Pablo Picasso’s “good artists borrow, great artists steal” mantra is not something that would sit so well with contemporary music critics. Perhaps “great artists borrow” would be an appropriate amendment, as there’s a defined trend when it comes to music criticism and the extent to which modern musicians take artistic cues from their luminaries. Whilst harking back to the musical underpinnings of iconic artists is welcomed and, in fact, celebrated in small doses, there is undoubtedly a line when it comes to how pervasive such stylistic inspirations are that, when crossed, can quite easily lead to scathing reviews. Whilst it does very much seem that such a distinction exists in the minds of many music critics, this boundary could very well be arbitrary for the most part, and liable to shift based simply on the critic’s attitude when first going into an album. Personally, however, I have always been of the opinion that originality is merely one piece of the puzzle that, if lacking, can smoothly be compensated for with strong songwriting fundamentals, compelling performances, a keen ear for striking melodic tones and/or any other well-worked ingredient that goes into the making of a record. It’s for this reason that, as one example, I have been very positive about Opeth’s recent output, in spite of its obvious worship of the likes of Yes, King Crimson, Rush and other legendary progressive rock bands cut from the same cloth, because that which the group may be missing in innovation they more than make up for in their capabilities as composers and musicians. The place of artistic inspiration and nostalgia is arguably particularly ingrained within the current wave of garage-psych rockers, with there being both a sense of idol worship and interconnected influence amongst bands. Just as it’s easy to pick up on some classic material from The Flaming Lips and The Beach Boys seeping their way into the works of a group like Temples or King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, so too do the sounds of their contemporaries, such as Tame Impala or MGMT, crop up in their stylings, with this often eliciting a somewhat tentative response from critics, with this especially being the case for psychedelic and garage rock outfit Oh Sees.
Whilst leaning more towards the garage rock side of the current garage-psych zeitgeist for the most part, Oh Sees (FKA Thee Oh Sees, The Oh Sees, The Ohsees, Orange County Sound, OCS and Orinoka Crash Suite) could be said to evoke Ty Segall as much as they do The 13th Floor Elevators, and certain critics seem to have developed a disliking of the troupe for exactly this reason, which is perhaps only exacerbated by their prolificacy amidst constant name changes. When it comes to their performance amongst fans, however, the ever-present sense of mystery and unpredictability that lingers around the artistic philosophy of Oh Sees and their mastermind, John Dwyer, has earned the collective a significant cult following and, in my opinion, for good reason. Whilst not all of the band’s various stylistic endeavours have completely stuck the landing, Oh Sees have nevertheless proven themselves open to covering a great amount of distance under the garage-psych umbrella, with their previous album from late last year, An Odd Entrances (released as Thee Oh Sees), incorporating organic instrumentation that struck some folk-infused progressive rock tones at times, much in the vein of a group like Jethro Tull. Whilst influences from freak folk suffuse some of the extended, psychedelic jams of their latest album, Orc, under the new alias of Oh Sees, the overall tone of the project feels more like a natural successor to the precursor of An Odd Entrances, that being its sister album released earlier in 2016, A Weird Exits. Like A Weird Exits, the newest full-length outing from Dwyer et al. is based around prolonged, proggy, garage-psych jams, which boast a great deal of chemistry between the band’s members and can pull from punk and noise rock one second, before abruptly darting in the direction of krautrock or post-punk. Undoubtedly, the strength of Oh Sees’ compositions stems largely from how cogently they manage to tide over the listener with compelling performances and captivating nuances throughout these elongated jamming sessions. In this sense, when it comes to Orc, although Oh Sees’ chemistry and versatility is, once again, proudly on display, whether or not the group’s compositional chops justify the lengths of some of these pieces is another matter and, like much of A Weird Exits, certain passages can run on too long without the songwriting subtleties that could greatly benefit such sections. Despite this, Oh Sees nevertheless translate a strong sense of melody and harmony that makes for some outright infectious jams, whilst the band’s ability to channel the likes of The 13th Floor Elevators and Jethro Tull creates a dynamic and diverse progressive, psychedelic sound, even if Orc, like many of their previous projects, is somewhat lacking when it comes to reinforcing a definitive musical identity for the troupe. Overall, however, what Oh Sees may lack in songwriting substance and singularity they more than make up for in their interconnectedness as a band, making for a selection of exceptionally vibrant and hypnotic psychedelic jams across Orc.
Throughout their discography, Oh Sees have been at their best when they wind their prolonged, propulsive, progressive jams around recurring stylistic themes that provide a piece with a defined sense of purpose, regardless of the length of its driving, garage rock grooves, and in this regard, Orc is no different. Not only do the cuts in the tracklisting with pronounced and unique compositional features stand out from the surrounding songs, but these pieces tend to also stand as the strongest when taken out of the context of the rest of the record, largely because of how well the band binds the composition together with these gripping motifs. From the very first breaths of the album’s opening cut and lead single, The Static God, wherein a galvanic outbreak of an energetic and erratic drum and bass groove supports walls of wailing guitar dissonance, it was almost guaranteed that this would be one such song to offer a great deal of substance not necessarily in its songwriting, but simply in the group’s ability to wrap the whole track up with a distinct and striking direction due to its stylistic underpinnings. Although one of the shorter songs in the tracklisting at just over four minutes, The Static God stays true to its stylistic identity throughout its runtime, straddling the line between noise rock and surf rock, much in the same fashion as a lot of Ty Segall’s material, whilst Dwyer’s vocal delivery, which reads like a theatrical performance for a troll-like character, alludes to some of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s more absurdist endeavours. Despite being of a relatively straightforward structure, with the first 50 seconds of the song revealing most of that which Oh Sees have to offer during its entire duration, the constant flip-flopping between stacks of squealing guitars and soft but urgent surf rock riffs and chord progressions translates a feeling of stylistic tug of war that only works to enhance the sheer energy of the track. With the bridge coming to a triumphant climax as some bright, vibrant and utterly heavenly keyboard chords soar above the same skittish groove that has been guiding the song forward up until this point, The Static God, quite simply, puts Oh Sees’ tired-and-tested compositional formula to good use, with the end product being all the better for it. Nite Expo — whilst having the added benefit of being the shortest song in the tracklisting at just under three minutes, leaving no time for Oh Sees to squander on aimless noodling — is strong much in the same manner as The Static God, with the track being bound together by the squelchy, freakish synths that slip between all sorts of kooky sounds. Opening in a rather unsuspicious fashion, with some plucky, spacey synth stabs being supported by a straight, single-note groove in the bass and drums, much of the rest of the track is rife with whacked-out synth tones weaving through nimble melodies with the lead guitar, before howling off in the distance as some sharp, garage rock guitars burst in and propel the song into its main, subtle groove, which is ornamented with some captivatingly smooth, yet simple harmonies between the bass and the guitar. Unquestionably, whether it be the Iron Maiden-esque duelling guitar incidentals, guttural heavy metal vocals and wild drumming of Animated Violence, the call-and-response between the snappy guitar chords and peppy drum fills on Jettisoned, or the spooky, funereal organ chords that provide the foundation for the psychedelic dirge that is Cadaver Dog, the strongest tracks on Orc are those that boast arresting recurrent motifs or stylistic themes that can make up for rather simple song structures with a firm grasp of their purpose and character alone.
Of course, whilst songs such as The Static God and Nite Expo are by no means airtight on a compositional front and, in fact, could have used some improved structures to push their potential just that little bit further, the fact that they are comprised of such interesting and generally well-worked ingredients is what makes them so potent. As such, however, other tracks from Orc that aren’t necessarily as focussed or don’t brandish the same engrossing, recurring elements have a noticeable tendency to drift off into some directionless jams or simply don’t provide the substance in the songwriting to warrant their lengths. It’s only natural that the longest song in the tracklisting would be scrutinised with this in mind and, indeed, the eight-minute cynosure from Orc, Keys to the Castle, which feels more like a song divided into two movements, is far from justified in its length. The initial outbreak of the cut’s main groove, which features a smooth, walking bass line and a straight drum sequence that is broken up by some sudden fills, although sticky in the same way as the groove of a song such as The Static God, is missing the key ingredient of a focal point in the form of an exceptionally striking melody or quirky choice of style or instrumentation. Needless to say, this is by no means a problem in and of itself, but with the first passage of Keys to the Castle being as cyclical as it is, the lack of a striking, central motif to guide the piece along and give the listener something to grapple with throughout the extended jam simply leaves the groove to grow somewhat tired. This is especially true for the track’s second passage, which is largely dedicated to some soft keyboard chords playing atop a simple, improvised drum pattern that gradually builds up with deep synth drones and miscellaneous, wispy noise, but all whilst taking so long that there is no real sense of tension or urgency captured during these very unhurried instrumental swells. Likewise, Paranoise relies largely on some vague gurgles and bleeps from the synths to ornament the muted drum and bass groove that opens the track and loops for over a minute before any additional instrumentation begins to pad the song out. Even when the additions of some admittedly sweet licks of desert rock-leaning guitar do finally enter, however, their uninterrupted repetition for the majority of the remainder of the song’s duration is far from validated by the same synth-based sound effects that swirl around the mix, with the piece, as a whole, being deficient in the nuances that are necessary for a composition with such a subtle and minimal structure to be justified in its sparseness. Supporting many of the songs from Orc with some occasionally insubstantial compositional skills can unfortunately hinder the extent to which some of the album’s genuinely interesting ideas can come to full fruition contained within the somewhat limited progression allowed by many of these compositions. Drowned Beast, for instance, boasts a riveting primary riff of down-tempo and ever so slightly doom-infused psychedelia, with the hulking guitar melody being bolstered by a squelching synth tone and sluggish drum beat. Although undoubtedly gripping, the impact of such a striking central riff is blunted by just how long it is allowed to repeat without interference from any additional instrumentation or subtleties in the songwriting, which unfortunately dulls the impact of what is, at first, an undeniably compulsive tune. Ultimately, whilst rife with spellbinding jams, mesmerising grooves and potent melodies, it’s the reappearance of many of the songwriting shortfalls that have acted as the Achilles’ heel of many a previous project from Dwyer and co. that prevent some of the unequivocally arresting ideas across Orc flourish into the fully-fledged psychedelic epics that they could have become.
On Orc, Oh Sees, once again, prove themselves to be impressively flexible within their pre-established garage-psych paradigm, with the whiffs of everything from noise to surf rock providing a captivating dynamic range to many of the songs in the tracklisting. Yet, although many of the motifs exhibited over the course of the record are indeed strong enough to compensate for an occasionally restricted compositional capacity, many of the prolonged jams are undercut by a need for more songwriting substance to wholly engage the listener across their entire duration. Given that a band such as Oh Sees thrives so much from the momentum that they manage to gain across both individual songs and a complete album, moments wherein the compositional drive of the record begins to slow down can severely hinder the fluency and, as a result, overall impact of the project as a whole. Thankfully, however, the most successful moments across Orc display such a strong sense of melody, harmony and propulsion from their loose grooves that any points across the album that witness the pace inadvertently slow down are soon picked up again, and with great force and determination.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10