New Oh Sees records have become as inevitable as the sun coming up over the last few years but, far from being formulaic or mundane, a new album from the band is always a pleasure because they’ve become so wonderfully unpredictable. Oh Sees are perhaps best analogised as some kind of eight legged creature, constantly changing form, mutating and shedding its skin; even their name has been through at least six variations of ‘The Oh Sees’ since their debut 15 years ago. The one constant is of course John Dwyer, guitar wizard, singer and the nicest man in (Acid) Rock. Dwyer is the nucleus of this weird organism and everything Oh Sees do always seems to have come from the mind of the man himself, despite having turned over nearly a dozen band members and collaborators at this point. This might sound a bit hokey, but you can tell that Dwyer lives and breathes music, and Oh Sees is his baby.
It’s this dedication to the band that makes their frankly staggering release schedule (this is the 21st Oh Sees release) extremely endearing, and that good will has often swayed my own opinion on some of the weaker, more derivative Oh Sees albums, because the intentions are good. Even after 15 years of albums, they’re still a shining example of how to make garage/psych rock exciting (alongside the late Jay Reatard and psychedelic overlords King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, in this writer’s humble opinion). So where does Smote Reverser fit into all this? Well, as mentioned, it feels like a straight sequel to Orc from 2017. Opening track Sentient Oona is an atmospheric jam that turns into a full-on freak-out by the end. The song makes full use of both of the band’s drummers to create a rolling platform of tom and snare fills that carry Dwyer’s distant guitar strums and later the stabs of dissonant organ chords and strange synthesised wails before the breakdown. That break gives way to a propulsive end section with each disparate part of the instrumental coming together as Dwyer tears through a thickly saturated guitar solo; it’s quite the opening.
Enrique El Cobrador takes things up another notch with this galloping, squelchy bass groove and organ embellishments galore. The lyrics also start addressing the album’s generally apocalyptic imagery, ‘Murdering and dreadful form/Shattering and vengeful swarm/Savouring the end of your days’. This is pushed by the cover art too, which I haven’t spoken about yet because… well just look at it for god’s sake, it speaks for itself, there are no words suitable enough to conjure up the level of absurdity and bad-assery that artwork stirs up. And if you take a look at Matt Stawicki’s other artwork you’ll see even more examples of such, so props to the guy. Following track C is still my favourite cut and has been since its release as a single. I love the sense of momentum in the snare rolls that underpin the ascending guitar/keyboard licks that threaten to burst with every re-introduction until they finally do. C also makes a good case for the move away from the occasionally testing lo-fi production of Oh Sees records past. Being able to actually hear the warm bass lines and funky organ chords makes the track feel much more intricate and layered; a far cry from just about being able to hear the vocals over the positively feral guitar and cavernous reverb on an album like Warm Slime.
Speaking of feral guitars though, Overthrown- the first teaser for the record- is so unhinged in its production it had fans wondering if this was John Dwyer’s metal album. Relentless drums paired with venomous, distorted vocals makes Overthrown the most outrageous track here, also, get a load of these lyrics; ‘Flee, bleed/Fucking bled clean/What is the point of it All?’ I think if Oh Sees ever do make that metal album, it’s not going to be a gentle listen. The Last Peace slows the pace after this, which is welcome, as we get mournful guitar chords interspersed with viola while Dwyer’s lyrics concern the apparent death of an old world and the attempt to begin a new one through the ‘planting seed/Of long gone breed’. It’s one of the longer songs on the record but its length is justified with more than half the run time dedicated to a bouncing psych-rock instrumental with a superb, serpentine bass riff that’s just the icing on the cake between the adrenaline-soaked guitars and propulsive drums. Unfortunately, that’s kind of where the good ends as the album takes a turn, not so much towards bad, but more towards boring.
Without question, Anthemic Aggressor is the main offender. An aimless twelve-minute instrumental slog with incessant bustling drums and guitar and synthesiser riffs and licks that never develop or go anywhere interesting, and then it just ends. It completely kills the pacing at the start of the second half of the record and, for me, the album struggles to come back from that. Granted, Abysmal Urn and Nail House Needle Boys go some of the way to getting things back on track, I like the lightning fast guitar licks in the former and the head bobbing rhythms of the latter, but Flies Bump Against The Glass (another uninteresting jam) brings things down again. The second half isn’t a deal-breaker, but it doesn’t feel like a solid enough ending, something every decent record needs to pull off, in my eyes.
If it seems like I’ve sped through Side B a bit, well, that’s because there really isn’t that much that’s memorable about it. I didn’t want to end on a negative note because, like I say, the first half is some of the most exciting, well played psych-rock you’ll hear this year, I honestly think its some of Dwyer’s finest work. It’s a shame the rest of the album doesn’t return to those heights, but that’s the wonderful thing about Oh Sees; they don’t always strike gold, but when they do, it still feels special. Maybe next year, next month, hell, even next week, John Dwyer will make that happen again.