Oracle of the Horizontal is an unexpected pleasure.
Anyone who’s spent time lurking around the city’s late-19th and early-20th century churches knows that Detroit is underrated as a goth town. This out-of-left-field collaboration by Southeast Michigan garage-psych outfit Duende and founding Bauhaus/Love and Rockets bassist David J stands as further confirmation. While J understandably gets star billing—that’s him on the album cover, looking like Fantômas’ freshly-exhumed corpse—Oracle of the Horizontal is a strikingly democratic team-up, as the arch-goth and the Detroit rockers mutually bring out the best in each other.
Opening track “Out of My Dreams” sets the tone, with J providing low-in-the-gut bassline and cadaverous lead vocals over singer Jeff Howitt’s yelped harmonies and guitarist Joel McCune’s reverb-drenched Link Wray-via-Ron Asheton riffs. The combination works even better than it sounds on paper: by the next track, “Motor City Squeeze,” J is “runnin’ down the backstreets” and extolling the virtues of Coney Island like a local—surely the first chili dog reference in the extended Bauhaus discography. Meanwhile, Howitt holds his own on the Sonic Youth-indebted “In the Shadow of 45,” providing one of the album’s bleakest opening lyrics—“It’s the right time/ To jump off the bridge”—while J wails along on harmonica.
For the rest of the album, J is a more spectral presence, his half-spoken lyrics hovering over “Queen Moon and the Brazen Bull,” “Alice Through the Windscreen” and “Oracle” like a mist. The shift in dynamic takes away some of the immediacy of the album’s first half—J and Duende could just as easily have recorded their parts in separate rooms—but it also gives the band a chance to cut loose, with McCune’s and Scott Sanford’s guitars on “Queen Moon” in particular producing waves of fuzztoned bliss. The diffuse structure of the last two tracks makes room for the group to expand their lineup: adding a horn section arranged by Theatre Bizarre Orchestra leader Joshua James and Mellotron from Warren Defever of Michigan dream pop stalwarts His Name Is Alive.
The pièce de résistance by default is “Oracle,” a lengthy jam built around a poem J reportedly wrote after an intense acid trip in 1986 (Sample lyric: “She puts out a cigarette on her breast/ She wants to look her best for Death”). The driving beat by drummer Laura Willem keeps the band tethered to earth while James’ saxophone soars above, keening and squawking like a murder of crows. At almost 14 minutes, the track takes up a solid 40% of Oracle of the Horizontal’s runtime; but it’s a testament to both J’s magnetic presence and the assembled musicians’ talent for mood-making that it neither overstays its welcome nor treads into hoary rock-poetry cliché.
Oracle of the Horizontal is an unexpected pleasure in the purest sense of the word: few could have predicted that the bass player from Bauhaus would sound this good playing with an obscure Detroit band, because hardly anyone would have thought up the combination in the first place. But that just makes its auspicious convergence of first-wave English goth and Motor City rock muscle all the more satisfying.