What do you think when you hear the word, skullcrusher? An isolated weightlifting exercise to build up your triceps, sure. Those with an interest in Austrian death metal of the 1990s might recall the problematic Viking quintet who named themselves after the evolution of head-banging. If that wasn’t your scene, maybe you’re thinking of the relatively popular white chocolate and strawberry sweet that used to rear its skeletal head around Halloween (the one that was always the last to leave the trick-or-treat bucket, because nobody actually wanted to eat a skull, and it tasted like shit).
It might be stars aligning, that the latest signee to indie heavyweights Secretly Canadian comes with such a caustic stage name, despite sounding like a one-woman shoegaze band playing campfire folk. She joins – after all – a label group whose force de majeure releases wry disco jams as Destroyer.
LA-based songwriter Helen Ballentine’s debut four-track EP is curious for more reasons than the glaring oppositions between expectation and sound, though. Sure, it takes us to an alternate reality where Joan Baez might renounce her peaceful activism to join hands with Napalm Death, but the resulting songs hint at a vital new artist within indie’s more delicate ecosystem.
In little more than ten minutes of music, Skullcrusher burrows into the cracks where friendships turn into dependence, dealing with complexities as unassumingly as she might reach down the back of the sofa for the television remote. The gorgeously multi-tracked opener ‘Places/ Plans’ pairs a sullen acoustic strum with glints of electric guitar and decorated keys that ease through the song’s surface as if they were shards of light breaking irregularly through a stained glass window. The song’s story itself is completely decentered, investigating love and anxiety through conversations with other people: “you told me your friend’s in love with a guy she looks up to…/ do you care about that kind of stuff?”
In all of her skirting around the subject, Ballentine doesn’t compromise the earnestness and gentle aching that makes these songs so alluring. Banjo-flecked ‘Trace’ builds with the unnervingly textured virtuosity of Nick Drake, while ‘Two Weeks in December’ isn’t one minute-long, but toys so casually with a minor Waxahatchee-esque melody that you’re left wondering how something so short and sweet can leave you feeling so uneasy. Closing track ‘Day of Show’ is the standout: a lilting brass section perfects the dismayed grandiosity rippling throughout the EP, as she comes to terms with a soothing endgame, that “it all works out in the end.” While it’ll take more than four songs for any veritable flashlight to irradiate Skullcrusher as the answer, this EP will at least start us asking the question.
- Release date: July 24
- Record label: Secretly Canadian