[13 July 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
The wonderful thing about a band like Oneida is that they’re damn-near impossible to classify. Unfortunately, this is also their greatest weakness.
Since 1997, this group of heavy-rocking Brooklynites have been delivering their own unique brand of stoner-rock to the masses, jumping around from genre-to-genre just because they can (Krautrock? Why not!), no two records ever sounding the same. They don’t go for “quirky” genre deviations, however, like the kind that Ween occasionally succumbs to. They make straight-ahead, “serious” rock music, and since they rarely use humor as an “easy out” for justifying their stylistic left turns, what we end up with is a band that is forced to make bold, bold choices with their sound, because otherwise their music would collapse under the weight of its own eclecticism.
For each time it feels Oneida is about to get lost in their own bluesy haze of bong smoke, however, they drop a left-field gem that makes you completely reconsider what this group is capable of. A prime example of this is how their excellent 2005 disc The Wedding ends with the positively Beatles-esque tune “August Morning Haze”, replete with gently sawing string sections and group vocals. Even last year’s slept-upon Preeteen Weaponry exhibited a group at the peak of their instrumental rock powers, capable of riding grooves out for well over 14 minutes and—against all odds—making these epic tracks work, each movement containing its own unique arc and texture.
Unfortunately, it’s achievements like these that make Rated O a profound disappointment in comparison.
The second part of their proposed “Thank Your Parents” trilogy, Rated O is a three-disc (!) opus that is at once darker than Preteen Weaponry and far, far less interesting. Coming off more as a series of rough sketches than a group of carefully constructed songs, Rated O is heavy on basic electronic sounds mixing with thick slabs of guitar fuzz, the tracks rarely adhering to any sort of coherent structure, as if the band is jamming just for the sake of jamming and recording the end results. In truth, Rated O is the sound of Oneida at their most uncompromising, which, sadly, means that they’re at their most meandering and formless as well.
Disc one opens with “Brownout in Logos”, which rides a simple electro thump that’s not too dissimilar to M.I.A.‘s “Pull Up the People” (of all things), cascading sound effects melding with some cowbell work and all the distortion that the band could muster. Though some chants and shouts come in half-way through, “Brownout in Logos” is a lazy, meaningless track that features next to nothing in terms of melody or momentum. The group simply moves from one melodic phrase to the next without any sense of unity or direction. This template continues on for a majority of the first disc, and though it’s great to hear tracks like “10:30 at the Oasis” go from analogue keyboard ditties to full on ‘80s-indebted prog-styled epics at the drop of a hat, there is a complete lack of dynamics within the song. The middle portion keeps repeating the same guitar lick for about four minutes before devolving into a broken-record fuzz motif that would make Trent Reznor jealous were it not for the fact that it’s repeated ad nauseum for another three minutes after the fact. These stylistic deviations don’t hold the novelty they once did, as it now feels as if they’re made just because the band is trying to fill some sort of self-imposed quota.
After a while, you begin to wonder if this is the same Oneida that we’ve known since the turn-of-the-millennium, as even at their worst they never did a track as mindlessly indulgent as “The Story of O” or as pedestrian as the drum-and-vocal workout “The Human Factor”. The very last track of this three-disc monstrosity, “Folk Wisdom”, feels like an extended remake of Pink Floyd’s “Let There Be More Light” but with all of the interesting bits removed, its 20-minute running time marking one of the low-points of the group’s otherwise-fine catalog.
Which then leads us to the curious nature of Rated O‘s second disc. Composed of more “traditional” structures (choruses, vocals with lyrics, etc.), Rated O‘s second act feels carefully considered, managing to rock out without once ever feeling too calculated. The keyboard-laced chorus to “The River”? The brief appearance of a multi-tracked choir in the middle of “I Will Haunt You”? The delightfully strange blues-samba groove that dominates “Saturday’? This is the Oneida we’ve come to know and love, capable of creating songs that are dramatic as they are distorted, engaging as they are replayable (and imitatable). Though disc two doesn’t necessarily push the group’s sound in any new directions, this part of Rated O serves as somewhat of a caveat for the insanity that surrounds it, a reminder to fans that they’re still capable of crafting straight-ahead rock gems when they feel like it, even as they’re bitten by the curious bug of experimentation.
As easy as it is to write off the first and third discs of Rated O as being overly indulgent, however, there are still some fantastic moments to be found on each of them. “What’s Up Jackal?” (from the first disc) is an electronic number that could easily serve as the foundation for some long-lost Chemical Brothers track, while the disc three opener “O” is a druggy instrumental piece where sitars mix with vintage keyboards to create one hazy instrumental cocktail. It’s during these fleeting moments of fancy that we feel like Oneida has never lost sight of their ability to push their sound to new and unexpected directions, making the rest of the tracks on those respective discs sound positively lifeless by comparison.
Of course, there are still several questions that linger following a straight-ahead listen to Rated O (why did they need three discs to give us music that could easily have easily been put onto two, given that all the albums collectively clock in at under two hours?), but the end result is the same: over the course of three fuzzed-out discs, there’s one solid Oneida album to be found in here. You just have to wade through some indulgent, excessive, and flat-out boring instrumental passages to get to it.