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Uneasy Listening 

Oxbow drags experimental rock into the heart of darkness

Wednesday, Sep 11 2002
While most people consider music a salve for the stresses of the workaday world -- why else would terms like "easy," "lite," and "smooth" infect the radio dial -- artists have always relied on song to explore harsh human realities. From the tales of broken hearts, hard times, and homicide voiced by blues singers in the '30s, '40s, and '50s to the unbridled dissonance of free jazz railing against racial inequality during the '60s to the discontent embodied by '70s hardcore punk, music has always provided an outlet for anger and anguish.

Mixing elements of all of these expressive forms (along with a dose of avant-garde classical and some frighteningly dark lyrics), Palo Alto-based quartet Oxbow has been bludgeoning the underground with its harrowing experimental rock since 1989. The band's abrasive songs make the bleakest efforts of Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, and Tool sound like a trip to a children's petting zoo. Though the foursome's dense, swirling tunes may seem to teeter on the brink of complete collapse and its live performances hearken back to the dangerous spectacle of Iggy & the Stooges at their most confrontational, Oxbow approaches its chaotic art with precision and clarity. Instead of creating something of enduring beauty, the band makes uncompromising music full of honest snapshots of lust, violence, and emptiness. Like the classic Jim Thompson noir The Killer Inside Me, Oxbow forces its audience to confront the darkest regions of the human heart.

There's nothing about Oxbow singer Eugene Robinson's outwardly genial manner to suggest a seething cauldron of inner turmoil. During a phone interview, his measured tones, articulate nature, and hearty laugh come through easily. Yet there's no way to hear Oxbow's music without wondering if Robinson has a few skeletons in his closet -- as well as several human body parts in his freezer. Whether listening to his unhinged shrieks and moans on Oxbow's recordings, watching his half-naked 6-foot frame lurch across the stage, or reading the perverse poetry of his lyrics, one senses the palpable aura of wrongness in Robinson's work.

Then again, the man who made waves in the '80s by publishing the noted underground magazine The Birth of Tragedy (named after one of Nietzsche's major works) could hardly be expected to deliver songs about sunshine and lollipops. Robinson first started collaborating with future Oxbow guitarist and principal musical arranger Niko Wenner in the psychedelic hardcore band Whipping Boy in 1984. Oxbow began strictly as a recording project in '89, with Whipping Boy drummer Dan Adams coming on board as bassist and drumming chores being split by Greg Davis and Tom Dobrov. (Davis eventually took over full time in 1993.) Wenner says the band formed around the concept of freedom: "Oxbow should first be a group that had ... no commercial aspiration. The idea was to make any kind of music or sound that we wanted to use OK." The foursome's assault on musical convention -- and unprepared ears -- was under way.

Oxbow's initial efforts (Fuckfest in 1989 and King of the Jews two years later, both originally released on the band's own CFY Records before being licensed to other labels) introduced a sometimes cacophonous, sometimes restrained, always unsettling sound. Robinson's wailing, multitracked vocals -- imagine the layered call and response of Al Green or Marvin Gaye as delivered by Harvey Keitel's Bad Lieutenant -- careened over Wenner's corrosive riffs. Comparisons to noise-rock precursors the Birthday Party and Swans make some sense, but Oxbow's broader sonic palette also incorporated everything from choral samples and Eno-esque ambient noise to acoustic guitar strums and unnerving atonal strings. As difficult as it was compelling, Oxbow's music earned the group a core of admirers, including engineer extraordinaire Steve Albini.

As Robinson recalls (via e-mail), "Albini said he had been in Los Angeles and heard Oxbow on the radio and tracked down Fuckfest and King of the Jews and wondered how the hell the band managed to mash all of that density into a recording that he guessed [correctly] as being 16 track." Liking what he heard, Albini stepped behind the boards for 1995's Let Me Be a Woman and 1997's Serenade in Red, helping Oxbow streamline its sound without losing its oppressive dread. On the former record Wenner displayed divebombing slide guitar, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet's Jon Raskin delivered skronking baritone sax, and Robinson dragged the listener into a vortex of childhood rape and murderous impulses. For Serenade, the band presented an almost cinematic song-cycle, drenched in themes of betrayal, homicide, and sexual tension, with one tune featuring guest vocals from British chanteuse Marianne Faithfull, no stranger to life's dark avenues herself. "I had grown obsessed with her," Robinson notes, "and just called. This is before Metallica heard Serenade in Red and figured it worked so well for us that they'd call her, too." Her album-closing duet on a version of Willie Dixon's blues tune "Insane Asylum" fit perfectly with Robinson's lyrical spiral into madness.

Oxbow's latest effort, An Evil Heat, is its first on Neurot Recordings, the Bay Area imprint run by fellow experimentalists Neurosis, and a continuation of the band's exploration of the heart's dank tributaries. Forged over the course of two years of what Adams calls "torturous fine-tuning," the songs on An Evil Heat represent a fever dream of sexual compulsion, pulverizing riffs, and droning feedback. Grappling with religious iconography and base desires, Robinson sings of a personal trinity ("the drunk, the reprobate, and the Holy Ghost") and then resolves to move beyond guilt: "Sorry ain't something I ever going to be sorry over/ It slows the sinning/ What with all that knee-bending." The album closes with the epic, near-psychedelic tune "Glimmer (Shine)." Over half an hour long, the instrumental tour de force balances a pounding, Melvins-esque groove with a soothing wall of layered guitar-noise.

Though working in the recording studio lets the band flesh out its complex arrangements, Oxbow strips its music to the simpler components of volume, fury, and intensity when playing live. As Wenner, Adams, and Davis lay down a punishing foundation, Robinson gives the sound its physical expression. Ears covered in duct tape, the singer sheds both clothing and inhibitions in a discomforting exorcism. The performance usually leads audience members to take a step or two back, but occasionally some listeners challenge what they perceive to be an act. On the band's European tour last spring, two separate altercations arose in England. According to Robinson, one fight "almost veered off into bloodshed, knives, and riot, but happily ended up with only one man being choked into unconsciousness." While no charges were filed and all parties managed to shake hands after regaining consciousness, these incidents seem to go along with the cathartic rage Oxbow unleashes onstage.

Those uncertain about braving the chaos can soon experience the band from the safety of a theater: L.A.-based documentary filmmaker Christian Anthony shot the group's spring tour for a feature-length movie. In addition to capturing the intensity of the live Oxbow experience, Anthony hopes "to give a sense of what is required to be a truly independent band making music that is not considered accessible." The director is currently editing the film under the working title Music for Adults (Robinson continues to lobby for the more inflammatory Music to Fuck By), with the aim of finishing it by year's end.

Film figures heavily into Oxbow's plans, as Robinson just commissioned storyboards for an hourlong script he wrote titled The Narcotic Story. Though he's done a good deal of acting in everything from television to feature films to porn, Robinson will make his debut as director with this movie, which will star Tina Gordon, drummer for local metal mavens Lost Goat, along with the rest of Oxbow's members. "We're only using one song off of An Evil Heat, but we are doing a soundtrack," Robinson says of the picture's music. "Not a soundtrack record but a SOUNDtrack. Think of The Third Man; a real soundtrack with Oxbow at the helm. It'll be fun."

Robinson's idea of "fun" might not jibe with the average person's, but for the brave souls who peruse the quartet's intense musical diaries, Oxbow offers an exhilarating journey into spaces most bands fear to tread.

About The Author

Dave Pehling


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