Brian Coney On Thee Oh Sees' An Odd Entrances
, November 24th, 2016 11:10
In the San Francisco band's eighteenth record — under the third variation of their name — Brian Coney finds an album not lacking in Thee Oh Sees' trademark sound and fury, but benefiting from a newfound sense of restraint
A band that have always seemed to be raging against the dying of some invisible light, Bay Area’s finest, Thee Oh Sees have spent the last few years wielding inspiration, restlessness and hard work as an increasingly potent statement of intent. With a year-to-output ratio that would give Mark E Smith the fear, album number eighteen – An Odd Entrances – sees the garage rock juggernauts offer their most restrained proposition to date; one that explores compelling new territory by way of consciously taking a step, or several, back.
Cut from the same tape spool as its inverse, August’s breathless – at times dizzyingly emphatic – A Weird Exits, this six-track release is presented much more as a companion of sorts rather than an afterthought, glorified EP or collection of b-sides. And with the fizzog suitably melted off the collective skull of their fanbase via its predecessor, An Odd Entrances sees John Dwyer and co mindfully opt for respite over another slew of rapturous garage-psych salvos, instead marrying the imprint of free-jazz improvisation with jammed-out textures in a netherworld where the sway of prog and Kraut influence is strong.
With its prophetic flurry of cymbals, opener ‘You Will Find It Here’ swiftly recalls the first invocation of ‘Acknowledgement’ from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme before yielding to a strutting groove and weaving scales in the vein of Popol Vuh or Cul De Sac. Like many of the band’s strongest efforts, it’s an opening gambit where slick uniformity – not strictly-minded progressive musicianship nor elaborate arrangement – reigns supreme. Yet further from the breakneck, two-drummer blitzkrieg of A Weird Exits, ‘The Poem’ also makes for a warm and wonderfully meditative ode early on. Channelling elements of early British psych-folk, the symphonic swoon of a latter-era Beatles anomaly, and the more longing, mellotron-driven medievalism of King Crimson or Van Der Graaf Generator, its muted psych swirl stems much more from the band’s early days than anything they’ve put out recently. With Dwyer parting darkly thoughts on "swollen clouds of speech" and "empty pockets feathered in crimson drops" we’re transported to a realm that couldn’t be further from the body-crushing, sweatbox glory of your average sold-out Thee Oh Sees show.
Less believably but not without its own tripped-out curio, 'Jammed Exit' proves a tepid spin-off from Exits' 'Jammed Entrance', melding modulated effects, spiralling flute lines and rippling synth patterns over six minutes that blur a perilously thin line between aimless and exploratory. But as with their (admittedly quite rare) more meandering experiments of yore, there’s something in the vacuum the band permit themselves to roam free in without blaring headfirst into yet another Technicolor freakout that feels tantamount to invention. Elsewhere, the jangling 60s pastiche pop of 'At The End, On The Stairs' reveals Dwyer's knack for mining a bygone aesthetic without stooping to blatant imitation or awkward parody. Bobbing forth with a Latin jazz rhythm and stellar, spooked-out lyrics (“Gritting teeth and hanging hair, a face over aught with fear. Clutching guts and dripping hand, he was tragically alone”) its masterful, Monkees-on-acid swagger evokes the throwback heritage psych strain found on the likes of ‘Stinking Cloud’ from 2011’s Castlemania.
But it’s perhaps eight-minute kosmiche jam closer ‘Nervous Tech (Nah John)’ that best embodies the open-ended, probing tone of An Odd Entrances as a whole. Tipping its far-out hat to Miles Davis's 1972 fusion masterstroke 'Go Ahead John', its start-stop march and and free-form bursts collide before culminating in a brief, Eddie Hazel-like lead exorcism from Dwyer. With the faint sound of sleigh bells simmering beneath the back-and-forth patterns of the band’s two-drummer set-up throughout, this climax serves to posit Thee Oh Sees as an amorphous output more than happy to sift through structures and sounds without limiting themselves to the mirage of being “just” a garage band. Status confirmed and legacy untainted, they have long earned the right to do so.
Aside from the familiar, fuzzed-out stomp of ‘Unwrap The Field Pt. 1’ – an Exits’ prequel that would comfortably slot into 2013’s Floating Coffin – An Odd Entrances is the sound of that faint morning hum as the dust settles on the unruly night before; it's the pressure-free, late-night studio session, where free reign to just fuck with things a little in the quest for unravelling strange worlds is probably the apex of creative gratification; it’s the quietly elated walk home with friends after catching Thee Oh Sees tear it up, tee drenched and ears still whirring from the onslaught.
While A Weird Exits surged forth with real force and fluidity, fully taking advantage of the band's two-drummer setup, An Odd Entrances benefits from stripping the sound and fury back to its core. Indeed, despite coveting the flow and sheer vigour of output, including A Weird Exits, this brief exhibition is rare testament to cutting loose without pushing too hard.