On their new record, the California group remain deliriously unhinged but indulge in prog-metal fantasies.
For the past half decade or so, we’ve seen the great unravelling of (Thee) Oh Sees. That is less a comment on the band’s sudden dissolution in 2013 than the aesthetic disintegration that’s transpired ever since ringleader John Dwyer started rebuilding his group in 2014 around bassist Tim Hellman and a double-drummer tandem (now made up of Dan Rincon and Paul Quattrone). But even as recent Oh Sees albums fell under the spell of Afrobeat, cosmic jazz, and proggy synth soundtracks, Dwyer seemingly recognizes that each new record needs to include its fair share of warp-speed rock-outs to keep his circle-pit faithful satisfied. As such, the band’s post-2015 output has been an ongoing game of tug-of-war between the Oh Sees’ desire to satisfy their audience and their desire to satisfy themselves.
With Smote Reverser, they make their most concerted attempt to reconcile those diverging impulses. The album is a predictably loud reaction to last fall’s Memory of a Cut Off Head, a stripped-down psych-folk pastorale (released under the OCS handle) that saw Dwyer sharing harmonies with singer Brigid Dawson. She lends her voice to this record as well, but don’t expect a return to the adrenalized corkers that defined the band during her previous 2010-2013 tenure with the group. Smote Reverser rocks out in a decidedly different manner than the band’s usual fuzz-pedal freakouts. There are no motorik rippers, no brain-zapping guitar blitzkriegs, no routine deployment of Dwyer’s signature, echo-drenched “Wooooo!” Instead, we discover that the fantastical medieval elements of Dwyer’s previous full-band release, 2017’s Orc, were the actual seeds that have allowed Oh Sees to blossom into a bona fide prog-metal outfit—complete with album art just begging to be airbrushed on the side of a van.
Oh Sees albums have long reveled in the tension between the band’s aggression and Dwyer’s frisky, mischievous vocal style, but on Orc, it became evident just how well his voice sincerely lent it itself to the theatrical exposition of prog. On Smote Reverser’s opener “Sentient Oona,” he continues to blur the line between singer and narrator, weaving a tale of sleeping spells and all-seeing eyes atop a coolly rumbling drumbeat; you can practically picture him communing with a crystal ball. But even as the song erupts into jolts of organ (courtesy of Memory alum Tom Dolas) and burning arpeggios, the production feels dryer and more chiseled. The heaviness is not in the volume and distortion, but rather in the force with which hands are hitting the instruments.
“Sentient Oona” also finds Oh Sees continuing to develop their double-drummer dynamic in exciting ways, with Rincon and Quattrone laying down interwoven patterns that both propel and disrupt the momentum. For a band once content to lock into a pulsating groove and blaze out for the horizon, Oh Sees have become adept in the art of the curveball; Just as the dreamy Dwyer/Dawson duet “Last Peace” seems like it’s going to dissolve into a hookah-bar haze, it blasts off into an exhilarating space-bound jam. And sounding not unlike the wiggy breakdown in Edgar Winter’s 1972 prog-funk novelty “Frankenstein” stretched out to 12 minutes, “Anthemic Aggressor” is Oh Sees at their most deliriously unhinged, all solar-flare synths, short-circuiting guitar twitches, and furious jumpy-jazz rhythm.
These epic odysseys are counterbalanced by brief shocks like “Overthrown,” where Dwyer’s gnashed-teeth growl teeters toward thrash metal. But even as he seems more comfortable bringing his childhood love of Dungeons & Dragons and latent love of Rush-worthy guitar solos to the fore, Smote Reverser remains unmistakably Oh Sees by virtue of Dwyer’s clockwork, chorus-resistant songwriting style—you can always count on each verse to tee up another berserker instrumental break. Like Orc before it, Smote Reverser can’t help but lose some of its power as it approaches the hour-long mark—the wandering Floydian instrumental “Flies Bump Against the Glass” and whimsical, Wakeman-esque synthphony “Beat Quest” don’t quite deliver the grand finale this castle-storming record deserves. But by that point, Oh Sees have put forth more than enough Progasaurus gusto to rightfully earn their capes.
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