Oxbow – Love’s Holiday


Where would we metalheads be without Mike Patton to keep us abreast of the strangest forms of alternative music? Oxbow are legends of the avant-noise rock movement that few of us understand in 2023 despite them playing this stuff since 1989’s Fuckfest debut. Now signed to Patton’s Ipecac Records for their eighth album, the San Francisco quartet retain their idiosyncratic sound on Love’s Holiday thanks to their charismatic vocalist and lyricist, Eugene S. Robinson. Imagine a gospel version of Swans’ more optimistic material with Delta blues legend, Bukka White, on the microphone and an array of guitar textures that veer between discordance and soothing melodies.

As former clients of Neurot Recordings, Oxbow sometimes draw comparisons with Neurosis, but nothing on this record will remind you of the Oakland avant-garde metal crew. Your ears will recognise the dissonant guitar phrasings of Voivod in opener, ’Dead Ahead’, yet Robinson approaches the punk foundations like Captain Beefheart at his most melodramatic. The crash of the hi-fi drums will transport you to an alternative club show circa 1983. All member of Oxbow have a background in hardcore, but none of their contemporaries ended up in this type of musical paradigm.

You can’t teach a singing voice like Robinson’s. It’s the archetypal voice with personality – part improvisation, part shiver with a cup of a coffee and an eye full of dormant tears. The Dead Kennedys vibe of ‘Icy White & Crystalline’ is one of the few times where you can identify an artist that influenced Oxbow. Not so on ‘Lovely Murk’. How else do you explain the bizarre gospel outcry in collaboration with the greatest proponent of music-as-trauma-therapy, Lingua Ignota (Kristin Hayter)? You’d think sweet melodies would be the last thing on the mind of a band that have as much in common with The Jesus Lizard as the devotional music to Jesus Christ, yet Niko Wenner’s resonant arpeggios glisten and gleam like a second-hand push bike. The slow chord-picking and light drumbeats become the de facto sound of this record after track two. Then you start to hear an anguished blues voice that Tom Waits might replicate if you ever asked him to cover Nick Cave. Robinson wants to be upbeat, but that’s like asking a Wall Street trader to quit his job for a non-profit venture. Can you feel the longing and regret in ‘All Gone’ as he talks in a gritty musical tongue suitable for television drama?

Robinson wears no mask, but his exterior weakens at the halfway point. ‘The Night the Room Started Burning’ invites the same sympathy as the debut John Frusciante album. You cringe, but not out of pity. It’s because Robinson is so honest and raw in this vocal delivery. The voice phrasings are unsteady enough to make you start smoking again. What kind of ailments does he have that force him to sing with creaking joints on ‘Million Dollar Weekend’? Can you imagine if all gospel music sounded as imperious and as heathen as the sultry Roman-esque choir arrangements at the beginning of ‘Gunwale’?

This album would benefit from additional songs like the two experimental punk numbers on side A and could do with more fibre to the thin neo-doom posturing of ‘The Second Talk’. Eugene Robinson sounds comfortable in his discomfort once the members of the rhythm section establish a regular tempo and let him bare his soul. But that squanders the experimental impulses of his bandmates. You want Tomahawk, but you end up with Tom Waits. It would be a problem if Oxbow’s art was not so charismatic and excruciating in its brave-face honesty.

Tomorrow you might wake up depressed, like the protagonist of a Delta blues anecdote. Let Oxbow be your soundtrack to a tolerable day that cannot get any worse.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 21/07/2023

Record Label: Ipecac Records

Standout tracks: Dead Ahead, 1000 Hours, All Gone

Suggested Further Listening: Captain Beefheart – The Spotlight Kid (1972), Voivod – Synchro Anarchy (2022), John Frusciante – Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (1994)