When bands return from 10 years away from the recorded word it’s logical for fans to expect something that sounds familiar. We want those echoes. The nostalgic pull at our heart strings for days of yore when we listened to “Band – Last Album” with such glee and aplomb that it would leave us wanting more, so much so that a decade later we will line up to ingest their latest offering. But realistically speaking, the question has to be asked how can we expect anything to be even remotely the same as it was after a prolonged period away from itself like that?
Oxbow swaggers into the room to forcefully ask the audience this question on Thin Black Duke, their newest album coming hot on the heels of 2007’s The Narcotic Story (if Antarctica seems like terrific beachfront property to you). Clearly the band has come back with their essence, the fiber of their collective being, ultimately intact and as challenging as ever. As drummer Greg Davis put it, “whatever we do, it will be an Oxbow record of Oxbow music, meaning a lot of people probably won’t like it. And that’s perfectly fine.” It’s the last bit that is particularly true of the band as they share that same independent spirit with Bay Area colleagues, Neurosis.
But what doesn’t show up in the immediate sense on Thin Black Duke is the dense, clatter/splatter of noise that has greeted listeners in the past is nary to be found replaced instead with some mish mash amalgamation of post-punk influences in a theatrical, “ostentatious palate of baroque pop” awash in Eugene S. Robinson’s confidence and sheer swag. This is most in evidence in the opening notes and simple yet massive whistling sequence of “Cold & Well Lit Place” as their “Duke” beckons us into his parlor. There’s certainly some Mike Patton style vocalisation here along with some Wire-esque guitar lines sprinkled throughout an eerily coherent overall musical experience. Ghosts haunt the little moments and resonating motifs occurring all over this record so much so that it becomes difficult to untangle individual tracks from what feels like an overall movement. The narrative of the Thin Black Duke plays a lot like the Bay Area’s noise-avant-metal response to 1970s prog rock.
Of course, we also can’t ignore the nod to David Bowie’s infamous “Thin White Duke” persona and the music of Station to Station but Oxbow only wink at the reference doing so slyly as if through their own twisted lookingglass over the duration of this operetta style piece. What also can’t be ignored when looking in the direction of Bowie’s “Duke” is the history behind his incarnation replete with some very fascistic comments which might indicate that Robinson and Oxbow might also be taking the piss out of the ol’ “Duke” here by repurposing the pose and titular role. Both albums, Station to Station and Thin Black Duke, are strangely slanted and angular pop-art-rock in their own ways. The lineage appears to be strong as an undercurrent to the proceedings here. That said, Oxbow may have just come up with the title and thought “oh yeah, huh… cool, I guess” when noticing the Bowie thing and I could just be full of it. Anything is in play here.
Alas, Niko Wenner’s guitar slithers and bangs its way through the 8 tracks here in a way that harkens back to Carlos Alomar’s playing on the 1976 classic all while serving as the running throughout this marvelously coherent album. He manages to nail angular moments as well as bombastic, pseudo-orchestral pieces purposely throwing dissonant wrenches lest the music begin to feel too comfortable, too easy for the listener. Meanwhile, Robinson’s delivery and portrayal of the erstwhile Duke’s narrative and character come through every pore. These two (Wenner and Robinson) dance on the parquet laid out by their rhythm section of Dan Adams on bass and Davis backstopping it all.
Tracks like the previously mentioned “Cold & Well Lit Place”, “Ecce Homo”, and “Host” flitter between variations of an early decades of punk theme while assuming their respective positions on the album. Meanwhile, the faux-biographical piece, “A Gentleman’s Gentleman”, somehow bridges Fugazi with the fantastical universe Robinson has created around the protagonist. The vocal delivery wheels and pitches across the propulsive backdrop of the music showing off the band’s punk chops. “The Upper” sees the band reaching into some downright Dresden Dolls-with-a-more-somber-twist kind of territory while expanding the feeling of connection with the uttered “there is no stink of human here” grasping at some of the alien sense of character in Bowie’s work. Twisted horns, taut, discordant guitar lines that delve into a My Bloody Valentine-ian abyss of noise mark the strange chaos of “Other People”. All are examples of the wide variety of motions involved in putting together one Thin Black Duke. Overall, every piece correctly follows along lending an even more theatrical feel to the album which reaches a fine denouement in closing track “The Finished Line”.
The overwhelming sense of this latest effort from Oxbow might sound like some odd combination of Pink Floyd via Neurosis shot-through with the angst of Wire and the pathos of Nick Cave if one were given to attempting to provide analogs. This album, this band, though are one of the few that aren’t just difficult to pin down, it’s nearly impossible, and begs the question: why would you want to? It’s difficult to label anything brilliant in this day and age when we’re bombarded with amazing music from nearly every channel but Oxbow operate, like most iconic, unlabel-able bands do, well outside the plane of what other artists are doing but it must be said that this album is a rare achievement.
Thin Black Duke is available this Friday 5/5 via Hydra Head Records and can be purchased here.