Upon hearing the very first word uttered on Maskull’s self-titled (only) album, it’s impossible to fathom the sheer duress that the singer/composer is under. It hits you with physical force, so much that it causes five out of six friends of mine to immediately ask for it to be taken off. In fact, one friend travelling with his band on tour made enemies in the van each time he put this release on, it may have even hastened said band’s demise. Not much is known about this project/person (except that it’s a Los Angeles-based artist named Troy Maskull), but this 1997 CD on Unicorn Records is comprised of some pretty traditional homemade-sounding dark, drum machine-ladensynthpop. Until that voice cracks open.
It’s a voice that makes Peter Murphy sound like Lemmy, Ian Curtis like Edgar Broughton. Words are sung delivered in a breathy drawl where Maskull is seemingly choking back the tears and/or vomit, upfront, untreated in the mix above the synthscapes sounding completely whispered in your ear. Words like “gypsayyyyyyy” and “how would you like it to be bottled for playyyyyhhhhh” are drawn out and inflected in a way akin to Lux Interior’s self-induced vibrato minus the rhythmic element, and full of misery bordering on a complete sobbing breakdown.
Where does one dwell to understand the level of what’s going on with Maskull? Despite most people I know instantly hating this music, it is extremely intriguing and after years of hearing this album I’m not even close to “getting” it. There’s a wispy element that is evocative of a long, lonely drive on a California highway at night, seeing lights and splendor pass by that one feels alien to, not belonging, always cocooned. Yet a lot of the music doesn’t synch up to cadence of the vocals; I think of Mark E. Smith using his own voice as instrument in a chaos collage of whatever is going on musically, a looming dark cloud of force and will, but instead of outward conquering of the listener, it’s inward recession into a swirling black vortex that only Maskull can understand. He is swirling around in his own vortex emitting whimpers from a blackened universe. Given a bigger budget and studio, one only can wonder if he might have beaten Scott Walker at his own late-era game.
“Might have” being past tense, because I’m uncertain whether Troy Maskull even still exists. Rumors bubble that he was suffering from AIDS at the time of this recording, others that he is entrenched somewhere in Burbank. Until then, we must look into the blackness with no reference. No photographs, no live performances, no snapshots, no missives from the void.
Just the music…