|Oxbow — Thin Black Duke (May 5, 2017)
Oxbow — Thin Black Duke (May 5, 2017)★★↑
Location: San Francisco, California
Genre: Noise~rock, chamber pop, avant~rock, experimental rock, avant~garde
Album release: May 5, 2017
Record Label: Hydra Head
1. Cold and Well~Lit Place 4:32
2. Ecce Homo 4:17
3. A Gentleman’s Gentleman 3:24
4. Letter of Note 6:17
5. Host 5:23
6. The Upper 4:32
7. Other People 4:03
8. The Finished Line 6:27
★↑ Daniel Adams: bass guitar, keyboards
★↑ Gregory Davis: drums, percussion
★↑ Eugene S. Robinson: vocals, lyrics
★↑ Niko Wenner: guitars, keyboards, music
Sean Guthrie | June 7th, 2017 15:29 | Score: 9/10
★↑ There are times when a group or an artist releases an album so instantly complete that there seems no conceivable way in which they or anybody else could surpass it. Only the very gifted or the very lucky find themselves in such circumstances; they are few in number.
★↑ In recent years These New Puritans set an unfeasibly high bar for themselves with Field Of Reeds, while Sunn O))) did likewise with Monoliths And Dimensions. Ditto Holy Other, whose majestic Held remains understandably his only full~length record. In each case, you might argue, what would be the sense in carrying on?
★↑ Where San Francisco’s Oxbow differ from the above examples is that while Thin Black Duke, their seventh album since forming in 1988, is a record they are highly unlikely ever to eclipse, if there is a group who could defy such colossal odds then, on this evidence, it is Oxbow. They sound equally like a band that has discussed and agreed upon every moment of every song and one that barely knows what note comes next. Each step breaches new ground.
★↑ This is a record that takes rock dynamics and tropes — drums, bass, guitar; verse~chorus~verse — and puts them in a vice. From the opening ‘Cold And Well~lit Place’ to the eighth and last track, ‘The Finished Line’, the four musicians turn the lever steadily and assiduously until the very substance of the record is fit to collapse in on itself. Structures compress and contract, expand and elongate. Eugene Robinson’s vocal performances flit between manic and measured. The punk rock impulse that runs throughout becomes distorted — though never diluted — by elements of metal, prog, jazz and, with the addition of orchestral parts scored by guitarist Niko Wenner, symphonic music.
★↑ If Thin Black Duke is unclassifiable, it is also unexpected that in 2017 a group formed at a time when post~punk, post~hardcore and noise rock were incubating a welter of innovative American bands should have the motivation to look for, let alone discover, an ultima Thule of rock music, a hitherto undiscovered piece of land in a world everyone thought had been mapped to the nth degree.
★↑ Guitar music of this stripe ceased to develop years ago as its exponents succumbed to creative stagnancy, caved in to financial necessity or simply grew up. The Jesus Lizard, Lungfish, Drive Like Jehu and many more: once upon a time you couldn’t move for crooked guitar music that entertained and energised, challenged and charmed in equal measure. While Thin Black Duke is categorically not a throwback to American underground rock in the late 20th century, it grazes on similar pastures to the best practitioners of it and shares with them a disdain for torpor besides a hunger for glimpses of beauty.
★↑ From the off the fluent guitar, demented vocals and symphonic layers of ‘Cold And Well~Lit Place’ seem like a puzzle designed to confuse, but perseverance pays off, the dissonant trails and melodic motifs within Ecce Homo serving as cloths with which to wipe clean your ears and acclimatise them to an atmosphere of courageousness last heard on Pony Express Record by Shudder To Think. On ‘A Gentleman’s Gentleman’, perhaps as a counterpoint to the relative straightforwardness of Wenner’s riffs, which veer as close as comfort will allow to 1980s rock, Robinson alternates between the voice of a ranting loon, speed~whispering through the opaque lyric, and that of a drunk preacher, hectoring menacingly as piano expands the palette and contributes a sense of disquiet.
★↑ ‘Letter Of Note’, however, is where you really start to be unsettled. Almost four minutes into a seemingly routine slice of alternative rock, albeit one with wonky orchestral flourishes and topped by Robinson’s most conventional performance of the album, Wenner and bass player Dan Adams jump off the path and lead the group down an alley of proggy, plucked weirdness, which serves as a cue for Robinson to dive into a pool of hollering, red~eyed insanity and the orchestral players to spin off on a quest to uncover the most dissonant colours possible. It’s exhausting.
★↑ As a welcome contrast the first 30 seconds of ‘Host’ are as stripped down as the preceding five minutes are multi~layered, exhibiting a yen for minimalism that wouldn’t be out of place in the Shellac For Dummies hardback. The song itself takes flight halfway in, shedding its alt~rock cloak to deliver a cathartic uppercut as Robinson proclaims: “Love, lust, God, end/Debatable points all.”
★↑ ‘The Upper’ finds Oxbow abandoning rock altogether, favouring instead a piano~led waltz beneath Robinson’s spoken vocal until Wenner can hold back no longer and dives in with skronking and defiantly melodramatic guitar figures to mirror Robinson’s contribution. The penultimate ‘Other People’, however, both prefigures the comeliness of the ensuing finale and raises the noise rock levels to a new high, Wenner whammy~barring his Stratocaster in unison with chimes, brass and strings. This is questing, heroically odd rock to gladden the ears of callow youths and jaundiced grown~ups.
★↑ Like all good things, though, Thin Black Duke has to come to an end. While beautiful, in large part due to Robinson’s echo~swathed falsetto, ‘The Finished Line’ is harrowing and desolate, the pace deathly, the orchestra pitched at extremes, until the calm which reigned at the song’s outset reappears. “Pointless, senseless, and now/Endless,” whispers Robinson as a fading guitar signal plummets to earth.
★↑ By rights no group should be peaking after 30 years of making music together, yet that is the situation in which Oxbow find themselves. Will they ever transcend Thin Black Duke? Such are the ideas and attention to detail on this record, only a fool would bet against them. Ξ http://thequietus.com/ © Supersonic 18 06 2017, Fighting Boredom. Eugene S. Robinson: vocals, lyrics
by Sam Shepherd | first published: 5 May 2017 | Score: *****
★↑ It’s been 10 years since the last Oxbow album, but it’s not as if the band has been doing nothing in that time. The ideas for this album have been kicking around for a while now. Niko Wenner’s precise approach to songwriting with its roots in classical composition and jazz has taken time, whilst Eugene Robinson’s lyrics in particular date back over a decade. The old adage “all good things come to those who wait” is entirely appropriate here however and Thin Black Duke might just be Oxbow’s most assured and impressive work to date.
★↑ Apparently drummer Greg Davis had a mantra regarding his band’s work, “whatever we do, it will be an Oxbow record of Oxbow music, meaning a lot of people probably won’t like it”. But such is the impressive scope, sound, and construction of this album, it’d take someone with genuine cloth ears and malfunctioning cloth ears at that, to find something to dislike about Thin Black Duke.
★↑ There’s quite a lot to dislike about the actual character of The Duke, the malevolent presence that hangs over these songs. Introduced on the opening track Cold & Well~Lit Place, he’s a brown shirted raconteur who seems keen to share a drink and a bit of cheese, whilst alluding to murder and stating “they say the best things in life are free, everything around here comes with a fee”. With a delivery from Eugene Robinson that veers wildly in tone, this line suggests that even by continuing to listen to The Duke spin his yarns, you’re invested in something truly troubling.
★↑ Part of Oxbow’s charm lies in Robinson’s lyrical and vocal dexterity, and as an opening gambit Cold & Well Lit Place covers a lot of ground. Inhabiting the character with the verve with which David Bowie inhabited his Thin White Duke, Robinson opens up the many facets of his vocal range and, in so doing, the multiple personalities of the Duke. He’s a rambling drunk, a timid church mouse, an unhinged angel of death, and a phenomenal raconteur. All of this would be for nothing was it not for the compositional skills of Wenner. In just one song, he combines jazz, blues, rock, classical and easy listening to create a masterful backdrop for Robinson to inhabit. ★↑ There are no genres in Oxbow’s world, only what works, and this really does work. The orchestral sections in particular are sublime, adding a dramatic cinematic quality to proceedings whilst simultaneously doffing a cap at Sgt Pepper (and in particular the cacophonous climax to A Day in the Life).
★↑ Certainly there’s an element of discordance here — it wouldn’t be Oxbow without a liberal application of noise and unpleasantness — but there’s elegance too, be it in the carefully woven narrative created by Robinson, or Wenner’s motifs and sonic control. Ecco Homo in particular has a deftness of touch in its orchestral sections that you would not expect from a band whose vocalist is an amateur MMA fighter. That kind of controlled aggression can be found in A Gentleman’s Gentleman, where Robinson elaborates further on The Duke. He has a cordite moustache, a bull like neck, muscled fingers, and his hands do the talking. If you were to paint a picture of The Duke, he’d look like a version of Robinson himself.
★↑ As the album’s narrative continues, notions of love, need, subservience and power establish themselves. They’re easy to miss as Robinson’s habit of stretching his lines out beyond their breaking point can muddy meaning considerably. Add to this the desire to focus on Oxbow’s musical prowess (the straight~ish rock charge of Host, or the dainty Prog~Waltz of The Upper are both captivating. Prog~Waltz. You heard it here first) and sometimes the themes get lost. The pleasure of course is in the digging and there’s plenty to get lost in here.
★↑ As the album comes to a close, things start to unravel dramatically. On the chaotic Other People, The Duke starts to take advantage of the control he now exerts over his audience. It’s a position he’s worked his way to over the course of the album and now he’s got them where he wants them, he’s wielding an axe handle. The cold, well~lit place in which he’s been holding court takes suddenly takes on a truly icy chill, and it all comes to a head with The Finished Line. Robinson bearing his teeth, snarling his way to the album’s conclusion, detailing The Duke finishing off his audience and enjoying a job well done.
★↑ It’s a terrifying last few minutes, but when it’s all over, the temptation to be in the company of the Thin Black Duke is overwhelming, which perhaps is understandable given the album’s themes of subservience, loyalty and the misguided notion of love. However, loving this album (rather than The Duke himself) is entirely understandable. Thin Black Duke should be regarded as a genuinely innovative and exciting piece of art.
SUPERSONIC FESTIVAL 2017 — SUNDAY — LIVE REVIEW
★↑ Over the 30 years of Oxbow’s operations, no one has come comfortably close to classifying the Bay Area group. This could arguably be the result of Oxbow’s ongoing evolution, but accurately describing any particular phase of the groups’ seven-album career is no easier than describing the broader metamorphic arc of their creative path. This is especially true with their seventh album Thin Black Duke, where Oxbow’s elusive brand of harmonic unrest has absorbed the ornate and ostentatious palate of baroque pop into their sound, pushing their polarized dynamics into a scope that spans between sublime and completely unnerving. This is new musical territory for all parties involved.
★↑ As throughout their history, Oxbow grapples with channeling man’s most primal urges through a framework of meticulous, cultured, and cerebral instrumentation. But the unadulterated electric roar and percussive barbarism of their past work wasn’t as wholly satisfactory as it had been in the past. Other flavors were deemed necessary and called into play, both to slake unnamed thirsts and to suitably fit the Thin Black Duke’s lyrical themes, but also to explore the further reaches of Oxbow’s studied approach to tension and release, structure and dissonance, and melody and abstraction.
★↑ “Certainly we all became increasingly aware that none of us are getting younger,” says guitarist Niko Wenner. Recognizing one’s own mortality can render one’s art to the ranks of ephemera, but Oxbow lashed out at such notions. “For this record I wanted to go even further in the way we always make recordings, as music that hangs together over an entire album, ‘large scale coherence’ if you will,” Wenner says of his compositional strategy. “I was inspired by pieces like Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the formal technique in classical music where a small idea, a kernel, is reiterated, morphed, expanded and truncated, to make a piece of music permeated with the potent perfume of that small element.”
★↑ Consequently, the attentive ear will notice recurring musical phrases and motifs throughout Thin Black Duke. Noticing such details isn’t necessary to absorb and appreciate the album, but as Wenner suggests, “I think I’m not the only one that finds a visceral satisfaction when you can look into something you like deeper, and deeper, and find more and more there.”
♣¤★ 1989 Fuckfest CFY Records/Pathological Records/Hydra Head Records
♣¤★ 1991 King of the Jews CFY Records/Pathological Records/Hydra Head Records
♣¤★ 1995 Let Me Be a Woman Brinkman Records/Crippled Dick Hot Wax Records
♣¤★ 1996/1997 Serenade in Red Crippled Dick Hot Wax Records/SST Records
♣¤★ 2002 An Evil Heat Neurot Recordings/Concrete Lo Fi Records
♣¤★ 2007 The Narcotic Story Hydra Head Records
♣¤★ 2017 Thin Black Duke Hydra Head Records
|Oxbow — Thin Black Duke (May 5, 2017)