Decided to put it up as a post here (having languished in various deadzones in the net for a few years) after a Skeptics fangroup sprung up on Facebook, sparked by a desire to further gather material for Simon Ogston's Sheen of Gold documentary. It's been inspiring seeing new photos and reading about the heavy impact the group (and singer David D'Ath in particular) had on lots of people.
Thanks Stevie Kaye for digging up and transcribing some more articles, and Simon Ogston for correcting some of my information.
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1983 Chowder Over Wisconsin (12" mini-LP)
1984 Said See Say (cassette tape, Industrial Tapes)
1985 Ponds (LP)
1988 Skeptics III (12" LP, Flying Nun)
1990 Amalgam (12" LP, Flying Nun)
1991 Sensible (10" EP, Flying Nun)
Sensible 10" back cover photo of David D'Ath
Skeptics four-CD box set 1992 (Flying Nun) consists of:
- If I Will I Can (four songs, three of which are rec'd live, plus extra "hidden" live recordings)
- Skeptics III (remastered)
- Sensible (a full-length, this has the four songs previously released as the vinyl EP of the same name, plus 12 more tracks taken from the mid-'80s recordings originally intended to make the album-that-never-was Skeptics II)
Also included in the cloth-bound box is a 12-page booklet of drawings and writings by David D'Ath. All CDs from this set were later sold as individual discs.
1982 the Furtive Four Piece Pack four-band compilation EP (Furtive): 'Last Orders'
1988 In Love With These Times (LP/CD/tape, Flying Nun): 'AFFCO'
1991 Pink Flying Saucers Over the Southern Alps (CD, Flying Nun): 'Sheen of Gold'
1992 Let Them Eat Pavlova promo comp included with the french magazine Les Inrockuptibles (CD, Flying Nun): 'And We Bake'
1998 I'll Make You Happy soundtrack (CD, Flying Nun): 'Turn Over'
Skeptics at discogs includes track listings, and there's another detailed discography at fansite bailterspace module.
This photo was printed in Rip It Up magazine with CM's obit, and on the inner sleeve of the If I Will I Can CD:
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The video clip to the song AFFCO is infamous, having been rejected for screening on New Zealand television (even in a censored version made in response to the initial rejection). The director of the video, Stuart Page, writes about it in this piece: The truth about the Skeptics' A.F.F.C.O. video. The clip appears on Stuart's Noisyland compilation (1992) and on Flying Nun's Second Season compilation DVD (2004).
Tone Cornaga made the video for 'Agitator', which played on TVNZ soon after the death of David D'Ath and is available on the first volume of Flying Nun videos, Very Short Films (2004). Both clips show D'Ath's beguiling and provocative Ian Curtis-like dancing.
NZ Film Archive has these as well as film footage by Bob Sutton of entire Skeptics concerts:
Gun of Sod, Skeptics: live at the Gluepot, Auckland 13 July 1990
Skeptics, Headless Chickens: Cricketers Arms, Wellington 10/10/1987
Skeptics: the Gluepot, Auckland 1&2/12/1989
(Some of this was screened in 2001 at Arc in Dunedin)
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REVIEW OF SKEPTICS III
This, the second Skeptics LP of their eight year career to date, really took me by surprise. First, because they were making one at all, and second because it is so fucken' good. Of all of the recent F. Nun LP's (last eight months or so), this is the one that really does it to me. Here the band really get their 'selves' across the best in recorded form out of all the stuff I've heard. The heaviness comes from the same part of the brain as the Headless Chickens would like you to think they hang out in, and the instrumental realisation of the ideas is really gripping. John Halvorsen's torture scraping guitar work is perfectly balanced by the meaty bass end, which grinds out rhythms reminiscent of a leper's last shuffle. Furthermore, the vocalist keeps his overt Bauhaus-isms in check enough to stop me cringing too much, he sings well with the sampled crowd of voices who crop up continually and delivers some truly menacing stuff like "Some of you ladies, you don't like my pretty face" with a real chilling psycho edge.
Of the songs probably 'Agitator' deserves most mention as the longest and fullest symphony of suffering, going through some spectacular changes en route to its denouement. In this connection the excellent production comes to mind. The LP is evidently the product of lots of studio time, it's so packed with neat little surprises for the discerning listener, top marks to Brent McLaughin for that, though it seems to have been a collective effort as well. Unlike the Bailter Space LP, which was done at the same studio, this one has an immense variety of sound that adds a lot of interest.
A video was made by Stu Page for 'AFFCO', but will not even be shown in censored form by TVNZ due to its staunch pro-animal message backed up with some perfectly every day scenes from any killing-chain in the country. Moral; it's alright to eat meat, but you can't show people how its processed, they might not want it again. I somehow don't see a lot of punters going for this music, which is a shame. Great cover too, and I'd like to point out that although its slow, 'morbid' and relentlessly monochrome, this is one band that's never set foot in the South Island, so there's another cliche exploded. Five stars.
Bruce Russell, Alley Oop, issue #6
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NICK ROUGHAN INTERVIEW (III era) / by Matthew Hyland / Stamp magazine Visions Of A Skeptical Man: Nick Roughan Of The Skeptics
[transcribed by Stevie Kaye]
The Skeptics recently played in Auckland (June 30th and July 1st at the Venue) in the wake of their impressive album release a few months ago, Skeptics 3. Friday night was very good, by all accounts, and Saturday a bit rough due to the lack of a soundman, which may have had something to do with Nick spending the day out sailing on Rex Visible's yacht and being late back...
"Yeah, it was a good day."
Nick Roughan joined a schoolboy band in Palmerston North called 'Exit' in late 1981 when their bassist left, and with that the band changed their name to The Skeptics. They met Paul Rose somehow in 1982 and that led to their rather odd inclusion on the Furtive 3-Piece Pack EP and a New Zealand tour.
"Mark Clare was a real crazy (singer of the Numatics, now to be seen in the play Ladies Night after a couple of years OE). He made it easier for us because we didn't have much in common with the other bands really. I remember one time he filled the car up entirely with diesel, in Blenheim that was.
"Then the van broke down in Oamaru and we had to fly some our gear out. So we were in debt to Furtive and they had us up in Auckland to play, you know, like every night for a month to pay the debt. We couldn't handle it so we just up and left, wanted to sleep in our own beds after a month, you know, and that led to some bad feeling, but we paid that debt eventually anyway."
(In fact, I saw The Skeptics at The Rumba Bar that year. David D'Ath wore a gangster-style hat, undulated and jerked his body and made weird movements with his hands - both he and the music were riveting. The Auckland audience was a bit freaked by it all.)
"The first record we did, not counting that Furtive thing, was a 6 track EP called Chowder Over Wisconsin. We'd met Doug Hood, he was in town with the Naked Spots Dance and Stones tour, and we got in touch and just borrowed their PA for one day and recorded the EP live in the school library where we practised. Robin's (the guitarist then) father was the principal of a school.
"In fact, we'd given another EP to Furtive but they never released it, so we really wanted to get some vinyl out on our own, it was very important to us. We needed the piece of vinyl.
"We did a few gigs in Auckland with Children's Hour (the band that included Grant Fell, Bevan Sweeney and Chris Matthews who now feature in The Headless Chickens) too, through Doug Hood, they'd just started, that must have been in about '82 or '83.
"The second record was called Pond. We'd all moved to Wellington except Robin. We did a tour that year of the South Island, that was the last with that lineup, and Pond reflected that sort of transition phase."
(I remark that I've never heard that record)
"Good, I'm glad you've never heard it! It was a production mistake." His voice takes on a wistful quality then, "though, it could be re-mixed one day, on 16 track."
(Nick shares production credits at Wellington's Writhe Recording Studio with other Skeptics member, Brent McLaughlin. Writhe has recently been responsible for the recording of records by The Bats, Bailter Space, Wellington's The Wart, Skeptics plus some work on the long-in-the-pipeline Not Really Anything album.)
(I ask about Wellington...)
"I like living in Wellington. I haven't lived in Auckland but I've visited a lot... I like the compactness of Wellington, I don't go to nightclubs much or anything, only go to nightclubs much or anything, only go to the pub when I'm working (live mixing of some bands) and I like being able to walk everywhere. I live close to the studio, too.
"Yeah, I think Radio Active [student radio in Wellington] supports us well enough. I mean, we'd have to go and talk to them for them to support us more, that sort of thing is reciprocal. We've played at the Cricketers in the past, Cosgroves, the Clyde Quay, none of them exist anymore, and we're playing at Tramways (July 7th) - that hasn't really been a venue except for The Clean playing there lately."
(I mention Skeptics 3, that I found it quite dark and malevolent, and he seems surprised)
"The Skeptics have always tried to do something substantial, something that goes deeper. There are enough bands that just skate on the surface, pop music... a lot of music without substance. We don't want to be like that. We want to make music that stays around. We're always trying to capture a feeling as well as the enjoyment (of playing). I don't listen to music that's not different in some way. I don't listen to formula stuff.
"In the studio I think it's important for a band member not to worry too much about getting their particular instrument to sound exactly how they like it; it's what sounds best for the whole song that's important. It's all a matter of compromise.
"We had a talk the other day and decided that we can't lay all the blame for the sound quality of Skeptics 3 on the Australian pressing. The production is actually fine, but the way it transposed onto vinyl is disappointing.
"I think that 3 is more consumable than the other records though. I think we've always played commercial music - because we're selling it. I think the next record will be on Flying Nun too, we talked about releasing it ourselves but can't raise the finance. The thing with Flying Nun is that we're also dealing with them on a business level, as far as the studio goes. That selling part is hard to come to terms with, it's tricky."
(I ask how serious The Skeptics are about playing in Amerika, Europe or Australia)
"Mega serious! We're not too keen on playing and losing money; breaking even is fine but losing... We'd play more in New Zealand if it wasn't for that. A lot of the band income goes into the studio, paying for our time in there and running costs etc - and profits from this series of gigs is going towards airfares. We don't want band members to suffer any more financially that they are already. Our priority at the moment is to get our records distributed overseas, and getting over there. I got a phone call from a radio station in LA the other day. They've playlisted two of our songs, which is encouraging. I talked to an Australian promoter when I was in Auckland, but it doesn't seem that likely we'll go there. It's so close though..."
(What does he think of New Zealand music?)
"There's a lot more quality music being made here than anywhere else in the world. It's a lot less diluted than elsewhere. More people are trying to write their own songs here."
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REVIEWS OF Amalgam
Bands whose predominant instrument is the sampler are, paradoxically, the only ones in the 1990s not playing post-modernist games of revivalism, the only ones that still sound like nothing heard before. From the Young Gods to Public Enemy, they gather deserved praise from critics who wouldn’t dream that the most exquisite future shocks of all were emanating from Wellington.
If Skeptics are to be no more after the death of singer David D'Ath New Zealand will have lost its most consistently astonishing live and recorded band of the late 1980s. But don’t let all this talk of historical significance convince you that Skeptics are primarily of academic interest. Certainly they experiment, but always with the physical and emotional power of the music in mind; the end always controls the means.
Even for those who harbour doubts about the whole idea of musical modernism, for whom strangeness seems more like a vice than a necessity, Amalgam is too great a pleasure to ignore. Its attractions are intrinsically timeless: rhythms that reach for the pit of the stomach, guitar and synth sounds that explain titles like 'Pack Ice' and 'Sheen of Gold' far more vividly than any words and, most importantly, structures that stimulate near-cravings for each new tone or chord. Add to this a succession of grippingly unresolved phrases sung in the most simultaneously desperate and exultant voice conceivable, and you have a record that does everything any great music has ever done to you only...differently. "June, July, August" - this was worth waiting for.
Album of the year, if ever there was one.
Matthew Hyland, Rip It Up, 1990.
The Skeptics are another of the many under-appreciated bands who populate the local music world. OK, they may be a little difficult, but when has that ever been a problem? The Skeptics had their beginnings in the early 1980s, emerging from Palmerston North. They have released four albums, of which Amalgam is the latest, and probably last; tragically, singer David D'Ath died of leukaemia in September.
A strong experimental and innovative streak always dominated the Skeptics' music. They mess around with textures of sound, creating twisted melodies and jarring rhythms; a very unique sound. It is one a lot of people find uncomfortable, and it can be cold and clinical. But more often, in songs such as 'And We Bake', 'Sheen of Gold' and 'Spade' - and in fact, in most of Amalgam, they produce majestic, engrossing walls of sound. It can also be powerful and disturbing, like 'Al Sum Null', where intense layers of sound put the listener on edge.
Rhythm and noise are the main components of the Skeptics sound; here they have a lot in common with people like Bailter Space. And for all their sampled, electronic, discordant elements, they still make very human music. These qualities dominate Amalgam, and it is by far the Skeptics' best album, a very self-assured and complete sounding record where the band never lose sight of their songs. As much as the Skeptics cannot be pinned down to one element, D'Ath's dark, oblique vocals were a crucial part of their music, taking the songs the extra step that made them work or sometimes not. It is hard to imagine the Skeptics without him, and Amalgam is a testament to a unique talent.
Paul Collett, The Press, Christchurch NZ, 1990.
Along with Uncoffined, this new LP from Wellington's finest (only?) shows some life in the FN corporate corpse. Twitching, sneering, spitting, spewing; the 'ugly' music of the Skeptics is here given if anything even more of a studio 'gloss' but without significant detriment, to these ears at least. Less reliant than Skeptics 3 on large 'pieces' like 'Agitator', what we get here is a series of alternating songs and assaults. While some of the latter (eg. 'Bad Wiring') are real highlights for me, the band also succeed admirably with slightly more conventional numbers like the opening 'And We Bake' or 'Sheen of Gold'. John Halvorsen's guitar really comes into its own on this album. He is wasted playing bass in HM disco bands, and the rhythm section manage to make being crushed between ice-floes an almost funky experience. Truly an example to all considering the use of modern technology in real music, Skeptics leave the '80s the way they came in: skewed, unsettling and impenetrable. There is beauty in ugliness, children.
Bruce Russell, Alley Oop #8, 1990.
Listening to the Skeptics brings many images to mind; a shotgun blasting off somebody’s head at close range, or a child picking flowers in a field. This is the beauty of this band, they combine hard (-core) rhymes with a variety of sounds - drills (I think), opera singing, voices etc that gives a texture to the music.
Amalgam is a stronger collection of songs than their previous album (Skeptics 3) which leaned more toward atmospheric things ('Agitator', 'Rain'). This album feels complete, somehow - song structures are more melodic and David D'Ath's vocals are compelling and words chilling.
There are many good moments; 'And We Bake', 'Pack Ice' and 'Spade' all encompass the rhythmic nature that the Skeptics have been developing. The quirky 'Heathery Men' - "and when will all the heathery men come home..." chanted in Gaelic fashion, or the stunning 'Sheen of Gold' and 'Threads' (my favourite). It is a pleasure to listen to John Halvorsen's guitar playing, one of the best guitarists in the country. Amalgam cuts into you like a knife, twisting. There is something here for everyone.
Lisa Van der Aarde, Stamp, 1990.
5. The Skeptics' fourth record is an end-to-end unbroken spell of orchestrated melancholia. Understated by even NZ standards, about the only thing they have in common with the jingle-bells pop of more famous Flying Nun groups are those droll accents, everything else brushing up against melodic parameters from a paranormal direction. The Skeptics' ambience of opaque, Middle Earth miasma is derived from samples of strings, horns and unidentifiables all twisted from a 'Tommorrow Never Knows' nightmare, droning through like muddy, subterranean rivers. Their music, a plaiting of those somber and distinctly unchiming samples with instruments that spurt out notes at intervals, is no less capable of inducing semi-hypnotic states than with a more traditional approach. Yet, with the fife-and-drum percussive march and nasal, coldly Eno-like vocals, Amalgam is far from the airborne swish of Straitjacket Fits or the lushness of the Verlaines; it's the kind of record that seeps into your bones like a cold fog. Submerge yourself in 'And We Bake', 'Felt Up', 'Threads', and 'Sheen Of Gold'.
The existence of the Skeptics does a lot for my faith in human diversity, for my trust that there are mute inglorious Miltons out there; and as the great Matthew Hyland once wrote, there's no logical reason why a town like Palmerston North, or a planet like Earth, should have produced a band as staggering as this.
Unlike Skeptics III, the whole of Amalgam is equal to the sum of its parts, and for me three of those parts are what make the album shattering: 'Heathery Men', a thunderous military anthem about Culloden (or something), which, like 'Agitator' on Skeptics III, denies you the satisfaction of a climax into chaos, switching at the last possible moment into a doomed soldier's lilting lament for his love; 'Pack Ice', an evocation of Scott perishing in the Antarctic amid the play of David D'Ath's brogue and banshee wails, the ghostship winds of John Halvorsen's guitar, the stab-and-recoil rhythm, and the tectonic crush of the drums; and 'And We Bake', an impossible sunrise.
Chris Hilliard, Dead Weight
from Rip It Up's top 100 NZ albums (Amalgam ranks 4th, III 81st)
The most indefinable band in the universe create an album of such magnitude and other worldy beauty. Amalgam is creative genius, a unique platform and outstandingly original. Recorded in their own studio, Writhe, in Wellington, engineered by Brent McLachlan and Nick Roughan and produced by McLachlan and the Skeptics, the band is Roughan (bass and samples), John Halvorsen (guitar), Don White (drums, percussion, samples) and the fragile, although never-better voice and words of David D'Ath. Unfortunately D'Ath's life ended not long after this album was released, a victim of cancer. We are eternally grateful for the special magic and poetry he left behind.
This is the ULTIMATE Skeptics album showing the band in full power plus their unique usage of samples. With beginnings in Palmerston North, Amalgam is the culmination of years of innovation and experimentation and makes it a time capsule essential. This band is our very own Coil or Nurse With Wound, right up there with other truly innovative, esoteric musical practitioners.
This document is not only vital but indefinable and is name dropped by the likes of Shihad, Weta and HDU. We leave the last words to The Skeptics, from the last track, 'All Sum Nul': "I want to exhibit weakness. Yield up all my softest parts to closest scrutiny. To rough hands in soft places. I feel the time has come. It warrants this sort of behaviour. I don't make any move. It sorts me out. I need it, I hate All Sum Nul."
review relating to the box set at Amazon
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REVIEWS OF Sensible (10")
In a gesture of heroic defiance in the face of the supposed "death of vinyl",
Skeptics revive the consumer-hostile 10-inch single format for their most commercial release yet. But fear not, true believers, by "commercial" I don’t mean they've been taking Bryan Adams weight gain tablets or they've covered 'Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini' (actually that might be an interesting prospect), just that Sensible abounds with shiny surfaces and sweeping emotions, yes, just like 'And We Bake' and 'Sheen of Gold', only more so.
Much as I hate to upset the "keep criticism objective (like bus timetables)" peasants, a cinematic analogy seems appropriate: if Skeptics III was Godard-like in its violent angles and poetic sense of the absurd, this is pure Beneix, featuring a fireworks display ('Blue'), a panoramic dub wasteland ('Bub') and a quintessentially ghost-filled machine ('Sensible Shoes').
As pretentious as you make it and absolutely essential for it.
Matthew Hyland, Rip It Up, 1992.
As a 10-inch single with a great cover painting, backed with a poignant photo of a pale David D'Ath, this is a collectable object in itself. Musically it's an interesting follow-on from Amalgam. The title track is, as drummer Don White has commented, "kind of poppy", and showcases the sweeter side of D'Ath's unique vocal style, though the imagery is still dark. 'Bub' is hopefully as close as the Skeptics will ever get to the funky dub genre - it's a good example of how to use an influence to your own ends, as opposed to slavishly imitating it (certain other NZ bands can blush).
Side 2 "blue" me away totally - suffice it to say that there are few bands anywhere capable of creating a song of such power, and yet such grace, poise and precision (only something like Headless Chickens 'Million Dollar Dream' would be in the same league). Essential.
Roger and Co. are sometimes criticised for their treatment of acts like the Skeptics, and with this release you must question why their releases up to David D'Ath's death were so few and far between. This band is responsible for some of the most brilliant and challenging music to come out of these shores. Four songs included here are all of a level yet to be attained by any other NZ act. The sweet pop sound of the title track through to the dub-inspired 'Bub'.
If you've never bought a Skeptics record here's a good start. Ff you prefer CDs, wait for the disc with the twelve extra tracks.
by J. Asper
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LIVE at the Gluepot, Auckland, July 13th 1990.
The Skeptics continue to refine their role as aural sculptors and dour visionaries of a world beyond the terminal beach. It’s a live experience that challenges listeners with precise, sombre jabs of noise from machines, guitars and drums, locked against D'Ath's cry of humanity - the voice as an extra instrument without time to articulate its predicament.
Their performances in Auckland over the past twelve months stand alongside those of Bailter Space (with whom they share a guitarist and sound engineer/ex-drummer) at Club Roma and the Dead C. at the Venue, as playing rigorously alongside rock's conventions, but not within them, tangled up in doing it for true believers.
It ain't cartoon funtime. Songs pummel right through you, coloured with Wagnerian gestures of heaving synth-wash, or, like newer ones, revelling in all-but-Suicide throb from Nick Roughan's machines.
The Skeptics are set apart by the transcendent intensity of their performance. It's uplifting by way of the band's sheer force of will. Punishing and cathartic in the extreme, the Skeptics' noise is demanding and confrontational.
They came on fairly late at the Gluepot and by the time they had finished a set of mostly Amalgam-based material, without even the majestic 'Agitator', they'd thinned the crowd out severely - my kind of achievement.
In performance, their sound is changing, but I doubt that they'll bother with pandering any further to niceties. There is often a stark beauty contained in John Halvorsen's guitar figures and D'Ath's anguished vocalising, but bowing to prettifying gestures to offset marauding samples and drumming is not the Skeptics' scene. Their scene, I'm sure, is more aligned with an hallucinatory dream state, where I see the band sets about finishing a set with the pure vision of 'Bubba Cluth', a version of the song drawn from fire, blood and stuff, and probably a rotting corpse in there somewhere too. "Shame, shame, shame, shame!" it goes, and this kind of purgatory won't feel so bad after all.
What a diabolically bubba cluth band, we'd say, to have such an effect as that!
Paul McKessar, Rip It Up
The Skeptics look impressive on stage because they're so totally into it - of course, with music like this I don't imagine it could be any other way. The sound was sublime - massive, perhaps damaging, but up front the sound was a tangible force. Agitator was brilliantly executed, like played on a massive stereo at driving-the-neighbours-out volume, an aural experience. Songs from almost-here new LP Amalgam were just as good, and there was newer stuff still, David D'Ath confidently throwing his vocals out into the music and over the audience.
I've seen the Skeptics a couple of times. They create a barrier of sound rather than a barrage, it's off-putting if you stand outside it, try and talk to somebody, don’t concentrate - but if you walk through it and stand inside it, which I did for the first time, it's bloody amazing.
Mark Webster, Stamp
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DAVID D'ATH OBITUARY by Chris Matthews, Rip It Up, 1990.
I was dreaming about drugs and strange urges, about the primeval past and the digital overload of the future, about the ride of the Valkyries and the chatter of helicopters as I opened my eyes and realised that it was 1984. I was bedded down on the floor of the Skeptics' club "Snailclamps". It was 9 o’clock in the morning and Wagner and the helicopters hadn’t stopped. In a darkened club, on a small stage covered with spiderwebs made of heated, stretched polystyrene, a semi-naked figure, lit by a single red spotlight, was performing the praying mantis movements of Tai Chi to the soundtrack from Apocalypse Now. It was David D'Ath...
The Skeptics: David (vocals), Nick Roughan (bass), Don White (drums) and Robin Gould (guitar), were four high school friends from Palmerston North who started playing together in 1980 (initially as X-It) doing a mixture of covers and originals. The first time I saw them was in Auckland, at the Reverb Room in 1982, after the band I was playing with had to cancel at the last minute.
The Skeptics, who were up for the weekend, agreed to step in using borrowed gear and, fuelled by the pathetic crowd, produced a set of such ferocious intensity that I became an immediate fan. The music was aggressive and unsettling but the focal point was David with his slight stature, his hooked nose and his deep-set eyes. He looked like some strange, punch drunk bird and the veins in his neck bulged as he forced mysterious words and noises from his throat.
They were still playing a handful of covers (Joy Division's 'Shadowplay' and Killing Joke's 'Wardance' among them) but the song that really stood out was their own, 'Last Orders', about a man who has wrongly predicted the end of the world. With its unusual riff of picked harmonics and the narrator's frustrated chorus of "Lies! The end was yesterday!" it was a good choice for a record and later in the year became one of the songs chosen for the compilation EP Furtive Four-Piece Pack.
I saw them a few months later at the Rhumba bar in Auckland and the Skeptics, and David, were not only scary but funny as well. David had placed a table on the dance floor in front of the stage with a cornet on it and when it was his turn to play the others egged him on to run out, retrieve it and climb back on stage in time to produce an ear-piercing blast. This ritual was repeated throughout the night and it was like watching the idiot son of Nosferatu who'd been hanging out in a David Lynch film: disturbing but blackly humorous.
The Skeptics made various trips to Auckland over the next few years in their beat-up old ambulance and from 1983-1984 ran their own club in Palmerston North. Stories had drifted north about the weird goings-on in "Snailclamps" (including one about a particularly deluded soul attempting to copulate with the PA during a Skeptics gig) so, of course, when Children's Hour decided to tour NZ it seemed right and natural (since our bands had become friends) that we should play there (and sleep on the floor).
The club closed down at the end of '84 and in 1985 the Skeptics decided to move to Wellington. They'd released two records independently ('83's Chowder Over Wisconsin and Ponds in '85) but neither had managed to capture the magnificence of their live performance (watching David, dangerously close to a seizure, bawling the lyrics to 'Divine Muscles Flex' was exhilarating) so they set about building their own recording studio, Writhe. Robin had decided to stay in Palmerston North, so John Halvorsen and Brent McLaughlin, previously of the Gordons, were recruited as guitarist and mixer (although Brent later became second drummer for a while).
At this stage the Skeptics became fascinated by the possibilities of sampling keyboards and David became involved in writing music for the first time. Their sound, which had previously been guitar oriented, became more dominated by ominous loops and samples of everything from squeaking doors to Al Pacino's dialogue from the film Cruising.
It was a very different band that appeared in Auckland in 1987 and they were stunning - songs like 'Turn Over' and 'La Motta' were thrown from the PA in a sonic storm that was beyond comparison. The sound was being created mostly by machinery but it was raw and organic and David's voice, as always, was an instrument in itself. How anybody could wring emotion from words like "June, June, June, June, June, July, August" (from the darkly beautiful 'Agitator') was inexplicable but it was great to watch. And listen to. In 1988 they finally released the great album they'd always been capable of. Titled simply Skeptics, it was recorded at their own studio and stands out as one of the best local records of the last ten years.
At the end of 1989, as they were working on their fourth album Amalgam (to be released shortly) David learned that he had leukaemia. He spent most of this year undergoing various treatments and a bone marrow transplant. Even though his health was fairly precarious, the Skeptics still managed to play two great gigs at the Gluepot with the new songs (particularly 'Sheen of Gold') sounding more inventive and better than ever.
On Tuesday, 4th September, 1990, David died.
In a darkened club, on a small stage covered with spiderwebs made of heated, stretched polystyrene, a semi-naked figure, lit by a single red spotlight, was performing the praying mantis movements of Tai Chi to the soundtrack from Apocalypse Now. It was David D'Ath...
He will be remembered.
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BOX SET REVIEW/ ARTICLE by Matthew Hyland, Rip It Up, December 1992.
Some things confound every law of nature, especially those to do with causes and effects. Like there's no discernible reason for Palmerston North, or New Zealand or the world for that matter, to have produced a group like Skeptics in the early 1980s. Actually that sentence is a nonsense because there never has been, nor shall there ever be "a group like Skeptics". But what matters here is that such occurrences are singular, unimaginable, everything Mr Lyotard would call sublime.
It's one of life's wretched little ironies that practically the only existing eyewitness account of the band's spontaneous combustion in their club Snailclamps (and if the ability to invent a word like that isn't a sign of nascent genius I don't know what is) is Chris Matthew's 1990 RIU obituary to David D'Ath. Of course a dead band member is always a critic's/ fan's/ record company slime's excuse to wax rhapsodical about the most inappropriate music (viz now-rotting clowns Morrison and Mercury) but if you weren't there at the time you've just gotta believe for once that Skeptics made people feel that way when D'Ath was alive. In 1989, for instance, they played at the Venue with two drummers and a mixture of 3 and Amalgam material and I remember a whole audience being left speechless by the joyous alacrity with which they smashed every rule then (and now) in force about what New Zealand music should be (to whit: grey, guitar-based, reasonable); suddenly it seemed not only possible and necessary but entirely to be expected that the music of the future would be composed of sparkling, multi-coloured surfaces that collided with bone-crushing force, of heart-stoppingly elusive rhythms and melodies, sound and language fragments and the constant, never-realised threat of pure hysteria, total sonic and emotional breakdown (and lo and behold, the 1990s turned out to be among the most miserable years for rock music since maybe the late 1960s, but that's another story).
So yeah, Skeptics were pretentious, 'Wagnerian' as Paul McKessar called them, but somehow they always, always got away with it. They were never prog, even in the rehabilitated Zarakov sense, perhaps because nothing they did was about virtuosity, or because it all had a violent, post-punk (?) edge, or because they were absolutely never guilty of Floydian over-explanation (musical or lyrical); some of the best sound-morsels were left buried, and D'Ath's lyrics always maintained an ironic distance from the massive traumas they implied, a sense that tragedy is embodied in absurdity, obscurity and contradiction.
Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the occasion for this panegyric is the release on Flying Nun of an extra-tasty Skeptics box set, including Skeptics 3 and Amalgam, the FN albums which every sentient being must surely own by now; Sensible, a compilation of earlier recordings, and If I Will I Can, an EP made in 1990 but previously unreleased. It ought to be mentioned at this point that there exist two earlier records, Chowder Over Wisconsin and Ponds, both of which are rare as (the apparently proverbial) rocking-horse shit. I've heard neither of them but on the available evidence it seems likely that murder and pillage would be eminently justifiable methods of acquiring them (Hint: Z.Bob esq. has been heard to namedrop Chowder).
Anyway, descriptions of Skeptics' music is always futile, but if it'll cause one person to include this lovingly packaged commodity-fetish among their Christmas purchases, I don’t mind failing at one more thing in life. Skeptics 3, in that case, features the video hits 'Agitator' and 'AFFCO', only you probably won't have seen the latter, with its freezing works footage, because TVNZ's programme director declared that it would be played "over my dead body" (an option which should definitely have received greater consideration at the time). In general it's probably the heaviest, rawest Skeptics album: 'AFFCO' sounds just like a slaughter-house making up for lost time, while 'Feeling Bad', the middle section of 'Agitator' and 'Turnover' are built around enormous electrical spasms, as if a bionic Sabbath or Swans was having an epileptic fit. Side two is even more extraordinary. 'La Motta' is the sound of a boxer losing consciousness. No drums, just absolute blackness. 'Notice', 'Luna' and the extraordinarily affecting love song 'Rain' (imagine being brought to the brink of tears by a man bellowing "cockles and mussels") sound even more punch drunk; the rhythm lurching along slowly, inconsistently while John Halvorsen's guitar sheds coils of exquisitely patterned skin and D'Ath is visited variously by orchestras, saxophone tortures and the Aurora Borealis. 'Crave' closes the album with a Holy war.
Amalgam is Skeptics business as usual. Among other things it features four of the most marvellous pieces of recorded music in the known universe. They are: 'And We Bake' (not unlike Mahler's First Symphony condensed into four minutes, with drums that stimulate every single nerve ending in the body); 'Pack Ice' (one of the most self-explanatory titles in history: vast, crystalline, capable of freezing the blood); 'Heathery Men' (a doomed call to arms, massed drums and visceral samples; "breathe the smoke" cries D’Ath, and you do) and 'Sheen of Gold' (self-explanatory again, but thrown into glorious turmoil by the fact that it seems to be about fighting over money on the streets of Glasgow, or something similar).
About half of Sensible was recorded when the band were between guitarists. For the most part this stuff sounds like early Severed Heads or DAF with about a million times the senses of beauty, frailty, drama. The other half, some of which has already appeared as the Sensible Shoes EP, is roughly contemporaneous with 3 and is glorious in more or less the manner related above; you must be getting the idea by now.
The "new" EP, finally, is probably the lushest thing in the box: it's also a record of the band's last Auckland gig only a few weeks before D'Ath died. Needless to say, the performance was and the three new and three old songs recorded live are mesmerising. I think I've run out of extravagant metaphors for the noises produces by this amazing freak of nature. Just for god's sake buy these records, ungentle reader, all of them at once if you can afford it, otherwise one at a time as fast as you can. The last words should belong to David D'Ath, who, besides being the owner of a wonderful voice, was an immensely skilled manipulator of language. In the booklet of his writings and drawings in the box set he has this to say: "terpsicorleum popahalutuate finguisshytuam porliuishcalubate hingfetishnisobumauatum porsanamuke...bleeding barakes..."
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SKEPTICS in Kiwi Rock (1995) by Tim Davey and Horst Puschmann.
"This one positively lurches at you from the speakers. Rhythms strike and melodies disappear and reappear in most unusual directions."
Skeptics was formed in 1979 in Palmerston North by David D'Ath (vocals), Robin Gauld (guitar), Don White (drums) and Nick Roughan (bass) who were still at school at the time, and followed an earlier group called X-IT which had given one performance.
Their first release came with a track on the Furtive Records compilation Three Piece Pack with 'Last Orders' in 1982. A national tour followed with the other three bands involved in the compilation, The Prime Movers, The Dabs and The Bongos. Their next release came with an EP through Flying Nun entitled Chowder Over Wisconsin in 1983. Initially Gauld had been writing much of the material, but from about 1983 the writing became more of a collaborative effort.
From 1983-84 they ran their own club in Palmerston North called Snailclamps. In 1984 they had the tape Skeptics Said out through the defunct Industrial tapes, and in 1985, following their move to Wellington released their debut album Ponds. "This one positively lurches at you from the speakers. Rhythms strike and melodies disappear and reappear in most unusual directions. Some of it comes across as deviant as Psychic TV (especially the first track 'Hurrah') while other songs like 'Bubba Cluth' on Side Two contain taut bones of melodies. None of the eight songs flow at all - you're forced into listening as they ebb away or break off suddenly to start in a new vein." (Rip It Up, September '85).
In 1985 guitarist Robin Gauld left to complete studies at university and was replaced by John Halvorsen, who was also in Bailter Space at the time.
Their second album came in 1988 with Skeptics III, "They're often compared to the Headless Chickens, but while Stunt Clown dealt in pop songs, the Skeptics are more purposeful in articulating their pessimistic vision.
Divine Muscles Flex: an Oral History of Skeptics by Gavin Bertram
Skeptics page at Audio Culture
Skeptics @ the Bailter Space module
Skeptics @ club bizarre
the Skeptics Story: a biography by Derek Bell
Skeptics Wikipedia entry
interview with Simon Ogston (Skeptics documentary maker) with Brannavan Gnanalingam on Under the Radar
Flying Nun on the documentary and re-issues
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What's your favourite song ever released on Flying Nun? is answered with 'AFFCO' (Kim Gruschow), 'Agitator' (Gavin Bertram) and 'Sheen of Gold' (Stevie Kaye, with a particularly resonant piece).