It’s too early to tell if Oh Sees are taking a new, more expansive path, or if this album simply marks their latest laboratory work.
John Dwyer has seemingly spent almost as much time renaming and reconfiguring bands as he has releasing records, but since he’s put out around 20 albums in 15 years or so, no one’s really complaining. Fortunately, he’s also spent much of that time reconsidering his sound. Whether as OCS, the Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, the current Oh Sees, or whatever else, Dwyer and his collaborators have typically built on a garage rock sound that expands into psychedelia, noise and even some folk. New album Smote Reverser stretches all these sounds to Dwyer’s furthest explorations yet, tying in elements of jazz, metal and prog for an ambitious, if occasionally overwrought epic (note: album cover is accurate).
Last year, he produced an album called Orc, but this one comes straight from Isengard (presumably Memory of a Cut Off Head sprung from Rivendell or somewhere). With the double-drummer attack pounding away, the guitars come from some place fiery, usually leaning a little more to the prog than to the metal side. “Overthrown” gets particularly noisy, reaching back to early metal sounds, feeding more off the 1970s than current trends.
The band pulls in other influences, too. The 12-minute center of the album, “Anthem Aggressor,” doesn’t actually aim to fulfill either part of its title. The spacey number doesn’t disconnect from the rest of the disc, but it pushes more into exploratory jazz ideas, winding thoughts across its length. There’s little aggression in the performance, though. This track shows both the heights that Oh Sees aspire to and the struggle they have in taking off. It builds and shifts smartly, but it gets lost in itself as well, experimentation getting stuck on thinking out loud before regaining its footing. It’s a big reach for the band, but one they only sort of pull off.
When they smash down after that with “Abysmal Urn”, they find solid ground, testing new ways of doing the sort of material they could do in their sleep. A few tracks later, they reverse approaches by slowing down for a slow, atmospheric number with “Flies Bump Against the Glass.” Moody and patient, the song works as a counterbalance to the approach on “Anthem Aggressor,” which spends more time and energy figuring out where to go. “Flies” doesn’t take a linear approach, but the musicians work through its structure with more aplomb.
Thinking through that sort of approach leads to some stellar music on Smote Reverser. “Sentient Oona” offers a more complicated approach that utilizes both the band’s patience and its willingness to attack. Each curve in the song offers new surprises, often with the keys leading the way. Dwyer and his band have improvisatory moments within a directional piece that serves them well. The lyrics meditate on oppression, but the music provides both the appropriate sense of foreboding as well as the resistance to the dark force.
It’s too early to tell if Oh Sees are taking a new, more expansive path, or if this album simply marks their latest laboratory work. That the album draws from previous sounds while pointing in new directions makes it a noteworthy entry in their deep catalog. With some precedent set for future travels, the Oh Sees could as likely release a three-disc prog rock concept album as a 12-minute EP of garage nuggets, and they could make either sound work.