The words “defies categorization” can sometimes be used carelessly, to the point of hyperbole, when it comes to music. But in terms of San Francisco’s Oxbow, they ring true.
Throughout their nearly 30 year existence, Oxbow have successfully sidestepped any genre conventions and created a persona and sound all of their own. Even when they were lumped into the “noise rock” category earlier in their career, they possessed a peculiar vibe and unique approach to songwriting that made any perceived association to the genre highly unjust.
The only forms of music one could label the band, and be somewhat accurate, are “experimental” (“experimental rock” for specificity’s sake) or avant-garde. But those terms are so broad, and could describe a number of different styles, that even they wouldn’t be applicable to the enigmatic California act. To keep things relatively simple one should just accept the fact that Oxbow sounds like Oxbow, and that’s a genre in and of itself.
Aside from the Songs For the French compilation EP, a split with Kill Kill Kill and a handful of rarities collections, the last time anyone had really ventured into Oxbow‘s singular and gritty world was on the smokey, dimly-lit The Narcotic Story in 2007. Considerably less erratic than previous full-length An Evil Heat, The Narcotic Story featured a more “focused” and “direct” Oxbow. The record was full of cinematic grandeur and an overall noir atmosphere seen through Oxbow‘s bizarre lens. Jazz, blues, baroque and everything in between meshed flawlessly with the band’s angular rock attacks and their distinct idiosyncrasies. It became, arguably, the band’s strongest release to date in terms of orchestration and storytelling. Well, at least until now.
Enter Thin Black Duke, Oxbow‘s seventh full-length album and first album in 10 long years. A decade of waiting for new material from an artist is painful for any music fan, even more painful when the material turns out to be lackluster. But in Oxbow’s case, a decade between albums has produced the band’s finest recording to date.
In terms of sonic approach, Thin Black Duke picks up where The Narcotic Story left off. But where its predecessor was more gritty and gloomy, Thin Black Duke is overall aurally brighter and more melodic, but with a hint of sadness and discordance just brimming beneath the surface. Accompanied by vibrant sections of brass and strings, Oxbow deliver eight enthralling pieces that uniquely traverse the waters of rock music in a way only Oxbow can, with surprising pop sensibility and deceptive complexity along for the ride.
Cheerful whistling and a frolicking guitar riff open up the record on “Cold & Well-Lit Place” on a seemingly peaceful note, before a swell of dissonant horns and strings break the gleeful vibe. Drummer Greg Davis and bassist Dan Adam lay the rhythmic groundwork – steady and concise, but with subtle complexities hidden within. Niko Wenner’s eclectic guitar playing shines brightly on this track as he walks the line between dissonance and ear-worm melody, transitioning flawlessly from angular, venomous rock to bouncing, melodic fervor. To top things off in true Oxbow fashion, frontman Eugene S. Robinson’s menagerie of jarring howls, menacing murmurs and bizarre sense of vocal melody spearheads this track, and the entire album for that matter.
Though the album remains stylistically consistent throughout, different shades of Oxbow come out at various points. The band are at the most aggressive and erratic on the track “A Gentleman’s Gentleman”. Davis unleashes a rambunctious, almost “punk”-like rhythm that allows Wenner to churn out various stampeding and sliding riffs atop of everything. Meanwhile, Robinson cycles back and forth between indistinct mumbling and hoarse prose while the band’s rock chaos throttles listeners.
Tracks like “Ecce Homo” and “Letter of Note” slow everything to a brooding crawl with their slow-burning riffs that march alongside orchestral flourishes. “Ecce Homo”, while towering in its presence, showcases Oxbow in their more subdued and reflective state. “Letter of Note”, in contrast, offers sprawling, angular instrumentation that eventually reaches an intense climax of discordant, orchestral cacophony and howling madness.
From pop rock sensibility (“Cold & Well-Lit Place”), to meticulously crafted chaos (“A Gentleman’s Gentleman”), to experimentations with baroque pop (“Other People”) and sprawling melancholia (“The Finished Line”), Thin Black Duke is tirelessly dynamic and full of sonic left-turns while retaining its unique identity. All of its seemingly endless moving parts work together like a well-oiled machine to crank out some of the best songs in the band’s career, and create a sound that is both familiar and unique to the band themselves.
In a 2015 interview with The Dillinger Escape Plan‘s Ben Weinman, Robinson mentioned that Thin Black Duke would be a closing chapter in Oxbow’s discography, alluding to the band exploring uncharted territory in the future. Whatever directions the band may take, and even if takes another 10 years to hear the final product, Thin Black Duke should satiate all until then.
Release Date: May 5, 2017
Label: Hydra Head Records
Favorite Tracks: “Cold & Well-Lit Place”, “A Gentleman’s Gentleman”, “Host” and “Other People”