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Thin Black Duke Sean Guthrie , June 7th, 2017 15:29

There are times when a group or an artist releases an album so instantly complete that there seems no conceivable way in which they or anybody else could surpass it. Only the very gifted or the very lucky find themselves in such circumstances; they are few in number.

In recent years These New Puritans set an unfeasibly high bar for themselves with Field Of Reeds, while Sunn O))) did likewise with Monoliths And Dimensions. Ditto Holy Other, whose majestic Held remains understandably his only full-length record. In each case, you might argue, what would be the sense in carrying on?

Where San Francisco’s Oxbow differ from the above examples is that while Thin Black Duke, their seventh album since forming in 1988, is a record they are highly unlikely ever to eclipse, if there is a group who could defy such colossal odds then, on this evidence, it is Oxbow. They sound equally like a band that has discussed and agreed upon every moment of every song and one that barely knows what note comes next. Each step breaches new ground.

This is a record that takes rock dynamics and tropes — drums, bass, guitar; verse-chorus-verse — and puts them in a vice. From the opening ‘Cold And Well-lit Place’ to the eighth and last track, ‘The Finished Line’, the four musicians turn the lever steadily and assiduously until the very substance of the record is fit to collapse in on itself. Structures compress and contract, expand and elongate. Eugene Robinson’s vocal performances flit between manic and measured. The punk rock impulse that runs throughout becomes distorted — though never diluted — by elements of metal, prog, jazz and, with the addition of orchestral parts scored by guitarist Niko Wenner, symphonic music.

If Thin Black Duke is unclassifiable, it is also unexpected that in 2017 a group formed at a time when post-punk, post-hardcore and noise rock were incubating a welter of innovative American bands should have the motivation to look for, let alone discover, an ultima Thule of rock music, a hitherto undiscovered piece of land in a world everyone thought had been mapped to the nth degree.

Guitar music of this stripe ceased to develop years ago as its exponents succumbed to creative stagnancy, caved in to financial necessity or simply grew up. The Jesus Lizard, Lungfish, Drive Like Jehu and many more: once upon a time you couldn’t move for crooked guitar music that entertained and energised, challenged and charmed in equal measure. While Thin Black Duke is categorically not a throwback to American underground rock in the late 20th century, it grazes on similar pastures to the best practitioners of it and shares with them a disdain for torpor besides a hunger for glimpses of beauty.

From the off the fluent guitar, demented vocals and symphonic layers of ‘Cold And Well-Lit Place’ seem like a puzzle designed to confuse, but perseverance pays off, the dissonant trails and melodic motifs within Ecce Homo serving as cloths with which to wipe clean your ears and acclimatise them to an atmosphere of courageousness last heard on Pony Express Record by Shudder To Think. On ‘A Gentleman’s Gentleman’, perhaps as a counterpoint to the relative straightforwardness of Wenner’s riffs, which veer as close as comfort will allow to 1980s rock, Robinson alternates between the voice of a ranting loon, speed-whispering through the opaque lyric, and that of a drunk preacher, hectoring menacingly as piano expands the palette and contributes a sense of disquiet.

‘Letter Of Note’, however, is where you really start to be unsettled. Almost four minutes into a seemingly routine slice of alternative rock, albeit one with wonky orchestral flourishes and topped by Robinson’s most conventional performance of the album, Wenner and bass player Dan Adams jump off the path and lead the group down an alley of proggy, plucked weirdness, which serves as a cue for Robinson to dive into a pool of hollering, red-eyed insanity and the orchestral players to spin off on a quest to uncover the most dissonant colours possible. It’s exhausting.

As a welcome contrast the first 30 seconds of ‘Host’ are as stripped down as the preceding five minutes are multi-layered, exhibiting a yen for minimalism that wouldn’t be out of place in the Shellac For Dummies hardback. The song itself takes flight halfway in, shedding its alt-rock cloak to deliver a cathartic uppercut as Robinson proclaims: “Love, lust, God, end/Debatable points all.”

‘The Upper’ finds Oxbow abandoning rock altogether, favouring instead a piano-led waltz beneath Robinson’s spoken vocal until Wenner can hold back no longer and dives in with skronking and defiantly melodramatic guitar figures to mirror Robinson’s contribution. The penultimate ‘Other People’, however, both prefigures the comeliness of the ensuing finale and raises the noise rock levels to a new high, Wenner whammy-barring his Stratocaster in unison with chimes, brass and strings. This is questing, heroically odd rock to gladden the ears of callow youths and jaundiced grown-ups.

Like all good things, though, Thin Black Duke has to come to an end. While beautiful, in large part due to Robinson’s echo-swathed falsetto, ‘The Finished Line’ is harrowing and desolate, the pace deathly, the orchestra pitched at extremes, until the calm which reigned at the song’s outset reappears. “Pointless, senseless, and now/Endless,” whispers Robinson as a fading guitar signal plummets to earth.

By rights no group should be peaking after 30 years of making music together, yet that is the situation in which Oxbow find themselves. Will they ever transcend Thin Black Duke? Such are the ideas and attention to detail on this record, only a fool would bet against them.