San Francisco-based Oxbow, fronted by nightmarish vocalist
(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
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
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
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
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,
another painful excursion into a deteriorated form of blues music
and into Eugene Robinson's harrowing mindscapes; just less powerful than
the previous ones.
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.