Let’s discuss the Oh Sees, known up until this year as Thee Oh Sees. The Oh Sees, and specifically band founder John Dwyer, are who Henry Rollins in a recent Esquire interview of John Dwyer called the “best band you’ve never heard of.” That is an auspicious claim coming from Rollins of all people, but he’s also right.
For those not familiar with the band, this is the 19th studio album for John Dwyer under the Oh Sees moniker in 20 years. John is an ever-prolific and creative man, so much so that at the time of writing this review, it has been a mere two weeks after the release of Orc and he has already announced a release date for yet another album to come later this year. Besides the Oh Sees, Dwyer founded and still heads Castle Face Records as well as leading a second band, Damaged Bug, whose music branches out into more experimental music than the garage(y) rock of the Oh Sees.
The Oh Sees were formed in 1997 and have gone through multiple lineup changes, a couple name tweaks, and a short-lived hiatus. They play a mash up of straight up 1960s garage rock à la the Sonics meets Sid Barret meets art punk, with 2 drummers. If you peruse the band’s many albums, you will notice (besides the fact that, man, there are a lot of them) that many of the songs deal with characters, scenes, or situations from Dungeons & Dragons or some other fantasy realm. Early records were more along the lines of ‘60s era jangle-pop meets psychedelia, but after the band’s 2013 hiatus, the songs got slightly more punkish. 2015’s Mutilator Defeated At Last and 2016’s A Weird Exits are prime examples of their harder-edged rock and Orc certainly continues on that trend; the song “Animated Violence” is the closest they have come to sounding metal. (It’s pretty glorious, actually.)
Orc overall is an excellent album and fans of their music since 2013’s Floating Coffins will be happy. In particular, the first three tracks—“Static God,” “Nite Expo,” and the aforementioned “Animated Violence”—are outstanding and really kick things off in high gear, feeling like they would fit right in with 2015’s Mutilator and 2016’s first release of A Weird Exits. For fans of the earlier late ‘60s pop-influenced material and haven’t been the biggest fans of the harder stuff, there is some hope. Orc blends a little more of the warmer, sunny sounds in with the romp and stomp. This album does feature the return of long- time collaborator Brigid Dawson for the first time since 2013. In fact, the announced release for later in 2017 will feature her heavily, according to their press release.
Even though the album is another great one in a long line of excellent releases, that’s not to say it doesn’t have some flaws. “Keys to the Castle” (which features Dawson) starts as a great throwback to their earlier works like The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending A Nite In and builds with some crunchy guitar work from Dwyer. The track is almost ruined, however, by the back half, which features a tonal shift to five minutes of droning, slow-creeping keyboard. The shift sort of makes sense given the nature of the song’s lyrics and the building of intensity towards the end of the first part, but five minutes of a slow-paced electric piano, Wurlitzer, and gypsy sounding violin is just unnecessary. There are points on a few other songs like that, things that just felt unnecessary and border on self-indulgence. They thankfully follow “Keys to the Castle” with a pretty great track “Jettisoned” that is mid-paced then builds to a satisfying conclusion. “Paranoise” is another song that seems to drag on without much going on, however the last minute or so it goes from humdrum to something much more interesting; a song built around that song-ending guitar jam would have been a more worthy effort.
“Cooling Tower” is another great throw back to their earlier days, followed by the slower, heavier jam “Drowned Beast” to create a yin-and-yang effect that sets the tone for album closer “Raw Optics.” The first two minutes or so, “Raw Optics” is a rocking little instrumental track, then it takes a turn and for the next three minutes it is a slow building dueling drum solo that closes with some eerie, squealing guitar. Much like “Keys to the Castle,” though, these final minutes ultimately detract from the song, though they do showcase some nice drum work from drummers Dan Rincon and Ryan Moutinho. Both of their excellent work is well showcased throughout the rest of the album; this extended session feels superfluous.
Despite a few meandering instrumental passages, Orc is overall a good fit in the Oh Sees/Thee Oh Sees discography, continuing the heavier development of recent albums while blending in more of the garage elements that were the highlight of Dwyer’s earliest output. It’s obvious, too, that many of the songs here should translate well to a live setting. | Michael Koehler