The liner notes say guitar and electronics, but you’d be hard pressed to find a traditional or recognizable guitar gesture anywhere on this vinyl reissue of Shining Skull Breath. Instead of cleanly voiced chords, gray-scaled billows of slowly shifting static and distortion drift through “Distant Star (For Pete Swanson).” Instead of articulated melodies, single-tone pulsars and low-register swells crosshatch into the lethargic, daydreaming ebb and flow on “The First Time I Saw Your Face, I Thought It Was a Dying Star.” Rather than any stated tempo or identifiable rhythm, there’s a periodic sway that manifests itself in the sweeping, low-pass-filtered crunch on pieces like “Beautiful Thunderbolt (Moon Gazing in Your Skull).”
Above all, Cantu-Ledesma’s subversion of the guitar (or his reimagining of it — take your pick) manifests itself in a lack of any noticeable attack or decay. Each piece here, be it one of the shorter interludes or slightly more extended studies, seems to contain all its elements from the first tape-saturated note to the last. What we get then are not a series of compositions that develop over time, but representations of single, unified gestures, repeated and cycled through in a search for understanding, if not mastery. Shining Skull Breath might be formless, yes, but it’s not shapeless. It might drift, but it’s a controlled movement, one with a clear center of balance.
But this submersion of instrumental identity and traditional form is not entirely the point. It’s just a stand-in for a deeper impact. Without attack and decay and other easily recognized musical gestures, the music becomes spectral, haunting you rather than pushing you toward any specific mood. Like the best passages from a Tarkovsky film, Cantu-Ledesma’s pieces lose something when analyzed into their constituent parts. It’s not the content of the sounds we should concern ourselves with, nor is it even the sounds themselves. It is the sounds’ effect: their immediate, sensual play on our senses and the way they resonant in the memory.