If you were to strap rockets to a garage and blast it into space, the resulting satellite would be the perfect studio in which to record the latest album by the Oh Sees, Smote Reverser. The prolific San Francisco band helmed by guitarist Jon Dwyer strikes again with its fifth album in just four years. On this one, they’ve jettisoned some of the punk rock and fueled up with prog-rock nostalgia.
The sound is still recognizable, fueled by the percussive onslaught of drummers Paul Quattrone and Dan Rincon. The low growl of bassist Tim Hellman serves as the band’s ground control, keeping its flight of fancy on target. Brigid Dawson returns to warm the astronauts with haunting vocals and cosmos-filling organ tones. She’s joined on keys on this mission by Tom Dolas, who played on last year’s Memory of a Cut Off Head.
The band has left behind some of its microphone-in-the-mouth punk to gaze ahead at a glorious future, or, more accurately, to look back at the way people imagined the present during the 1960s. The resulting album is almost entirely free of blood-curdling screams, except on the wonderfully noisy “Overthrown.” Even that song abandons its low-fi revelry for a shreddy guitar solo. The album instead layers futuristic synthesizers and organizes itself with arrangements more common in music schools than motor oil-stained garage floors.
The early tracks set the space-age vibe and there is little deviation from this trajectory. “Sentient Oona,” the album’s opener, begins with a groovy drum-heavy riff buttressing Dawson’s haunting ‘oohs’ before the band breaks into a series of drum and organ breakdowns that hint at old El Chicano records.
The album’ s second track, “Enrique El Cobrador,” sounds like vintage Hawkwind, with its growling and tubby bassline, suggesting something ominous on the temporal horizon. The song’s organ solo comes straight out of old Steppenwolf records, while its weedy guitar solo would be the perfect soundtrack to a chase scene in Logan’s Run. Imagine Iron Butterfly as David Bowie’s backing band.
The spacey-truckers’ chug of “C” is the standout track of the album. It’s so groovy, slick, and cool you’ll be rounding Saturn by the end of the track. The album takes a temporary detour into the lo-fi screamo of “Overthrown,” but the diversion is only temporary. The next two songs, “Last Peace” and “Moon Bog,” return to the Pink Floyd-and-quaaludes vibe of the earlier albums. “Peace” clocks in at almost eight minutes in its mellow jam, while “Bog” calls to mind Floyd playing sinister cocktail music. “Anthemic Aggressor” features a spaced-out jam over a relentless 12-minutes-long bass line, so you’ll have enough time to take a break before enjoying the song’s heady outro astride the apocalyptic beast on the album’s cover.
On “Abysmal Urn,” Sonic Youth-style noise segues into virtuosic guitar shredding before Dwyer sings “your generation is complicated,” as if to emphasize the disjunction.
The album’s last two tracks reach gracefully beyond the milky way, first with the wah-wah inflected “Flies Bump Against the Glass,” and finally with the bubbly and vowel-like synth sounds of “Beat Quest,” which culminate in a frenetic organ jam.
Oh Sees’ latest effort sounds a lot like the recent collaboration between Ty Segal and White Fences, Joy. In both cases the musicians mine the past’s fascination with the future, which just so happens to be our now. Smote Reverse digs through decades gone by, searching for another way forward.
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