Oxbow


(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Fuckfest (1989), 6.5/10 (EP)
King of the Jews (1991), 8/10
Let Me Be a Woman (1995), 7/10
Serenade in Red (1997), 6.5/10
An Evil Heat (2002), 7/10
The Narcotic Story (2007), 5/10
Thin Black Duke (2017), 5/10
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San Francisco-based Oxbow, fronted by nightmarish vocalist Eugene Robinson (reminiscent of David Yow in Scratch Acid as well as of a suicidal David Thomas), concocted an insane free-form collage of atonal instruments (notably Niko Wenner's guitar), vocal rants, noise, punk energy, heavy-metal loudness, truculent stories and sheer nonsense.

The six-song EP Fuckfest (CFY, 1989 - Hydra Head, 2009) was the appetizer, not so much the heavy-metal explosion of Curse or the rude metal riffs of Bull's Eye, but the screeching guitar-vocal competition of Yoke and especially the magniloquent and deranged blues Hunger, both wrapped in filthy noise.

That ferocious dementia fuels the album King of the Jews (CFY, 1991). On one hand are the songs that pack punkish energy, such as the witchy Pere Ubu-esque dance of Daughter and the Led Zeppelin-ian hard blues Woe (that sounds like a demonic version of When The Levee Breaks for drunk Apaches, then fed to a defective videotape player and smashed under a bulldozer). Higher up in the hierarchy of ambitions sits the eight-minute Bomb, in which guitar and violin mock a neoclassical duet to warm up the stage for the rambling voice swimming naked in an embarrassing void. Even more theatrical is the eight-minute Angel, in which a cool Lydia Lunch talks over a whining Robinson while a piano tries to create a morbid atmosphere until the instruments run away with their noisy and limping jam. More of these cryptic abstractions litter the album, from Cat And Mouse, a sloppy collage of samples at a flamenco-ish rhythm, to Burn, that stages a man shouting and his many echoes, and then a female choir erasing it all. Each vocal performance is sabotaged by a background of incoherent instruments that, even when it is not playing anything in particular, just doesn't let go. The effect is exhilarating.
As if these songs weren't exhausting enough, the CD reissue adds four more.

These first two LPs were combined on The Balls In The Great Meat Grinder Collection (Pathological, 1992).

This twisted blend of metal, punk, new wave, blues, electronic and chamber music led to the acid dirges of Let Me Be a Woman (Brinkman, 1995). Gal displays a repertory of vocal noise over a somewhat dancing rhythm; 1000 sets in motion an impossible call-and-response between a whispering woman and a shouting Robinson; Rova Saxophone Quartet's saxophonist Jon Raskin punctuates the grotesque werewolf-blues and voodoobilly of Me and The Moon. In all its variations the music remains visceral and convulsive. The attempts at stoner-rock are less convincing, whether the funereal and melodic Sunday or the thundering disjointed The Virgin Bride. What towers over anything else is the nine-minute The Stabbing Hand, an expressionist kammerspiel that pits a wailing male voice against a choir programmed to respond to its agony with an undulating wordless melody. They all shut up when a church organ glides on them, but the silence only lasts a few seconds. Soon uncertain drums, similar to a car's ignition that can't start the car, restart the show, with an earsplitting guitar distortion piercing the obsessed recitation of the protagonist. The organ drones return and the voice shuts up again; then the soliloquy resumes with the same spastic company of guitar and drums; then the drone comes back and this time the voice cries over it. This cryptic piece ends with some childish drumming, a monster guitar distortion, and still that desperate voice trying to tell us something that is lost in its incomprehensible world.

Eugene Robinson's vocal art reached a new peak on Serenade in Red (SST, 1997), but what was truly expanding was the whole idea of how the vocalist can interact with the instruments. Instead of the traditional melodic line that both follow with contrasting and complementing variants, Oxbow was throwing an involuted introverted aphasic vocal score on a rowdy garage-band kind of instrumental score. Except for the very last seconds, there are no words in Over, there is no story, there is no meaning, just the presence of a man inside a lugubrious sound and the absence of his language something akin to what David Thomas did on Pere Ubu's most abstract pieces, but filtered through the much bleaker aesthetic of noise-rock. His squealing hysteria rides and eventually tames the frantic rhythmic charge of Lucky; and that's where the music begins to matter. The Led Zeppelin-ian influence surfaces again in the booming boogie of The Last Good Time. Best of the psycho-blues could be the most subdued and sedate, Babydoll, in which an amateurish piano mixes with the guitar in evoking a general state of decay; and a close second is the agonizing cover of Willie Dixon's Insane Asylum, another spartan poem of dejection and abandonment, with Marianne Faithfull forcing a real melody down Robinson's throat. Unfortunately, this time the longer recitations disappoint: the eleven-minute 3 O'Clock is too much screaming and too little music, and the six-minute The Killer (not 12:25 like the album claims) is a duet with a female singer (Lydia Lunch?) disrupted by a gratuitous burst of noise. Neither achieves much.

After a long hiatus, the band returned with An Evil Heat (Neurot, 2002) and a handful of harrowing psychic cataclysms. Despite opening with a display of much more regular singing and playing (The Snake and the Stick), not much changed. As usual, Robinson indulges in a piece of recitation with minimal instrumental accompaniment, Stallkicker, and this one has a great instrumental coda that is worth as much as all the screaming and shrieking that preceded it. Other shock-therapy dirges obtain mixed effects, with Sweetheart standing out and Sorry feeling overlong and skinny. A brutal sense of mystery arises from visiting the extremes (a wall of noise and a simple swinging rhythm) in S Bar X. An immense coda towers over all the songs: having sidelined the vocalist, the 32-minute Glimmer Shine is a hypnotic, pounding ritual for distorted guitar and moribund raga-like groove, Oxbow's equivalent of the Velvet Underground's Sister Ray that dissolves into colorful floating nebulae of drones.

Love That's Last (Hydra Head, 2006) collected unreleased tracks and preceded the band's return with The Narcotic Story (Hydra Head, 2007). Despite the relatively harmless opener The Geometry Of Business (relaxed rhythm and jazzy piano), and the string arrangements of several compositions, notably of the nine-minute She's A Find, this is another painful excursion into a deteriorated form of blues music and into Eugene Robinson's harrowing mindscapes; just less powerful than the previous ones.

Not surprisingly, Robinson eventually released a spoken-word double-disc, Fight (Hydra Head, 2008).

Songs For The French (Hydra Head, 2009) contains an improvised collaboration with French composer Philippe Thiphaine and a live recording.

Eugene Robison didn't feel a day older on Thin Black Duke (2017), their first album in a decade, although the sound was more streamlined and less caustic.

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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