As you might expect from the solo project of Deaf Center's Erik K. Skodvin, it's some of the bleakest experimental music you're likely to hear this year. Skodvin has been a longtime purveyor of delicate drones on the excellent Type imprint, confronting darkness with field recordings, lonely guitars and plenty of effects pedals. Its music that lends itself to promo copy like "distant metal fragments scrape the dirt from detuned strings while a nefarious feathered minstrel bows dying instruments in the background" and inspires poetry such as "no hope left, death is just around the corner." Music that's NSFW—where the s stands for both "safe" and "suitable." (Especially if you work with the living, apparently.)
But while poetry is all well and good, it rarely gets down to what makes this music often so special. Skodvin has been at the music-making game for years now, and while you could largely label what he does as experimental, he rarely leaves the listener stranded without a rope. The untitled second song, for instance, pins its meandering guitar underneath a haunted loop that is achingly beautiful. It's not a lot, but it's enough to make Skodvin's improvisation eminently palatable. The same goes for the previous tune, whose layered guitars provide the basis from which a tender drone emerges halfway through.
Look at the waveforms for each of the songs here, and they're remarkably similar. Almost imperceptibly soft intro, building middle section, fade to silence. In that way, these compositions are conversations. The tentative hellos, the business of communication, the awkward goodbyes. Who wants the same interactions over and over, though? While Penpals certainly doesn't repeat itself in the same way, say, you'd characterize techno or house, there is a formula at work here. Which makes it perfect for fans, but yet another daunting bit of poetry for outsiders.