23 June 2017

Oxbow - Thin Black Duke

Some bands have an aura about them, something which is you cannot put your finger on as the music created is indescribable and it is not for everyone.  Somethings are not to be digested by the masses as it is not a cookie dough, easy fit, one size fits all product.  Oxbow are one of those acts, an act which command respect from all who hear the call and they have little concern for anything but their own sound.  Formed in 1988, Oxbow have been mixing a blend of Avant Garde jazz, noise and pushing the boundaries of what constitutes as a song over the course of their six previous records.  Their last studio album was released in 2007 (the brilliant 'The Narcotic Story'), but they have not been quite in the ten years since that release.  They have released live albums, split EP's, they have toured and they have been making sure that their presence is still felt.  Once the rumblings of a new album started to increase in volume, I knew it was an album I had to review.  I also knew it was one that I would take my time to absorb, you never totally appreciate an Oxbow album on the first listen.  To be honest, it always takes me a long time to sit down with an Oxbow record and to even have an inkling of understanding about everything that they are saying on an album, as the craftmanship that goes into each note, each uttered word, each drum skin hit is inspiring and on a different level to almost every band out there.  Writing anything about a band who are as well read and sublime as Oxbow is daunting, especially for my dyslexic style of writing.  But I feel compelled to write something about this album.  So, as I have lived with the 'Thin Black Duke' for a while now, it is time to write my review.

01 - Cold & Well Lit-Place

Starting with a short intake of breath, a gentle whisper and then the music starts to flow. The mixture of guitars, strings and horns is as smooth as silk, as strong as an elephant on the run and as unique as an individual fingerprint.  It is a beautiful piece, one that is full of contrasts, dynamic shifts and grand gestures that will take your breath away.  It not an easy piece of music, but if it was not a challenge then it would not have been crafted by Oxbow.

02 - Ecce Homo

The feedback at the start of this song sounds like sirens in the night, the whispering voice of Eugene S. Robinson sounds as menacing as ever, the music starts to open up and you could truly lose yourself in this beautiful piece. It progresses with a non-conformist attitude that has always been the calling card of Oxbow, something that continues to reward with each repeat listen and it never fails to deliver.

03 - A Gentleman's Gentleman

Oxbow pick up the energy on 'A Gentleman's Gentleman', giving this song an aggressive edge, almost flexing those muscles that have been hitting precision punches on 'Cold & Well Lit-Place' and 'Ecce Homo'.  The power of the vocals is scary and fascinating, the piano is hit with a vengeance, the drums are loud and the noise is (once again) amazing.  I adore this song, it was the first one on the album I understood, the first one to let me in and it is one of my favourite on this album.

04 - Letter of Note

Music can be more than one thing at the same time, this is perfectly illustrated by 'Letter of Note', which is both powerful and graceful in stature, with a gentle passage that is carried with the strings on this song.  Then it has the harshest passage of music on the 'Thin Black Duke', the screeching and wailing of the band is without a doubt reaches its peak on 'Letter of Note', but it also has other currents at work on this song.  Once more, I found out more about 'Letter of Note' with each listen, it keeps revealing a little bit extra each time.  I am still being taught lessons by this song, even as I type these words and I know this will continue long after I publish this review.

05 - Host

I keep losing myself in 'Host' as it has a shifting feeling and you are given a firm footing by the band to guide you.  It is a good song which expands, contracts, moves in one direction to once again change pace for another avenue of sound.  I love that way changes, but if you are not careful, it will send your head spin. 

06 - The Upper

'The Upper' is the ying to the yang of 'Host', the instant appeal to the harsh challenge, the sound of control over the shifting sands of Avant Garde noise.  Both songs are in sublime contrast to each other and in the hands of Oxbow, they are tools which are used with expert marksmanship.  But 'The Upper' has one of the best passages of music on the 'Thin Black Duke', the howling noise that erupts on this song never fails to impress and its sensual nature is beautiful.   It is such a powerful statement, how could you not be impressed?

07 - Other People

'Other People' is one of my favourite songs of an album full of wonderful pieces of music, one that have not failed to deliver shivers up my spine from the first moment till the last note has long faded out.  The performance is striking, the vocals go from gentle crooner to wounded beast with everything in-between.  The band are composed and ready to ignite at a moment’s notice, adding depth to the strings and horns that form the bases of the music.  It is a perfect moment on this album, one that I adore listening to with a sense of anticipation each time the needle drops.

08 - The Finished Line

Sadly, the album ends so soon, but it is better to be left wanting more than feels as if you want the album to have stopped two or three songs earlier.  Out of a distance howling, 'The Finished Line' starts with the guitar is strummed as everything feels as it is on a come down, but Oxbow are not going to let you out that easily.  This is a six-minute lesson is how a song is meant to sound, how a song is meant to hit you in those places where it hurts.  It feels like time stands still once it starts and that it is over far too quickly once it has finished, it is so hypnotic and delightfully powerful that you cannot help but love it.  The feedback, the quite passages, the howling vocals, the sparse and precise drumming, the whole package is as stunning as anything else on this album.  What a way to end this record......

To say it took a while to understand the 'Thin Black Duke' is an understatement, but that does not mean I did not enjoy it from the beginning as understanding and enjoying an Oxbow album is two different things entirely.  In fact, I was floored at it is a powerful record, the strength behind the music is amazing and I am finding it hard to put into words just how beautiful this album sounds.  It is an outstanding piece of art, one that I am still coming to grips with.  I wish there were more albums created with this much attention to details, with this much passion, determination and skill.  It is a masterpiece, one that is without equal in 2017 so far and one that will be incredibly hard to beat.  I usually try to think of some sort of criticism so that my reviews do not sound like a sonnet, but this review is pretty much a love letter to an album that is hard to love and impossible to put down.  I cannot compare it to any other album out there, it is a unique and beautiful experience that reveals more with each listen and it is still a mystery in so many ways.  For this to be beaten in 2017, someone is going to have to create an opus beyond human reckoning.  If I had to describe this in one word that word would be flawless (or terrifying, I go backwards and forwards on that one).

10 out of ten - This is proof that there is a deity.

Top track - Other People

You can purchase the Thin Black Dude (as well as other past releases from Oxbow) on the Oxbow Bandcamp page here.

You can visit the Oxbow website here (there is a link to a webstore on the website).

You can purchase the Thin Black Duke on Amazon here.

You can follow the activities of Oxbow on Facebook here.

You can stream the Thin Black Duke on Spotify here.

You can stream the Thin Black Duke on Deezer here.

You can stream the Thin Black Duke on Tidal here.

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