Psych-prog launches into orbit
On this year’s Oh Sees offering, founding member John Dwyer keeps the band’s same name and lineup, but many similarities to past work end there. Face Stabber is 80 minutes long with two of its fourteen songs spanning 35 minutes, while four tracks clock at, or under, two minutes. The album begins with a series of squeaks. All of this heralds a stark departure from the more easily digestible compositions and durations of Orc and Smote Reverser, the group’s two previous outputs.
After the rhythm and other-worldly synthesizer absorb the opening squeaks, “The Daily Heavy” dives into a quickly-paced call and response tune. With a fuzzy, vocal “bop bop” answering the casually sung verses, the song serves as a modern analog to “Surfin’ Bird,” albeit more groove and guitar dependent. The percussive duo of Dan Rincon and Paul Quattrone drive the funky “The Experimenter,” creating a base upon which brief, but tidy musical verses seemingly fight against wildly distorted guitar interludes. In the end, the guitar prevails and returns to provide the main riff and most of the sound in the titular instrumental, “Face Stabber.” Also introduced by guitar, “S.S. Luker’s Mom” is another one of the collection’s three instrumentals. The rapid drumming and horn theme dominate, leaving guitar bursts to fill in the spaces between.
On an album where sometimes the instrumental deluge prevents listeners from fully appreciating the lyrics, “Snickersnee” broods with its creeping rhythm and sinister vocals that deliver some of the collection’s strongest. Immediately contrasting, the jazzy “Fu Xi” uses vocals more as a means to further the musical movement than to impart any meaning. The words themselves are nearly irrelevant.
The extended, four-part “Scutum & Scorpius” marks the midpoint of the set. Opening with a revisitation of the synthesizer part from “The Daily Heavy,” the band makes two quick detours in the forms of an organ-laden choral section and a prettily sung if vulgar verse. What follows is a languid jam featuring a lot of varied guitar and keys sounds and phrases. Listeners will likely see this as either a highlight or low point of Face Stabber, depending on one’s view of prolonged experimental pieces.
The second half of the album varies as much as the first. The brief, throbbing punk-metal of “Gholü” and “Heart Worm” clash against the more intricate, jazz-inflected numbers “Poisoned Stones” and “Psy-Ops Dispatch.” “Captain Loosley,” a purely electronic instrumental, is a standout as much in concept as execution. Making good use of the entire aural space and assorted synth sounds, the composition exemplifies the vast range of Oh Sees artistic ability without being pretentious. Crunchy guitar begins “Henchlock,” another long, largely improvisational number centered around a well-defined theme and a great three-note payoff. Rhodes-piano counterpoints and a myriad of diverse sounds comprise much of the song while the band once again deftly sneaks in poignant lyrics. “Let’s have compensation baby, for your crimes. Evil men still living, but they are fine.” Like “Scutum & Scorpius,” the attitude towards the finale’s worth will vary, mostly due to its length.
Oh Sees changes musical styles nearly as often as they change their name, so there isn’t much surprise that this outing is different than previous efforts. What is shocking is the degree to which they experiment and expand their boundaries. As with any bold artistic venture, opinions on Face Stabber will differ and perhaps polarize, but no one should be caught off-guard if the album becomes to be regarded by some as their best.