Anyone who’s heard the Coachwhips’ 2003 album, Bangers Versus Fuckers, knows the impossibility of overstating John Dwyer’s ability to craft some of the most abrasively over-driven recordings in the history of rock n’ roll. That band’s penchant for playing three chord blues progressions at a blistering pace through a deregulated analog soundboard could blow the doors off anything the “THE” bands of the early 2000s could ever muster while simultaneously jarring loose your eardrums and leaving you dangerously disoriented. Though basic, that formula contained an altogether perfect balance of defiant San Franciscan nonconformity, head bobbing Americana, and anti-“image” punk rock.
Thee Oh Sees (formerly OC’S and The Ohsees), another Dwyer brainchild, actually predates the aforementioned project by many years, but it laid in waiting throughout much of the late 90s and early 2000s until becoming a full-fledged band in 2004 – at which point the group proceeded to put out nine albums, a live disc, and countless seven-inches. From its inception, Thee Oh Sees has been a decidedly “softer” – though no less abrasive – affair, trading the in-your-face-and-ears vibe of Coachwhips for a relatively more laid back Middle America psychedelic garage band approach. However, on their latest offering, Castlemania, Dwyer and co. have managed to shift away from their usually straightforward instrumentation towards something completely different from anything they’ve done in the past.
Opener “I Need Seed”, a good-natured storybook allegory about outsiders, dropouts and bottom feeders needing a little mood food here and there, sets the tone of the record as a light, up-in-the-clouds jaunt that replaces hard, jagged electric guitars with sing-songy acoustic guitars and a kitchen sink of unconventional instrumentation. The rest of the disc listens like an echo of one of the most perfectly absurd lo-fi recordings ever made, as Dwyer becomes Guava-era Gene Ween with his grainy, high-pitched squeal while the band propels itself through a surprisingly fast psychedelic haze with a white noise-enveloped intensity akin to the Brian Jonestown Massacre if they were all speed freaks (“Castlemania”). It continues into thick, oscillating walls of fuzz, flutes, and tower bells with the kind of strange 2.5-dimensional orchestral depth (“Corprophagist”) of which only Bowie circa Space Oddity was previously thought capable.
Note: This is a review of the vinyl release of Castlemania, which (for audiophile reasons) was recorded for 45rpm playback. As such, it is slightly faster and higher-pitched than the digital release, which sounds similar to a record played at the usual 33rpm. Nevertheless, this review should not detract from the quality of the digital release. Though the vocals may be more grounded, they certainly aren’t normal; and the lengthening of each track does nothing to slow or cool the intensity that the band exhibits throughout this phenomenal album.