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The Busy, Nasty Racket of Skeleton Key’s ‘Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon’ 20 Years Later

The 1997 album was one of the most wired and willfully perverse major label debuts of its time, but it remains out of reach on streaming services

Back in the dark ages of music on physical media, albums that were "out of print" were inaccessible and hard to find. Now, with wide swathes of popular music history readily available on major streaming services, the albums that aren't a click away can feel increasingly distant. In The Unstreamables, Noisey takes a look back at the blockbusters, intriguing footnotes, and cult classics that you might have to try a little harder to find.

By 1997, the "alternative rock" bubble of the early 90s hadn't exactly burst, but the guitar bands that dominated the first half of the decade had started to taper off. New superstars were arriving more sporadically. Major labels were still signing huge numbers of acts and lobbing them at rock radio, but, increasingly, they weren't rock, per se: Electronica, swing bands, ska bands, white rappers, and Lilith Tour-ready singer-songwriters were all ascendent.

Yet in the last week of March 1997, with The Wallflowers' "One Headlight" topping Billboard's Modern Rock chart, Capitol Records quietly released one of the noisiest, most wired and willfully perverse major label debuts of the year from a band called Skeleton Key. The New York quartet met at Manhattan avant jazz venue the Knitting Factory and released a pair of indie EPs in 1995 and 1996, which attracted the notice of Rolling Stone and other press outlets. 

Skeleton Key were a guitar-bass-drums band with the added wrinkle of a second drummer, Rick Lee, whose "junk percussion" kit contained a whimsical variety of pots, pans, toys, and scrap metal. Between frontman Erik Sanko's big gulping basslines, guitarist Chris Maxwell's blown-out riffs, and Lee and drummer Steve Calhoon's clanking polyrhythms, Skeleton Key made a busy, nasty racket. But songs like "The World's Most Famous Undertaker" and "Dear Reader" lunged forward with enough hard rock heft that someone at Capitol thought the band had a chance at radio airplay. At times Skeleton Key resembled a punkier, artier Primus, right down to the guttural Tom Waits homages "Nod Off" and "Big Teeth." That may not sound like a recipe for mainstream success, but Primus actually sold millions of records back then. 

Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon is a brisk 34-minute album. No track runs over four minutes, and only a couple tracks even get close. Chris Maxwell sang lead on occasion, and the bright hooks of his songs like "Wide Open" contrast well with the wild-eyed absurdity of Sanko songs, which he often sang through scratchy antique microphones. The band's sole TV appearance in support of the album was on the short-lived MTV variety show Oddville, which survives on YouTube. The band ran through the atypically funky Maxwell song "All the Things I've Lost," the performance of which climaxes with Rick Lee leaping out from behind his percussion kit to blow a screaming solo on some kind of tiny toy horn.

The front cover and liner note booklet of Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon featured colorful photographs by Tom Schierlitz printed on paper that was punched with a grid full of holes, creating what was surely some of the most ingenious album art of the CD era. Designer Stefan Sagmeister received a Best Recording Package nomination at the 1998 Grammys, making Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon a Grammy-nominated album, even if not for the music per se (It was Sagmeister's fourth nomination in that category; he finally won in 2010 for David Byrne and Brian Eno's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today). 

Skeleton Key resembled a punkier, artier Primus. That may not sound like a recipe for mainstream success, but Primus sold millions of records back then.

I was 15 when Fantastic was released, and I bought the album at the long-running (and still standing) Baltimore music store The Sound Garden. The store was giving away tickets to the band's residency at the bar down the street, Fletcher's, and it killed me that I wasn't old enough to go. I did finally see Skeleton Key years later, when only Erik Sanko remained from the original lineup. It was a great show, but I still pine for the 1997 shows I missed.

Skeleton Key's original lineup didn't last long beyond the initial tours in support of Fantastic. Rick Lee and Steve Calhoon departed to play in another excellent band, Enon. And Chris Maxwell embarked on a career composing music for television, most notably for Bob's Burgers. Last year Maxwell released his first solo album, the rustic and personal Arkansas Summer. But Erik Sanko has continued on with several other lineups of Skeleton Key over the years, releasing albums in 2002 and 2012. Those indie albums are readily available on streaming services. The band's brilliant major label debut, though, remains sadly out of reach.

Al Shipley is a writer from Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.