Currently residing in the Kawartha region east of Toronto, Ontario, Damian Valles has toiled in his share of bands—punk, post-hardcore, math rock, and otherwise—during the last decade. The past couple of years, however, have found him concentrating on solo recordings and establishing himself within the experimental ambient-soundscaping community. And though Skeleton Taxa is his seventh release to date, it’s formally his first proper full-length CD, as the recordings issued before were CD-Rs, a cassette, two netlabel releases, and compilation appearances. Two things stand out right away: the relative concision of Skeleton Taxa’s twelve pieces (with one exception, all are in the two- to four-minute range), and, secondly, the stylistic variety of the material. Despite the contrast instated by the latter and the fact that the album’s a patchwork of sorts (in his own words, “Some of the tracks have been sitting dormant for months to years, some are reworked tracks from a previous life, and some are fresh out of the box”), Skeleton Taxa nonetheless ends up sounding like a cohesive collection, perhaps due to the omnipresent guitar. In addition, one is struck by the number of pieces that favour a format closer in spirit to conventional song structure than open-ended drone or meditation.
The album gets off to an auspicious start with “Bones Made Out of Bone,” a rustic setting that sounds like it was recorded at a forest cabin, with nature sounds seeping in amongst the scrapes and primitive instrument sounds. The tremolo twang of “Storm Doors” follows, with drama created by ringing cymbal patterns and an insistent, metronomic pulse. Adding to the material’s textural character, voice samples and field recordings are threaded into the pieces, such as when orchestral elements and what sounds like a doctor’s voice appear within “Calavera.” A few less structured pieces appear, including “Taxa,” a spikey guitar and piano exploration, and “Calacas,” a sound collage of acoustic guitar flutter, found sounds, and voices. There’s a legato character to his guitar playing in “Nightengale Floors” that evokes the fluidity of jazz guitar, while the slow plains drift of “With a Lark’s Tongue End” is presumedly Valles’ nod to King Crimson’s 1973 opus Larks’ Tongue in Aspic.
Though Skeleton Taxa comes to a strong close with “Elegant Skull,” a spectral meditation speckled with scrapes and kalimba plucks, the album’s most entrancing piece is “Bell and Arc,” primarily due to the inclusion of a haunting vocal by Damian’s wife, Heidi Hazelton. Clearly the result suggests that Valles might want to consider incorporating her vocal presence to a greater degree in the future. For the time being, Skeleton Taxa provides a comprehensive portrait of his many strengths and the ease with which he’s able to adapt to different contexts.