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Oxbow - The Narcotic Story

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Artist: Oxbow

Album: The Narcotic Story

Label: Hydra Head

Review date: Jun. 22, 2007

Doom metal has never owned an airtight claim to despondency. Nearly a century ago, Delta bluesmen scraped out raw sketches of anger, despair and insanity – timeless, classless sentiments that wouldn't be out of place in the oeuvre of any post-Eyehategod downtuned plodder.

Never "metal" but nearly always "heavy,” Oxbow knows its history, having used blues conventions as crude scaffolds for cerebral noise rock of the most disturbing order. There have been side glances: past collaborations with Jarboe, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Kathy Acker and Lydia Lunch made for maximum art-rock points. But if it's at all a hidden agenda of Oxbow's to destroy, or at least disfigure, "the blues" in order to save it, The Narcotic Story brings them one step closer to fruition. A vestige of the blues – of the sort evocative of some stinking deep-south abattoir – remains. But the record's eight songs are imbued with a desperate, film-noir quality, emphasizing orchestration beyond guitar, bass and drums. The band flirted with similar textures on 2002's An Evil Heat, but here there's less reliance on the typically "heavy.” The occasionally mathy Zeppelin riffs that stumble and slide, and stop-and-start rhythms are in shorter supply overall; the metal has largely been smelted out in favor of tension. Toggling between dissimilar themes over the course of the longer pieces continues to be an Oxbow hallmark, perhaps in more of a traditional fashion than a sudden edit-like jump. The transitions between the delicate and the bludgeoning are allowed to develop less jarringly in dynamic-laden numbers like "Time Gentlemen Time" and "A Winner Every Time.”

After the brief string quartet intro that weeds out all but those hip to Gyorgy Ligeti, The Narcotic Story commences with "Geometry of Business," a cabaret horror driven by acoustic guitar, fuzzed out bass and piano that gives early showcase to the vocal of pugilist-laureate Eugene Robinson. Indeed, his contribution remains Oxbow's central and most essential deformity, the dealbreaker for an otherwise viable college radio charter. Robinson's montage of mutters, croaks and shrieks that lend voice to characters of the moral lowest-common denominator are probably better left unintelligible. The effect can be terrifying all the same, though: "Oh Jesus," he whispers like a man who realizes he's just committed the irreparable before the band kicks into the vaguely spaghetti western-esque riff of "Down a Stair Backward.”

A piano chimes darkly, leading the mournful chamber rock of "She's a Find,” while strings waft in the background and Robinson remorsefully intones "I will help you fix your face," in another creep-out moment near the tune's coda. "Frankly Frank" gnarls a simplistic blues-rock riff to the brink of recognition, strangled vocals again at the fore. The sledgehammer riff and initial slippery rhythmic action of "Frank's Frolic" revisits some of the out-and-out bombast of past efforts, albeit with the inclusion of a skewed chorus hook. Robinson's blotto flophouse narration is offset by chattering free-jazz soprano sax, before the tune unhinges itself from a melodic interlude with atonal clusters of strings. "It's the Giving, Not the Taking" brings the album shambling to a close with an accordion-tinged, appropriately narcotized-sounding guitar riff and a glockenspiel/tubular bell combo that simulates a church cotillion.

Oxbow is one of the rare bands that exhibits such a glacial lack of compromise, from the start settling into a style that's harsh at best, and using music outside of their bubble as base componentry rather than outright influence. A personal colleague of mine and vocal critic of modern blues declared in a moment of exasperation that the two best bands working in that idiom were/are Arab on Radar and U.S. Maple. Compile that list for real with Oxbow on top and you might have a reasonable argument.

By Adam MacGregor

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