A dance music memento mori from the self-styled Skull From Hull
Phrenology was a 19th century form of neuroscience which sought to make sense of the brain by analysing the shape and dimensions of the cranium. For Mark Osborne, an artist who dubs himself “The Skull From Hull”, ‘Phrenology’ is the logical title for his first full album as Mono Life. Between the idea of pre-stereo music suggested by the name Mono Life and the primitive form of medical science referenced in the album title, it would be easy to read the shape of this skull and consider it another attempt to capture the pioneering early spirit of electronic music.
And it’s true, there is a retro dimension to a lot of the sounds here, but ‘Phrenology’ doesn’t fit neatly into any particular genre. It’s too pop for your average dancefloor and way too blunt and out-there for pop itself – in a good way. Osborne attributes his singular sound in part to the attitude of the Hull electronic scene, where he says a do-your-own-thing mentality prevails. At times, there’s a clear influence of harder-edged dance music, at others Osborne presents a reflective ambient warmth, but both sides of the album are stoked by the melodic texture of high quality electropop.
The thudding, siren-filled trance of ‘Black Return’ and the brutal ‘Broadsword’ have a dark, dubby intensity, while the rapturous ascent of ‘Oh Yeah, Oh Yeah’ could have easily featured on Spooky’s debut album if only Vince Clarke had produced it. ‘Love And Death’ has a haunting quality, offset by bone-rattling beats, while the wittily-titled ‘The Monophonic Spree’ takes those same rhythms and fuses them with chiming, crystalline melodic shapes.
In between are tracks like the towering ‘Dark Star Theory’, deploying snatches of movie dialogue and linking this back to the early sampladelic dance records of Coldcut and S’Express, back when you could stock your Akai with all sorts of purloined loot without fear of legal repercussions. “All I’ve ever seen is a bunch of notes from an electronic hunk of metal,” runs one snippet, a wry observation that’s often still made by disbelievers in electronic music.
‘Phrenology’ is the kind of sleek electronic trip that should really be accompanied by 3D images of fractal landscapes, shiny glass cityscapes and spiralling star fields. The combination of Osborne’s skull imagery with his artist name reminds the listener that you only get one shot at life – and listened to from that perspective, ‘Phrenology’ could be viewed as a vivid journey through the unknown to an inevitable destination.