ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'
Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.
1 May 2020
Formed in 1980 by multi-instrumentalist P. Michael Grego and vocalist travis, ONO have perfected, throughout a handful of acclaimed albums and electrifying live performances, a style often described as "industrial-gospel". Combining dissonance and effects with chilling spoken word, their preference to focus on noise over music – ONO being a shortening of "onomatopoeia" – works perfectly with their initial statement of purpose. It's described in press materials as "experimental performance, NOISE, and industrial poetry performance band, exploring gospel's darkest conflicts, tragedies, and premises."
Red Summer is indeed a deep dive into the exploration of conflict. Named for the period in 1919 marked by anti-black white supremacist attacks across the United States, the album is chilling, cathartic, and brutally direct. The execution of the music is often ugly and painful. Still, it provides something of a necessary history lesson, focusing on events all too often glossed over in the history books. Think of it as Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States set to a jarring soundtrack.
Specific events in American history are referenced in direct, unvarnished fashion. The title of the opening track "20th August 1619" is a reference to the Dutch ship Pearl, filled with African slaves as it appeared on the American East Coast. Beginning with somewhat innocent yet oddly unsettling carnival music, Red Summer soon turns grim as the electronics become more dissonant, and travis takes on the role of a mad barker or auctioneer while the slaves are presented. "Sold! 23 'Negars!' N-E-G-A-R-S!! Field 'Negars' good as Gold! Money down!"
ONO's historical lens examines oppression throughout American history. On the single "I Dream of Sodomy", travis uses his experiences in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War – where he was subjected to sexual abuse by a commanding officer – to focus on systemic oppression. Alongside an industrial funk beat – probably the catchiest song on the album, if there is such a thing – travis unloads with barely contained rage. "I dream of Napoleon / I dream of Andrew Jackson / I dream of artillery / And me I'm from Mississippi," he sings.
In "Syphilis", a corrosive account of the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, keyboard player Rebecca Pavlatos solemnly narrates the story over a sludgy tempo and fractured pedal steel guitar lines. Meanwhile, travis holds the entire U.S. government responsible. "In 1932, Herbert Hoover gave me syphilis / In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave me syphilis / In 1945, Harry S Truman gave me syphilis." Nobody in power escapes blame.
While Red Summer is the latest offering from a band that has existed for four decades, there is no trace of wear and tear. Part of this is because new blood exists alongside the band's veterans. Newer member Jordan Reyes – whose label, American Dreams, released the album – was born ten years after the band's formation and is a crucial part of the equation. Guest rapper Malci appears on two tracks and is particularly effective on "Coon", laying down rapid-fire rhymes alongside travis' spoken word pronouncements (which are in turn bolstered by deafening industrial beats, adding to the dizzying, eclectic feel of the album).
While the album tends to focus on the "Industrial" side of the "industrial-gospel" description, Red Summer closes with the kind of deeply felt expression commonly heard in gospel music. Like the rest of the album, "Sycamore Trees" is a dark, often intimidating track, but it's delivered with the intense fervor of traditional church music. There are choral sections, tumbling drum fills, distorted bass lines, and various forms of cacophony. It's six minutes and change of sustained catharsis as if the entire band is clearing the decks after the intense history lesson that preceded it.
Red Summer is not really an "easy" listen. The subject matter is painful and difficult to digest. The music comes at you like a deafening storm. But it's absolutely essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States – past and present.