Legendary bay area experimentalists Oxbow have shared a video for new song “Other People,” (directed by Chris Purdie), an intense, slow-burning track from the band’s upcoming album Thin Black Duke, their first album in ten years, out May 5th on Hydra Head.
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, modifiers like “noise”, “avant garde”, and “experimental” frequently get tossed about, but even honing in on a head noun any more specific than “rock” becomes problematic. Sure, the band employs the standard rock choices of instrumentation and displays the requisite evolutionary tie to the blues, but such vague designations mean little. So it’s tempting to attach the only-slightly-more-specific handle of ‘punk’ to Oxbow, if one’s view of punk is narrowly focused on the kind of free-jazz inflected antagonism later-era Black Flag inflicted on the nascent American hardcore scene. But punk’s primitivism is completely at odds with Oxbow’s highly disciplined approach. This is especially true with their seventh albumThin 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. Recognising 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.”
Oxbow’s principle duality can be seen in the conflicting creative strategies of Wenner, who serves as the band’s highly disciplined composer and arranger, and Eugene Robinson, Oxbow’s imposing vocalist and lyricist. Wenner is prone to discussing the specific process behind the songs, the co-production duties shared with Joe Chiccarelli (Beck, Frank Zappa, Morrissey), and the operas that seem most congruous to Thin Black Duke. Robinson, on the other hand, begins the discussion of the album by saying “lucre and cash, the twin fuels that fund all of our excessive shames and glories undergird a terrible kind of amoral economy that helps you make total sense of why you might be murdered for $100.” While Thin Black Duke’s elaborate compositions were years in the making, Robinson’s vignettes about “the places where all that glitters IS gold, and evil is a quaint concept born of a moral framework in a place that is shorn of morality” were born over a decade ago. Written without any song structures in place, the sordid details are howled, bellowed, growled, and spat out in a manner that seems to defy the rigorous order of the music.
If there was a battle between disciplined reasoning and base instinct waged within Thin Black Duke, it ultimately seems like the animalistic impulse won. “I remember hashing through the elements of some of these songs, aware of the urges which inevitably come up to make the stuff sound like things you’ve done before, or things you like now, or things you have always loved,” bassist Dan Adams says of the writing process. “Niko steadfastly pushed, repeatedly saying things like ‘you just need to give in to what feels good.’ Greg (Davis, drummer) had a mantra: ‘look, whatever we do, it will be an Oxbow record of Oxbow music, meaning a lot of people probably won’t like it. And that’s perfectly fine.’” And while it’s true that the conflicted nature of Oxbow may not yield the most immediately palatable contributions to pop culture, it is nevertheless an intriguing journey.
“It is a great luxury to let yourself be part of an organism which just does things as it does,” Adams says in summary, “Though, in Oxbow, ‘doing’ is extraordinarily inefficient, convoluted and anything but effortless.”