Dwyer is hitting yet another career high.
Over the past 20 years, John Dwyer has relentlessly sculpted his own unique brand of zany, off-the-wall guitar rock under the guise of Orinoka Crash Suite, Orange County Sound and, most famously, some variation of Thee Oh Sees. Orc, the band’s nineteenth album, sees Dwyer dropping the “Thee” to become the shortened Oh Sees, though his signature mash of high-octane rhythms and blown-out guitars has not relented in the slightest.
A restlessly creative individual, Dwyer has managed to release at least one album per year since 2006, sometimes doubling or tripling his output through his solo project, Damaged Bug. What consistently runs throughout all of Oh Sees’ albums is a dirty, grimy sense of warmth. For all of his music’s aggressive and forceful tendencies, along with a penchant for sometimes bizarre imagery and storylines, it’s all done with a quick wink, a flashed smile and, occasionally, a gob of spit. It could be categorized as punk, garage, krautrock or proto-electronic (think the unyielding drone of Silver Apples), but, in the end, it’s the overwhelming pursuit of reckless, get-yer-rocks-off jollies that makes Dwyer’s music so endearing.
Of course, for a band that’s existed for as long as they have, change is the key to keeping things fresh. 2016’s A Weird Exits and its later-that-year sibling, An Odd Entrances, presented a newly hardened Oh Sees. Now rhythmically fortified by two drummers, Dwyer is free to let loose with some of the most complex garage rock of his career. Complexity and garage rock usually do not go hand in hand, but Oh Sees pull it off with enthusiastic aplomb. Orc continues that trend, digging deeper into the void.
“The Static God” is frantic and disarming, an immediate punch in the gut with a jolt into Oh Sees’ relentless storm. Trebly guitars swarm like angry bees around Dwyer’s sinister vocals as he menacingly questions, “I’m tuning in/ Addressing an urge/ Do you satisfy me?” There are enough guitar heroics and air drum-ready rhythms to satisfy in the song’s first minute, but Dwyer manages to defy expectations by adding a droning synth to the fray. Chaos reigns, but drummers Dan Aincon and Paul Quattrone, panned hard right and hard left respectively, along with bassist Dr. Tim Hellman, provide a robust backing.
Much of Orc consists of heady jams that expertly navigate through winding arrangements and bursts of headstrong guitar mangling. “Nite Expo” is short and tense, with bouncing prog rock synths that are frequently overtaken in a low end maelstrom of fuzzy bass and pounding drums. “Jettisoned,” on the other hand, takes a more carefree approach with drawn out guitar solos and airy drums. Every chorus skyrockets into flames of distortion, but each song’s differing approach provides just the right amount of variety.
“Keys to the Castle” starts off like a classic Oh Sees jam, all propulsive garage pop melodies bludgeoned by wild riffs, and ex-keyboardist Brigid Dawson even reprises her other role as backing vocalist. However, things quickly veer off course into a menacing buzz of guitar distortion hanging heavy over a surprisingly lush coda of violin and viola interplay. “Animated Violence” enters a similar trance, though stringed instruments are replaced by reverb-heavy synths that echo around the ears. “Cooling Tower” is a sugary take on Can’s “Halleluwah” beat, Dwyer’s gentle “Ah, ah, ah”s and the warbly rhythm form a warped dreamscape, only to be punctured by descending guitar riffs and melting monophonic synths.
This lust for experimentation, for pushing against the sometimes cliched small-mindedness of the garage rock mentality, ensures the Oh Sees’ vitality. Garage rock may be pigeonholed as a young person’s game, but Dwyer kicks against that shit with the cerebral and gleefully devil-may-care attitude of Orc — a fiercely intelligent take on rock even by Dwyer’s high standards. With another Oh Sees album on the horizon later this year, this time with the band reprising their OCS name, Dwyer is hitting yet another career high. Twenty more years wouldn’t be surprising.