As anyone who has read PopMatters’ interview with Casey Driessen knows, the fiddle virtuoso is kind of a eccentric fellow. For one, his fiddles all have an extra low string, giving him a fuller sound and separating him from all those wussy fiddlers who have to make do with only four strings. So it’s no surprise that this mad scientist-style eccentricity carries over to Oog, his second solo effort. And although the album’s title sounds like a caveman grunt, it’s actually a nod to M.C. Escher.
Escher’s influence is readily apparent throughout the record; ambient artist Fognode provides lap steel, synth, and field recordings on several tracks, turning them into auditory tessellations. Aside from Escher, inspiration for individual tracks on Oog came from a host of other sources; everything from dreams to green tea to the Tao Te Ching runs through Driessen’s mind and hands, giving life to the abstract and inanimate.
The album unites a collection of guest stars that, like Driessen, are experimenting with roots music sound. Percussionist Matt Chamberlain, in addition to drums, is one half of the fiddlesticks—a unique sounding collaboration in which two musicians play on one fiddle—and he also takes the helm of the record’s “electronic mangulation”, whatever that might be. The group Driessen assembled for Oog—including Chamberlain, Darrell Scott, Viktor Krauss, and co-producer/engineer Jason Lehning—recorded the album in three days after only one rehearsal, which makes the quality of each track even more remarkable.
For the most part Driessen sticks with instrumentals, and although he doesn’t have the best voice, his vocals add another layer to his already complex songs. “Conversation with Death” takes its lyrics from “O Death”. It’s five minutes of pure bliss and musical genius, connecting the traditional music of Appalachia with contemporary bluegrass-influenced experimentation. Immediately following “Conversations” is “The Day Before Halloween”, a 90-second coda that is over far too soon.
Hank Williams’ “I’m Satisfied with You” gets the cover treatment on Oog, with Driessen turning the originally upbeat song into a mournful dirge punctuated by fiddle chops and drums. There are countless Hank Williams covers in country and bluegrass music, but you’d be hard-pressed to think of a rendition more creative than Casey Driessen’s.
A deconstruction of Bill Monroe’s “Ashland Breakdown” rounds out the album’s 13 tracks. “Ashland Breakdown” is one of the album’s most fascinating tracks wherein Driessen experiments with backwards melody. He played both fiddle parts backwards and then reversed the recording, expecting it to sound “normal”, as though he played it the correct way. It sure comes close, but there’s an added element of eeriness, perhaps due to a combination of the extra low string on both fiddles and the Frankensteinian assembly of the track.
Oog isn’t for everyone, but then what is anymore. Fans of Driessen’s more traditionally-styled fiddle work with Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet or his recent collaboration with Crooked Still will need to adjust to the the more experimental waters that Driessen is swimming in here. But those looking for something truly new might just find something here to fall in love with.