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By Gil Riego Jr.
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Christopher Victorio
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While most people consider music a salve for the stresses of the workaday world -- why else would terms like "easy," "lite," and "smooth" infect the radio dial -- artists have always relied on song to explore harsh human realities. From the tales of broken hearts, hard times, and homicide voiced by blues singers in the '30s, '40s, and '50s to the unbridled dissonance of free jazz railing against racial inequality during the '60s to the discontent embodied by '70s hardcore punk, music has always provided an outlet for anger and anguish.
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Mixing elements of all of these expressive forms (along with a dose of avant-garde classical and some frighteningly dark lyrics), Palo Alto-based quartet Oxbow has been bludgeoning the underground with its harrowing experimental rock since 1989. The band's abrasive songs make the bleakest efforts of Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, and Tool sound like a trip to a children's petting zoo. Though the foursome's dense, swirling tunes may seem to teeter on the brink of complete collapse and its live performances hearken back to the dangerous spectacle of Iggy & the Stooges at their most confrontational, Oxbow approaches its chaotic art with precision and clarity. Instead of creating something of enduring beauty, the band makes uncompromising music full of honest snapshots of lust, violence, and emptiness. Like the classic Jim Thompson noir The Killer Inside Me, Oxbow forces its audience to confront the darkest regions of the human heart.
There's nothing about Oxbow singer Eugene Robinson's outwardly genial manner to suggest a seething cauldron of inner turmoil. During a phone interview, his measured tones, articulate nature, and hearty laugh come through easily. Yet there's no way to hear Oxbow's music without wondering if Robinson has a few skeletons in his closet -- as well as several human body parts in his freezer. Whether listening to his unhinged shrieks and moans on Oxbow's recordings, watching his half-naked 6-foot frame lurch across the stage, or reading the perverse poetry of his lyrics, one senses the palpable aura of wrongness in Robinson's work.
Then again, the man who made waves in the '80s by publishing the noted underground magazine The Birth of Tragedy (named after one of Nietzsche's major works) could hardly be expected to deliver songs about sunshine and lollipops. Robinson first started collaborating with future Oxbow guitarist and principal musical arranger Niko Wenner in the psychedelic hardcore band Whipping Boy in 1984. Oxbow began strictly as a recording project in '89, with Whipping Boy drummer Dan Adams coming on board as bassist and drumming chores being split by Greg Davis and Tom Dobrov. (Davis eventually took over full time in 1993.) Wenner says the band formed around the concept of freedom: "Oxbow should first be a group that had ... no commercial aspiration. The idea was to make any kind of music or sound that we wanted to use OK." The foursome's assault on musical convention -- and unprepared ears -- was under way.
Oxbow's initial efforts (Fuckfest in 1989 and King of the Jews two years later, both originally released on the band's own CFY Records before being licensed to other labels) introduced a sometimes cacophonous, sometimes restrained, always unsettling sound. Robinson's wailing, multitracked vocals -- imagine the layered call and response of Al Green or Marvin Gaye as delivered by Harvey Keitel's Bad Lieutenant -- careened over Wenner's corrosive riffs. Comparisons to noise-rock precursors the Birthday Party and Swans make some sense, but Oxbow's broader sonic palette also incorporated everything from choral samples and Eno-esque ambient noise to acoustic guitar strums and unnerving atonal strings. As difficult as it was compelling, Oxbow's music earned the group a core of admirers, including engineer extraordinaire Steve Albini.
As Robinson recalls (via e-mail), "Albini said he had been in Los Angeles and heard Oxbow on the radio and tracked down Fuckfest and King of the Jewsand wondered how the hell the band managed to mash all of that density into a recording that he guessed [correctly] as being 16 track." Liking what he heard, Albini stepped behind the boards for 1995's Let Me Be a Woman and 1997's Serenade in Red, helping Oxbow streamline its sound without losing its oppressive dread. On the former record Wenner displayed divebombing slide guitar, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet's Jon Raskin delivered skronking baritone sax, and Robinson dragged the listener into a vortex of childhood rape and murderous impulses. For Serenade, the band presented an almost cinematic song-cycle, drenched in themes of betrayal, homicide, and sexual tension, with one tune featuring guest vocals from British chanteuse Marianne Faithfull, no stranger to life's dark avenues herself. "I had grown obsessed with her," Robinson notes, "and just called. This is before Metallica heard Serenade in Red and figured it worked so well for us that they'd call her, too." Her album-closing duet on a version of Willie Dixon's blues tune "Insane Asylum" fit perfectly with Robinson's lyrical spiral into madness.
Oxbow's latest effort, An Evil Heat, is its first on Neurot Recordings, the Bay Area imprint run by fellow experimentalists Neurosis, and a continuation of the band's exploration of the heart's dank tributaries. Forged over the course of two years of what Adams calls "torturous fine-tuning," the songs on An Evil Heat represent a fever dream of sexual compulsion, pulverizing riffs, and droning feedback. Grappling with religious iconography and base desires, Robinson sings of a personal trinity ("the drunk, the reprobate, and the Holy Ghost") and then resolves to move beyond guilt: "Sorry ain't something I ever going to be sorry over/ It slows the sinning/ What with all that knee-bending." The album closes with the epic, near-psychedelic tune "Glimmer (Shine)." Over half an hour long, the instrumental tour de force balances a pounding, Melvins-esque groove with a soothing wall of layered guitar-noise.
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