There has always been something intensely magical to me about the collision of black and white. Beauty and ugliness, the sacred and the psychotic, the holy and the profane, benevolence and wickedness — the valley where inherently opposing forces conflate to form something grotesque and inspiring. Perhaps it comes from a desire to humanize (or dehumanize) something higher than ourselves. Or vice-versa, elevating the most vile parts of mankind to something grandiose. Perhaps it’s just born from bile fascination to see evil as an art form. Regardless, this electrifying spell of juxtaposition has proven to be a potent trick in an artist’s arsenal when utilized properly. Oxbow certainly understands this.
Formed in San Francisco in 1988 from the ashes of former hardcore act Whipping Boy, Oxbow initially started as a recording project between vocalist/lyricist Eugene S. Robinson and guitarist/composer Niko Wenner. Though one could broadly categorize their work as noise rock, they offered something unique among their contemporaries. Wenner’s collegiate knowledge of composition helped immensely in shaping their unique brand of noise rock, pairing pulverizing riffs and feedback with modern classical techniques from the likes of Penderecki and Stravinsky. Orchestral arrangements aren’t exactly novel to the world of art-rock, but Oxbow isn’t a band that sets their stories against operatic Broadway stages or goes for the formulaic Philharmonic route; that’d be too easy and Oxbow doesn’t do easy.
Wenner’s arrangements only enhance the punishing, vile nature of Oxbow’s music, full of uncommon time signatures, dense polyrhythms, wailing siren strings, free-jazz segments growling behind weary drones, bluesy guitar interludes, musical palindromes — theatrical only in the sense that they amplify the dismal tone and mood of their stories. These elements can be found throughout their discography from the incendiary scuzz of King of the Jews (1991) to the cinematic and paranoid Narcotic Story (2007). Married to these challenging forms and complex passages is Robinson’s versatile and unpredictable vocals that can go from a gravelly whisper to a nasal whine and everywhere in between. Where many artists are said to use their voices like instruments, Robinson uses his more like an actor, barking, shrieking, and groaning his verbose and unforgiving stories in a range of different styles as if narrating from different perspectives. In these stories, darkness reigns supreme: stories of addiction and withdrawal, suicide, hedonism, lust, portrayed without mercy or hope, alternating between the abrasive and the melancholic. Noise and chamber music, mania and lucidity — Oxbow exhibits a masterful melding of opposites.
For as cacophonous and chaotic as their music is, one could never accuse them of simply slapping together parts and calling it a day. Interviews seem to confirm that the members agonize and labor over every part until they’re satisfied with the end product. Even a full decade on from their last album in 2007, Oxbow shows a dedication and passion for their projects that few artists would have the patience to see through. My introduction to them came from 2017’s Thin Black Duke, an album that was a marked change in style for the band. The finished product, though vicious as ever, was shadowy and abstract — full of dialogue, portraits, and narration with a clear literary quality, but one that refused simple answers or resolution. And even when this made for a confusing first listen, the craftsmanship and unique personality were more than enough to keep me coming back.
While Oxbow’s explosive, monolithic art-rock is still present on Thin Black Duke, its tone shifts away from the unbridled fury and fight of albums like Fuckfest and An Evil Heat to something closer to the sound of A Narcotic Story, arguably their dreariest album. Refined, lavish, and regal, all while maintaining their trademark sanguine and sinister attitude. The sixteen-piece orchestra often performs gorgeous, haunting baroque melodies when they aren’t clashing together in discord to violate that same beauty. the strings and brass dance amazingly well with the band even at their heaviest, coordinated and choreographed so intricately that neither could pull it off without the other. Some songs see the band taking center stage on throttling, ferocious tracks as the orchestra takes a backseat (“A Gentleman’s Gentleman” and “Host”). Other times the band brings a gloomy base for dissonant, atonal strings and brass to wail over (“A Cold & Well-Lit Place” and “The Upper”). The effect brings to mind the image of a majestic royal bed, veiled with gossamer curtains and satin sheets that hide a mattress of spikes and rusted nails. Aggressive and alluring in equal measure.
And while it isn’t a traditionally “catchy” album, repeat listens gave me a great deal of appreciation for many of the great licks and leitmotifs through the album. The intro song, “A Cold & Well-Lit Place”, features an instantly sticky melody, Robinson whistling a tune that oozes with casual cruelty, backed by a slick rock beat. I love how each time this theme is reintroduced, the dynamics and instrumentation grow more intense until the orchestra takes something that was only casually cruel and makes it outright sadistic. The verses of “Letter of Note” contain these vicious, serpentine licks that wouldn’t be out of place on a doom metal track. The brass-heavy waltz of “Ecce Homo” and “The Upper” have an especially anachronistic quality when backed by drums and rock guitar lines. More than cinematic, the effect of these moments almost reach opera.
As far as the lyrical content of the album, this is where the album is at its most compelling yet its most cryptic. The fact that Robinson doesn’t thoroughly recite every line that’s written in the lyric sheet (if you get a physical copy like I did) only adds to this mystery, seeming to pick-and-choose what he deems most important to howl over the music. His vocal stylings further compounds this when he becomes purposefully incomprehensible on songs like “A Gentleman’s Gentleman” where he psychotically half-babbles the lyrics in a fit of barely-contained rage. Other moments show off these Waits-like barks and growls before transitioning to a theatrical raconteur from the early 20th century. Interviews and guides with word-of-mouth from Robinson bring a variety of fascinating stories and ideas that might’ve been lost on me for a first listen. Ideas ranging from social dissonance, apathy, power dynamics, materialism, self-destructive urges, and existentialism.
His lyrics lend an incredible amount of style to his descriptions of The Duke and his entourage, reading like something from a piece of classic literature of the late 19th century. A key example of this comes in the song “A Gentleman’s Gentleman”, a portrait of The Duke himself rife with murderous and theatrical imagery and paradoxical descriptions:
And at The Duke’s, eyes smile all the time
And the water and the wine flow all the time
And when The Duke talks he sounds like a mime
With his hands doing ALL the talking
It’s a wonderfully gothic portrayal of a Mephistophelian character, seeking to indulge men in their base urges and holiest aspirations. It seems fitting that his namesake, adopted from the famous Bowie character, was also a portrayal of an emotionless, hedonistic aristocrat. The album’s tone, musically and lyrically, is one of a foregone conclusion — a knowledge that this story will end in ruin and despair for those in The Duke’s audience. Its opener says as much as The Duke hosts a party, snuffing out “something warm” in their cold and well-lit place.
And no one here is broke.
No, no one here has anything to fear
And while they say that the best things in life are free
Everything around here comes with a fee.
On a first listen, my interpretation of The Duke was that of a patron of the arts, a purveyor of man’s greatest works; someone who artists turn to for his blessings and wisdom. “A Letter of Note” seemed to convey as much with this aphorism:
“It is not the artifact
It is the art
And the fact of the matter is
No one does what they did for the money
Leastways that is not why we pay for it”
And it is here that the Duke laughs
I’ll admit it’s a literal reading but these lyrics still present the album’s general theme of power, manipulation, and materialism. Where many seek to use art as a means of expression, The Duke seems to state that the material product matters more than the source it came from; what inspired a painting and what the painting actually is are very different things.
Heat and ice make recurring appearances in the lyrics, often in a conflated manner: “the gloom of days and nights that are exactly the same” in “Host”, holding on tight to yourself because “the warming chills you” on “The Upper”, a room that seems hot and cold at once in “Other People” (likely a callback to “A Cold & Well-Lit Place”). There may be a number of ways to interpret this, but I read it as a portrayal of an even larger theme: man’s confusion of the spiritual and material, of the tender and the transgressive. The Duke’s followers are seeking the favor of a man high above everyone in social status, wealth, wit, etc. Someone they might even pledge themselves to, sacrificing themselves to a man who couldn’t possibly care less, devoting themselves to him in the vain hope that they may reach his level.
The latter half of the album set the inevitable downfall in motion. The eerie, disquieting steadiness of “Host” brings the philosophy of greed to the forefront, a double entendre in the title: The host of an immaculate party and the host of a slow-working parasite. Consumed by that which you indulge in, losing control to it.
It lives in you.
Or the other way around.
This abiding interest in how that which is eaten is eaten
You like breathing? Then keep eating!
“The Upper” maintains its level-headed evil, its lyrics depicting the pleasure and lack thereof The Duke gains from having servants heed the whims of the self-serving.
And for all those who watch and wonder
Where this church service goes
And wait and wait on the doxology
Only about half will ever know
That the altar is altered in the likeness
Of that which serves itself like itself
is going out of style
“Other People” begins on a bright, airy and tranquil note, Robinson delivering a rare melody amidst his spiteful growls and twisted hollers, soft and full of soul. Its bells and horns maintain the noble setting, its passages and phrases feeling like they could’ve come from an early Scott Walker album. He speaks of those that confuse talk of love with love itself, tender strings seeming to finally shine a light in The Duke’s dark castle. Then the rug is pulled out from underneath, a screeching wall of guitar feedback crashing through the windows and sending the music into a sick shiver. Robinson recalls a lyric from “The Upper” with a new, terrifying context, going from a croon to a horrified scream. The victim submitting themselves to their killer.
He turns and returns and there is
a residual tenderness for the man with the ax handle
He turns to you and on you
and moves beyond the eventuality
That there’s nothing good in here
The end finally arrives on “The Finished Line”, a cruel mirror of the previous track. Once more, it starts soft and somber, airy and light. Its heavy guitars and bright brass sections even seem celebratory. But its lyrics tell a different story like the twist of a knife. A harrowing realization that all was for naught. Left in ruin by the man you once praised, used and abandoned with nothing to turn to. The material gain, the wealth, the hedonistic lifestyle — meaningless in the end. I can imagine its narrator falling to his knees in a pool of his own blood, humiliated and disgraced, a bullet wound in his chest while Robinson strains and cracks his voice like a man betrayed.
Your life as it finishes
Rung around with wasteful expense
Finds you this day of
Having won nothing at all
A spread of ash in the air of mock concern and mock care
Just like you were never there
Pointless senseless and now: endless
Though Thin Black Duke may not be the best album of Oxbow’s lengthy career, nor even the best representative of their sound, it’s slowly become an art-rock masterpiece in my eyes. Everything from its unpredictable and personality-rich vocals, the poetic lyrics that balance the grotesque with the gorgeous, its dynamic and excellently performed arrangements, the ideas of greed and self-sacrifice — few underground acts manage to make something as ambitious as this and even fewer actually succeed. It’s grandiose without being melodramatic. It’s emotionally powerful while maintaining a stoic intellect. Maybe I’m just a sucker for artists that are this good at displaying the marvelous in the monstrous.