The Lowdown: During Oh Sees’ two-decade run, they have cemented themselves as one of the most prolific artists in indie music despite having notoriously gone through numerous name changes over the years (the band is formerly known as Thee Oh Sees, The Oh Sees, The Ohsees, Orange County Sound, OCS, and Orinoka Crash Suite). The California rock outfit have changed their name almost as frequently as they have changed their sound, and that much is evidenced by the more experimental and progressive nature channeled in the quintet’s last two albums, Smote Reverser and Orc. Face Stabber, Oh Sees’s 22nd studio album, pushes these experimental tendencies even further.
The Good: There is a vast smorgasbord of influences that mesh together so proficiently, and Oh Sees are malleable to a wide array of styles. At its core, Face Stabber adheres to the forms of Can and Kraftwerk, but this sound is reimagined in such an astounding way that you forget Oh Sees are even a “garage rock” band. Some of the guitar riffs take on the styles of Television (“Face Stabber”) and Thin Lizzy (“Together Tomorrow”) while “Henchlock” places an emphasis on jazz. “Poisoned Stones” shows a tasteful amalgamation between disco, funk, and no-wave, and from a purely instrumental perspective, it sounds like something one would hear from Guerilla Toss.
Guitarist John Dwyer is also incredibly versatile in his vocal performances. On “Snickersee”, he sings this pop melody in a way that sounds like Paul McCartney circa Revolver. Meanwhile, “Gholu” and “Heart Worm” serve as short, crushing punk bangers that show Dwyer singing in what sounds like an ‘80s crossover-thrash style. We could spend all day explicating possible influences since each track is a thick, hearty lasagna, but Face Stabber also has traces of DNA from the likes of Throbbing Gristle, Wendy Carlos, Silver Apples, Suicide, T. Rex, Karlheinz Stockhausen, King Crimson, Roky Erickson, and countless others.
The Bad: If you don’t have the patience to sit through 15-20-minute songs, “Scutum & Scorpius” and “Henchlock” will dampen the listening experience. If you do have the patience, that might be tested. While the instrumentals are nothing short of impressive, they lose their momentum rather fast, and at certain points, you find yourself counting down the time that’s remaining so you can move on to the next track. We can’t imagine that’s what the band wanted.
The Verdict: There are some tenured artists whose best work is truly behind them, then there are Oh Sees.
Upon listening to this album, some would be compelled to place a gulf between the garage rock Oh Sees and the avant-garde Oh Sees, but that demarcation cheapens the incremental progression the band have made over the years. Face Stabber stands as arguably Oh Sees’ most mature and nuanced work to date, and as evidenced by this album, the band is riding a steep, upward trajectory that has continued for an astonishing period of time. Even if this album’s successor causes that curve to take a nosedive, this record still signifies a lofty peak that few artists are capable of reaching, and much like reaching the top of a mountain, Face Stabber is a formidable achievement.
Essential Tracks: “Face Stabber”, “Gholu”, and “Poisoned Stones”