Oh Sees – Orc & The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding (2017)
Hello everyone. To keep to my terrifyingly prolific (not really) writing schedule on this now semi-serious music blog I’m hitting you with not one but two simultaneous reviews of records that released this previous week. Woah! This week we’re taking a nostalgic plunge into the annals of psychedelia with two rather retrospective records from heavy hitters in the world of modern psych: Philadelphia red eye road dogs the War on Drugs and garage-psych mainstays Thee Oh Sees, or maybe just Oh Sees, because they’re one of those bands who invoke tectonic shifts in musical style through a change in the punctuation in the band name. A classic move.
Here we have two very different approaches to making psychedelic music in 2017. The War on Drugs, who are famous for that one song about smoking weed and those other ones that you couldn’t distinguish from it when you were stoned, are making psychedelia in the same way that James Cameron made Avatar. Like, lets slap as much production detail and throw as many extra dimensions in there as we can until the audience is sure to be wowed, and fail to realize the lack of real substance underneath. These songs are so filled with overdubs and hundreds of layers of reverb and vocals and keys that the Ableton Live files on Adam Granduciel’s computer probably required a server farm in Libya just to keep them going, and A Deeper Understanding, the record that comprises said songs, has about as much meat on the bones as a starving Libyan child.
This is a very hollow record, one which impresses on a first, second, and possibly third listen, but soon reduces itself into an expensive and technical slush in which every song is unidentifiable from the next and we move along in a languid sort of has-it-kicked-in-yet malaise for an hour and six minutes. In fact, the extent of everything I can even remember about this album, having listened to it at least four or five times for the purposes of reviewing (I am a consummate professional), is that the first two songs were rather pleasant, the third sounded a lot like Arcade Fire, which was kind of boring, and ‘Thinking of a Place’ was the only tune to attempt anything that struck me as ambitious, but that might just be because it’s eleven minutes long and wants you to think it’s ambitious. I don’t even know any more.
Thee Oh Sees, on the other hand, are an eclectic bunch. Their latest record, Orc, is something of a Pick ‘N’ Mix grab bag of narcotic candy, dipping briefly into styles of psych from across the musical timeline for one, two songs at a time. There are moments of motorik krautrock adoration (opener ‘The Static God’), slinky 80s psych-pop (‘Nite Expo’), interludes of weird Faustian noise (‘Paranoise’), and drony psychedelic folk (‘Keys to the Castle’). For the initiated, Orc is like a bit like playing a game of psychedelic Guess Who with all your favourite sounds of years past. Does your character play the sitar? Yes? Is it Revolver? Bingo! Wait, wrong game.
Anyway, this constant jumping around in style keeps Orc sounding fresh with each new song, and on a couple of occasions pushes the band outside their comfort zone. ‘Animated Violence’ is one of my favourite songs here, sounding more metal than anything Oh Sees have ever made in the past – specifically more stoner metal, like some hazy Electric Wizard type of psychedelia. It has a face-shredding riff in the chorus that erupts into an equally face-shredding riff in the verse, and is the most fun I’ve had playing the air guitar so far in 2017. ‘Cadaver Dog’ is another highlight, a slice of Pink Floyd worship if Pink Floyd were fronted by a grouchy troll with a throatache.
Orc‘s predilection for wandering perhaps gets the better of it in the second half, though, where it begins to lose some of the focus it erupts out of the gate with. ‘Cooling Tower’ is a cute three minute distraction that reminds me of the soundtrack to Cave Story for some strange reason, but feels ultimately insubstantial, while closer ‘Raw Optics’ has a fiddly and far too long breakdown that lasts almost the entire song, and completely kills all sense of momentum the record had right as it ends. As a finale to an exciting record it’s a bit like having a bucket of cold water unceremoniously dumped on your head, and leaves my ultimate impression of the record a bit weaker than it perhaps deserves to be.
Still, at least I can tell you what song I’m listening to at any given moment. Thee Oh Sees cram more ideas into one record (and they make a new record, sometimes two, every single year) than The War on Drugs have managed in their entire career. Unless ‘more reverb, dude’ counts as an idea. But I am being too harsh – really A Deeper Understanding is not a terrible record and I am sure it will prove popular with the indie rock blogs and the bearded masses. It is sunny and strummy background music for doing laundry or very mild drugs to, but everything about it is just so pleasant, so safe. I can’t help but feel there’s so much more to the future of psychedelic rock than what A Deeper Understanding offers up. And for their part, Thee Oh Sees remain firmly in thrall to the genre’s past. But hey – the future of the future will still contain the past, so more power to them.
The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding 6.2
Thee Oh Sees – Orc 7.9