Orc (2017), is the nineteenth studio album from San Francisco rock band, Oh Sees/Thee Oh Sees/OCs (listen, they’ve gone by a lot of names). This band has been about as consistent as they come, releasing just about an album a year since their inception in 1997. They’re currently working on their twenty-first studio album in Smote Reverser (set to release this year), which I plan to cover as well, but something about this album cover art was intriguing to me. Something about its 1970’s rock vibe really peaked my interest. So I’ll be starting with this one first!
Although Thee Oh Sees is often described as being “garage rock,” this specific project doesn’t really shout that to me. While it has some harsher, louder moments, the album as a whole isn’t basic or ugly enough to be a real garage rock album. The production quality is quite high, there’s certainly some ambitious songs in here, and the instrumentation jumps all over the place, showing off their complexity as musicians. I don’t know if I could throw this album into one specific category, but if I could briefly describe the music, I’d say it’s as if old Black Sabbath and Yes collaborated on an album together. They seem to have a darker, evil side (driven heavily by the bass line) of an early metal band, while maintaining a lighter, poppy side. They also have some longer, more complex songs on the album that branch out into several areas, reminding me of something from Fragile (1971) or the Yes Album (1971).
Oh Sees immediately display both of these sides in the opening track, “The Static God.” It opens up with an abrasive cacophony of layered guitar sounds for a solid thirty-five seconds, but then transitions into a brighter, bouncier guitar sound with this very catchy vocal melody along with it. The song then continues to transition between the two very different styles frequently. The interesting thing here is how well it works. It doesn’t really feel like a conflict in the song, like it easily could have. Instead, the flow of the music doesn’t stop and it’s as smooth as ever.
After that finishes up, it drops right into a dancable, techno beat with their next song, “Nite Expo.” This is one of the simpler tracks on the album, but once again transitions back and forth between the sounds of 80’s new wave, and 70’s hard rock. It’s a pretty straight forward song, but is pretty catchy nonetheless.
One of my favorites on here, the epic “Keys to the Castle,” is an interesting eight minute journey. It starts off as this light, fluffy, rock song, but then a couple of minutes in it devolves into something entirely different. The instruments drop out for a second, and it begins to just build and build upon itself with different instruments for the next several minutes. It’s all anchored down by these light descending chords, but eventually adds in orchestral pieces and other more interesting parts until it just blasts away at the end.
Another one of my favorites, “Jettisoned,” contains these super fun, almost jam-session-esque moments where the guitars and drums keep trading off with each other. Then, once everything dies down, these hushed, whispered vocals come in and give it an ominous vibe along with it. Then it ends with more great, loud guitar riffs to send it off.
Other great hits like “Cadaver Dog,” and “Drowned Beast,” just remind me of Sabbath once again. The slow, flat, creepier instrumentals are reminiscent of the old heavy metal band, and if you just forget about Ozzy’s voice, it’s pretty easy to see where some of their influence is coming from. It’s slightly more electronic at points than anything Sabbath was doing in the late 60’s, early 70’s, but that’s about the only large difference musically.
However, there are some songs that are more forgettable. “Paranoise,” and “Animated Violence” aren’t memorable to me for several reasons. The former doesn’t really have too much going on for the majority of it, making it feel like more of an extended interlude than anything. The ending has this very loud, unsettling white noise effect that builds up throughout the song, which I can respect, but musically it isn’t super inventive for the most part. I have a similar problem with the song immediately following it, “Cooling Tower”. Much like its name suggests, it’s kind of a simpler, sweeter time to cool off after the unsettling riffs towards the end of “Paranoise,” but it’s also a pretty boring piece. “Animated Violence” has a decent amount going on, but a bit one-dimensional. It’s a pretty basic attempt at an older rock song, and while it doesn’t sound inherently bad, it’s not intriguing at all.
Finally, the most disappointing thing about the album is how it ends. The finale, “Raw Optics,” is far from my least favorite song on the album, but is very underwhelming for a finisher. For an album filled with several larger, more epic tracks, the song is just an overextended drum fill for a solid 66% of it. It never really hits super hard, and doesn’t end up exploring anything super grand, creating a sort of uninteresting, low-energy ending to an otherwise pretty energetic album. I don’t think it’s as boring as a few of the other songs I just mentioned, but it is just a poor choice in a finisher for me personally.
Overall, this is a new and different exploration into older rock and roll sounds. The slow-tempo songs and lower bass lines provide a nice, dark base, but it’s accompanied by some well-produced, catchier melodies that definitely make it more accessible than a normal metal or hard rock album. Thee Oh Sees definitely take a trip to the 70’s with a lot of the featured instruments and sounds, but make it more of their own with these larger, more grandiose features. The instrumentals are fantastic, the song-writing is pretty great as well, and it’s a pretty enjoyable experience. While the vocals aren’t incredible (they’re probably only featured on about 20% of the album), everything else makes up for it, making it a non-issue. I’m thinking this is a strong 7/10.
Favorite Track(s): “Keys to the Castle,” “Jettisoned”
Least Favorite Track(s): “Paranoise”