I first saw Oxbow perform live back in 2007. The band has just released their then new album, The Narcotic Story, and the experience was simply beyond words. I was not familiar with their back catalogue and they completely stunned me, apart from the vocalist methodically removing his items of clothing through the show, was their radical take on rock music. Looking back now at Oxbow, it is impossible to pigeonhole them into any category, without using the broad “rock” umbrella term.
Ten years have passed since The Narcotic Story came out, and with that long an absence, expectations are naturally at a high, but Thin Black Duke delivers. Carrying on with their unclassifiable rock aesthetic, Oxbow carries down a path of explosive exploration. It is not just that they include influences outside of rock music that makes them unique, but it is the diversity and contradiction of such inputs that is surprising. How can a song structure adopting elements of classical music lead to a free-jazz frenzy? How can blues co-exist with punk? It is all an enigma, masterfully orchestrated by a progressive (not in the musical sense) aesthetic, on the rock genre and its evolution.
As versatile as the music is, it is accompanied by the similarly protean voice of Eugene S. Robinson, who transforms his narration in a number of unimaginable ways. From the subtle, almost timid delivery of the opening track and the whispering of “Ecce Homo,” to the story-telling persona of “Letter of Note” he travels to the extreme screams and growls of “A Gentleman's Gentleman” by route of the anthemic performances in “Other People” and the spiritual callings of “Host.” An album as multi-faceted as Thin Black Duke would fail with a lesser performance.
Through their existence, Oxbow has been channeling the primal urges of man, and that is an element highlighted in their take of rock music. Music that can be meticulously composed, thought out, but at the same time retain a degree of unpredictability and destructive urge. The explosive parts of the record, the twists and turns down the road graphically represent this volatility, but that is not the full extent of the primal self. Repetitive mantras, bluesy tones, and quasi-spiritual moments drag the listener to the emotional side of the record, in tracks like “Host” and “The Upper,” showcasing a rare trait: retaining the balance between preparation and improvisation. This is a record thoroughly produced but without losing its power and purpose on the process. Oxbow are being diligent without overthinking.
This has led into acquiring the most important element of all: being cool. Not “cool” in the sense of producing a good album, but producing music with certainty and flair. Be it through '70s riffs, classical crescendos, jazz-punk mayhem, the keyboard in “Ecce Homo” or the fucking whistling that kicks off “Cold & Well-Lit Place,” Oxbow have created a fucking cool record.
8.8 / 10
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