk and avant garde scenes, having met at New York’s Knitting Factory, a venue then known for jazz performances. Bassist/vocalist Erik Sanko had previously performed with Lounge Lizards, John Cale and Suzanne Vega, and later would collaborate with Yoko Ono. That pedigree likely helped boost the group’s bona fides in selling their junkyard punk to Capitol while terrestrial radio was still hung up on the swing revival. But there’s not a lot of precedent for an album like this, which kicks off with the percussion-heavy clatter of “Watch the Fat Man Swing,” a buzzing and bouncy intersection of muscle and whimsy. Chris Maxwell’s scratchy, melodic guitar riffs cycle in acrobatic loops while Sanko barks limerick-meter lyrics through a distorted, vintage microphone. Goddamn is it fun.

All of Fantastic Spikes is, in fact. Some of it because of just how punchy and cacophonous it is (“Vomit Ascot”). Some of it because of how absurd it is (the incomprehensible Tom Waits-isms of “Nod Off”). And some of it because the band knew how to title a song better than most (“The World’s Most Famous Undertaker,” “Big Teeth,” “Vomit Ascot,” again). On paper none of this seems particularly commercial, but the songs more than hold their own, standouts like “Wide Open” and “The World’s Most Famous Undertaker” carrying an intensity and a heaviness amid the quirk, and ballads such as “The Only Useful Word” and “The Needle Never Ends” harboring an unlikely prettiness despite being washed in several shades of rust.

As much as it feels like a product of its time—specifically one in which big record companies gluttonously stacked their rosters with idiosyncratic underground bandsFantastic Spikes Through Balloon is a product of a time that never really existed. Ostensibly an “alternative” band, Skeleton Key still seemed in a realm of their own, like a vaudevillian Jawbox, or Brainiac with a penchant for Beefheart. Yet nothing about their gonzo approach felt precious or pretentious—the chorus of clattering metal enhanced rather than distracted from their melodies, and the overall presentation sounding remarkable as a whole, however much it clashed with the third or fourth iteration of rebranded grunge.

I can’t speak to the marketability of the album as a commercial product (I did buy a copy, naturally), though even Sanko himself—in a 2002 interview—reflected on the incongruity of sharing a label with Everclear. Yet one bright spot amid the inevitable major label fallout was that Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon ended up earning a Grammy nomination for its packaging, whose CD booklet featured a series of holes punched through it. (Promotional copies included a steel spike within the jewel case’s spine enclosure.) It’s a marvelous thing to see up close, a remarkable example of CD design being an artform of its own.

The album did, however, fail to live up to label expectations, and because the process of actually being let go from their contract took so long, everyone but Sanko ended up leaving the group in order to simply get back to making music that could be legally released. Sanko kept Skeleton Key going, however, releasing follow-up album Obtainium via Ipecac in 2002, and the crowd-funded Gravity Is the Enemy in 2012. The band never officially disbanded, though its members have been involved with various other projects, guitarist Chris Maxwell, most famously, making music for Bob’s Burgers, while Sanko has maintained a parallel career as a puppeteer. Which somehow makes perfect sense.

While all three of Skeleton Key’s records are outstanding, Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon is its own strange miracle of a record. Curiously absent from Spotify, though readily streamable on Youtube (and still on CD if you know where to look), the album’s digital footprint is light where its musical presence is outsized. Skeleton Key made music far too odd to ever lead directly to mainstream success, and being odd never sounded so good.

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  • Very excited to see this column is happening (congrats on 99 other Patrons!) and thrilled this album made the cut. I saw these guys open for Archers of Loaf at a shitty bar in Toledo, OH that for some reason had an upstairs with the tiniest ‘stage’ ever. I had never heard Skeleton Key until that night and I was floored. I made sure to pick up a copy of the CD at the merch table as soon as their set ended.

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