Both JG Thirlwell and Simon Steensland have long been well regarded in the field of modern experimental and avant-garde classical music, with this Oscillospira collaborative album stemming from the pair’s work with the Great Learning Orchestra ensemble. Across the album’s eight tracks, the listener is guided through a disparate and dissonant stream of consciousness with little-to-no repetition upon which one can be anchored – melodic phrases or themes seamlessly transition from one permutation to the next in true post-modernist fashion. However, the tonal blend of traditional orchestral flourishes with distorted guitars, fretless bass, subtle electronic manipulations, and the incendiary drumming of Morgan Ågren lend a distinct progressive rock ambience to Oscillospira, specifically recalling the John Wetton-era of King Crimson in the early ‘70s, when the band was inspired by the likes of Béla Bartók, Gustav Mahler, and György Ligeti.
For example, on the opening “Catholic Deceit,” oscillating waves of an almost organic electronic billowing are complemented by melancholic strings and an almost jazzy dissonance of bass and hi-hats, the trickling marimba arpeggios adding to the tension; throughout the record, the frequent juxtaposition of soprano vocals with sustained guitar leads and violins create a brooding, frigid, yet almost fantastical atmosphere that is almost reminiscent of French act Magma, the layered choirs on a track like “Heresy Flank” working amid stabs of strings and brass as the drums and frantic bass make for one of the album’s more rhythmically satisfying moments. Throughout Oscillospira, the listener is treated to harsh contrasts as each track shifts from aggressive, even demonic passages of atonal gloom and, at times, outright cacophony to more pensive and introspective sequences of spectral beauty too brief to elicit anything other than the anxiety of awaiting the next aural eruption. Such is the case on tracks like “Night Shift” and the closing “Redbug,” the latter’s guitar truly evoking Robert Fripp’s legato phrasing amid staccato rhythms as the buildup of ostinato and choir vocals atop pulsating bass and steadily intensifying percussion keep things in a perpetually arresting state; you wait for the crash that only arrives in the form of reversed whispers of a childlike voice before returning to the monstrous procession of fretless bass, theremin, and wailing vocals that bring Oscillospira to a haunting conclusion. Ironically, one of the most sonically disruptive tracks is also the loveliest as the warbling tones of horns, strings, and voices waver in and out of key, with wisps of reversed pitches fluttering across the speakers… but somehow, it instills a sense of soothing familiarity and calm in spite of itself.
As stated, there is a discerned lack of what could be referred to as a melodic hook or phrase, which is common for this kind of experimental and avant-garde classical music. Consequently, though Oscillospira functions as an orchestral ensemble piece, best experienced from beginning to end with the tracks acting more as movements rather than standalone songs, it may be a difficult listen for many not accustomed to this style. Then again, neither Thirlwell nor Steensland have ever been ones to indulge their listeners’ comforts, often preferring to test their resolve with some of the most challenging compositions in modern music. Oh, how this writer shudders to think what other furious excursions the two musicians could have up their collective sleeves.
JG Thirlwell & Simon Steensland
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Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)