Beyond the pulsating mass of flesh that was the mosh pit at the Oh Sees’ set at Omaha’s Maha Music Festival on Saturday, Aug. 18, John Dwyer’s signature guitar, an acrylic, completely transparent Electrical Guitar Company DS, caught glints of light which shot back to blind the audience. Dwyer is the mastermind and figurehead behind the Oh Sees and the only member to appear on every album in the Los Angeles-based psych-rock outfit’s discography.
The Maha set was the band’s first performance after the release of its 22nd studio album, “Face Stabber,” which dropped Aug. 16, the day prior. The band’s previous two releases, 2017’s “Orc” and 2018’s “Smote Reverser,” both saw the addition of heavy metal to the band’s sonic alloy. This brought the Oh Sees into the range of palatability for many metalheads and bridged the gap between wild garage noise-rock and sludge metal.
“Face Stabber” is a best-of-both-worlds scenario for the Oh Sees. While their most recent two albums are guttural battle cries, the band’s earlier work is steeped in innocence. Bouncy lo-fi surf-rock consumed early albums like “Thee Hounds of Foggy Notion” and “The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night in.” “Face Stabber,” the band’s first double album, blends these musical attitudes into nearly an hour and a half of bullet train-drumming, eyebrow-raising instrumental choices and plenty of moments where Dwyer puts the microphone completely inside his mouth and howls with delight. The result is the most self-actualizing album of the Oh Sees’ career.
Speaking of odd instrumental choices, the opening track, “The Daily Heavy,” breaks the ice with what sounds like a rubber duck squeaking to a boogie-beat. The bassline is what really brings the track together, laying a solid groundwork for the shrill, chaotic flailing of Dwyer’s pitched-up six-string.
The beat seems to take priority over most everything else on the album. The fact that the band has two drummers helps consume the listener in the song. “Poisoned Stones” is a perfect example of how almost every instrument is used to propel the crackling fire of percussion. A pitch-bending keyboard scurries around to dissonant pairings of notes, slapping out a cacophony in perfect time. The track is surprisingly catchy, despite its near-complete lack of traditional harmonies.
Dwyer’s voice has always been able to remain powerful while staying emotive. In almost all the tracks on “Face Stabber,” Dwyer dances his voice around in near-whispers and gives the feeling that Dwyer is conspiring the listener’s demise. In the 21-minute closing track “Henchlock,” Dwyer embraces the apocalypse as though it was of his own doing and paints a very morbid picture of our current state of affairs. “Let's have compensation, maybe, for your crimes. Evil men still living but they are fine. It's an evil nation, baby, death and dying. Looking out the window, baby, it's on fire,” he says.
Some tracks do slog on a bit, like “Scutum & Scorpius,” which is just five minutes shorter than “Henchlock” but isn’t nearly as cohesive or intentional. Most of the time, the instruments wander around in their own space, seldom coming together to form something engaging.The Oh Sees have had plenty of extended tracks in the past, but this song unfortunately exemplified the jam band stereotype perfectly.
The Oh Sees have gone through countless genre, name and lineup changes in the 15-plus years of their career, but they’ve always been very keen to make each album a cohesive unit. “Face Stabber” is yet another success story.
The cover art depicts a Tolkien-esque monster with arms outstretched. From the sound of it, the Oh Sees accept our grimy future demise with open arms — and whatever comes of the future, they’ll take their lives as a blessing and go on with the daily heavy.