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Its difficult to know where to start with a profile on Oh Sees. Twenty odd albums, countless line ups, numerous name changes, with the only constant seemingly being front man John Dwyer. The notion of trying to go through their entire back catalogue seems ludicrous, so I thought I’d concentrate on their latest album, a recent gig and a maybe a steer to their earlier albums.
The band were originally known as OCS (Orinoka Crash Suite, Orange County Sound, whatever) and have been known as The OhSees, Thee Oh Sees and now Oh Sees. Their output has been prodigious – 20 plus albums, some live sets as well as compilations. The level of output is almost on a par with the Fall, as is their absolute disregard for doing anything apart from what they want to, it would seem. Given the influence that the Fall has had on modern alternative music you wonder if the Thee Oh Sees will leave a similar legacy, and their influence is already obvious with bands like Slift.
Latest album Face Stabber came out in August, encompassing garage/psych rock, Krautrock, Jazz, punk, prog rock and funk. Its quite a commitment to listen to in one sitting, 80 minutes long in total, although two of the fourteen songs account for 35 of those minutes, including album closer Henchlock, which was released as a ‘single’ prior to the album coming out.
The Daily Heavy* kicks off proceedings, a frenetic little psych rock beast that starts like Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice. Next up is The Experimenter, powered along by the shuffling beats of the twin drummer set up, reaching its climax with a free-flowing saxophone expressing itself. Most bands choose the third track of their album to slow down the proceedings if the opening tracks canter along, but not Oh Sees – Face Stabber is an instrumental wig out work out, although there is respite at the end, as the track segues into birdsong. The pace slows a little for Snickersee before picking up again for the prog rock Fu Xi which concludes with a freeform synthesised collapse.
Scutum and Scorpius combines prog rock, 70s funk and psychedelic jazz over its 14 minutes but doesn’t really outstay its welcome. Just when you thought you might be getting comfortable, Gholu comes along to wake you up, or rather pummel you into submission. Poisoned Stones* follows on with its slightly manic headbanging pysch-funk and then there’s Psy-Ops Dispatch – jazz, prog, funk, psych all coming together. S.S. Luker is another instrumental wig out blending pysch and funk which leads into the punk onslaught of Heartworm. Next up is the dizzying Together Tomorrow*, and then of nowhere comes Captain Loosely* Captain Nowhere, like some Bill Laswell/Laraaji experimental/ambient construction. The album closes with Henchlock, a 20-minute jazz/funk/psych-rock work out. ‘Where is that cup of tea?’ indeed.
Overall the album works and it is rewarding to take it all in one go, but it does take a bit of getting used to. Until I saw the band live I hadn’t realised they had two drummers in their set up, but listening to Facestabber again you kind of get the point of that – you get some much percussive energy and it must be great for the rest of the band to feed off, although at times it’s a little exhausting!
Onto the gig – I had the pleasure of witnessing the band play live at London’s Troxy for their sole UK gig, and I have to say it was a great night. Having read a post that said that they would be on at 9.40 until 11 and not fancying the support, we got into the venue about 9.20, only to find that they had already started. I would have preferred to have got myself down the front to see the band but this was practically impossible given the swathes of people who were going mental. They powered through their set, and it has to be said they really are an absolute machine. The amount of work those drummers got through was mind blowing, they create such momentum and add so much body to the music - brilliant. Have a look at some of the clips here and here.
In addition to tracks from the new album the band pounded out a series of old stalwarts including Toe Cutter – Thumb Buster, a turbo charged version of Withered Hand and C from the last album. Then they were done. This was the first time I had seen them before but it was obvious from looking at the satisfied faces of many at the end that most of the crowd had been there before, knew what they were going to get, and had certainly had their fix.
If you are new to the band, you might want to start by listening to Mutilator Defeated At Last, Floating Coffin or A Weird Exits before tackling Facestabber, both are relatively short and pretty immediate. I’m still trying to work my way through myself. And if you get the chance to see them play live, I’d certainly recommend that you do. For a taste of that experience, have a look at this gig in Paris or this KEXP session.