Here we are, the first Oh Sees album of the year – after last year’s return to form Orc and the bucolic Memory of a Cut Off Head, Smote Reverser, their 21st, sits somewhere in-between. Its cover, a reminder of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s Murder of the Universe, suggests it’ll be a heavy one. And that’s true…to a certain extent; some albums are almost rhizomatic in their cohesiveness, usually with some overarching theme or quality, but not this one. It’s not especially surprising – this is a group, headed by John Dwyer, who’ve built their career out of sprawling chaos, veering between garage rock wig-outs, nebulous freak-folk and more – but it means it’s perhaps advisable to go through each track separately and prescriptively.
On ‘Sentient Oona’, a restrained opening gives way to blissful “Ooh”s and then suddenly it’s guitar stabs, a lout trying in vain to get into a club he’s been chucked out of; then it goes full throttle, the soundtrackK to a Kung Fu video from the early days of YouTube filmed a few years prior on a cheap camcorder but uploaded whimsically to share with family. In comes a blistering guitar line, conjuring up maybe the soundtrack to a vid of an almost-feral pet cat running around a garden, perhaps with a trampoline and some white plastic sunloungers in the background. It repeats with a bare-bones synth line and some squally guitar.
‘Enrique El Cobrador’ on the other hand sounds a bit like a doomy Can might after ingesting a vat of those liquid iron diet supplements you see advertised on the tube (you know, if they actually worked), with healthy applications of distortion and fuzz, twiddly guitar, and lashes of organ. The addition of the latter, by Tomas Dolas, adds depth and civilises things a little. Things taken a turn for the worse though on ‘C’ whose awful boogie grooves can’t really be redeemed by anything. Best to skip.
‘Overthrown’, shared back in May, is an entertaining, wild wodge of metal, both a tongue-in-cheek pastiche and joyous celebration of its tropes, extolling the virtues of going nuts. On it, you’ll hear nuggets like “Flee/ Bleed/ Fucking bled clean/ What is the point of it all?”. ‘Last Peace’ is a seven-minute whirl of almost stately vocals, frantic guitar and bastardised Motorik beats.
Over halfway through and ‘Moon Bog’ is laid-back and a bit louche but boring. ‘Anthemic Aggressor’ has good backing, but there’s ‘expansive’, ‘ambitious’ and ‘having fun’ and then there’s ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘turgid’. At 12 minutes, ‘Anthemic Aggressor’ really risks crossing such a line, though the backing, with two drummers, would probably be quite impressive live. ‘Abysmal Urn’ has an abysmal title and starts fairly abysmally but gets better. Listening to it in isolation from the rest of the album, it doesn’t sound too great, but perhaps this speaks to John Dwyer’s own talent for immersing the listener in his own ‘beat quest’ and this album’s blatant disregard for subtlety.
Unsurprisingly, high-pitched harmonised guitar and excessive unison bends, even when underpinned by some Liebezeit-esque drumming, get tiresome quickly on ‘Nail House Needle Boys’. Then there’s ‘Flies Bump Against the Glass’ – a nice image, no? – where strings, heavy bass, and wahwah lend it a more cinematic quality. ‘Beat Quest’ is alright too, but therein lies the problem: the latter half’s songs lack the ferocity that makes some of the group’s output so exhilarating and they also manage to bypass the hazy melodies that occasionally surface (as on The Cool Death of Island Raiders) and turn what’s at-times brittle into something warm and enveloping.
Smote Reverser is a perfectly decent album, with the opening two tracks especially strong, but the rest sounds a bit middling. Not even anticlimactic or especially disappointing, just a tad uninspired and given to sometimes OTT noodling. With the emphasis on the krautrock and metal facets of their sound, it’s a step up but not a big one.