Thee Oh Sees, by this point, is less a band than it is an expanding universe. It explodes ever outward from frontman John Dwyer’s former apartment on Haight Street to encompass near and distant galaxies of psych pop, krautrock, and lo-fi scuzz. And they’re moving at roughly the speed of the actual cosmos; since kicking into full gear under their current moniker in 2008, the band has churned out LPs and singles at a pace that’s frankly intimidating to the casual fan. These aren’t waters to dip your toes in, as anyone who’s taken a full baptism in the band’s lengthy discography will tell you.
And yet, even those who observe Dwyer’s output from a comfortable distance seem willing to endorse his status as a scene demi-god. Any conversation about Thee Oh Sees in 2015 will likely begin with some variation of “John Dwyer drinks jet fuel for breakfast” — and that’s before accounting for how he found the time to relocate to LA and release a synth-driven solo album under the name Damaged Bug last year. This prolificacy should not be mistaken for a mission to single-handedly prop up the world’s vinyl pressing plants, nor should it be blamed on a lack of self-editing, as Thee Oh Sees have yet to produce an album unworthy of repeated listening. Its source is something altogether more pure: Dwyer and his rotating cast of bandmates do what they want, and what they want is to hear new sounds and reproduce them in their own chaotic image.
Take last year’s Drop. It may have featured a stripped-down version of Thee Oh Sees headlined by Dwyer and regular collaborator Chris Woodhouse, but Dwyer used the extra headspace to great effect, oscillating between his whimsical and balls-out tendencies like a broken Geiger counter. He also indulged his sentimental side on Beatles-esque tracks like “King’s Nose” and album closer “The Lens”, which together form a kind of farewell to San Francisco and its halcyon days.
If Drop was Thee Oh Sees’ last San Francisco album, Mutilator Defeated At Last is unmistakably the product of Southern California. The band’s previous album openers have skewed playful, inviting the listener into a delightfully inverted world. “Web” departs from this tradition with a sound that’s almost sinister; a sludgy bass line bubbles forth as if from a cauldron, and Dwyer sounds like a witch casting a new spell with each verse. It’s as heavy as anything on Drop, and its dark undercurrent flows straight into “Withered Hand”, which opens with the sound of wind blowing across an alien desert.
This moment is indicative of a larger design: The first third of Mutilator carries no shortage of face-melters, but its function is primarily atmospheric. Like a shaman who journeys into the desert in search of spiritual visions, Dwyer has embraced his new surroundings and begun to ask the dust for answers. He’s not alone here, though; Woodhouse and core member Brigid Dawson are back to fill out the lineup, and new drummer Nick Murray puts in the legwork to make all this sound like a chaotic live show.
With that said, it’s not until “Turned Out Light” that Thee Oh Sees once again sound fun, busting out of the haze with a riff ripped straight from the pages of Led Zeppelin. Dawson takes lead vocal duty on this rollicking track, with Dwyer contributing a hellish “whoop!” here and there, as he is wont to do.
Highlight “Lupine Ossuary” marks the album’s midpoint, as well as the moment it really comes into its own. A likely companion piece to Putrifiers II’s “Lupine Dominus”, the song is less straightforward and more exploratory than anything that precedes it. As such, it sets the stage nicely for Mutilator’s back half, which bursts out of the gates with the seven-minute psychedelic odyssey “Sticky Hulks”. Tracks like this are what makes the diehards believe that Dwyer can do no wrong. It’s a rudderless ship that seems to know exactly where it’s going, pausing only to pick up steam before once again charging forward.
Save the raucous “Rogue Planet”, the album’s last third wraps things up in a quieter place that seems far removed from the thick tendrils of “Web”. Mutilator is a hulking beast that covers a great deal of distance — as much as any other Oh Sees album to date. Its setting is, like the record sleeve suggests, wide-open and unfamiliar, a place where nothing feels quite right. If this is what John Dwyer in Los Angeles is going to look and sound like, longtime fans of Thee Oh Sees can rest assured: Their restless hero has found a whole new world to tear apart in search of answers.
Essential Tracks: “Web”, “Lupine Ossuary”, and “Sticky Hulks”