Oneida has always been an ambitious band. Over the course of 11 LPs since 1998, the band has strived to touch every corner of the outer reaches of the rock spectrum, from go-for-the-throat noise rock to psychedelic pop whimsy, and from beer-soaked rock ‘n’ roll to virtuoso psych-rock shredding. Such versatility has led to polarized criticism. On one hand, the band could be “the next big thing” if only they’d settle on crafting more records like The Wedding, which somehow managed to tie together the missing link between E6 psych pop and Deerhoof’s Reveille. Conversely, both their imperturbable willingness to cram so many different ideas into one record and the pace at which they release music has attracted calls of over-indulgence and deliberate evasiveness. As with most such divisive bands, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. While Oneida is capable of at one moment making you think they are one of the greatest rock bands of our era, they are a headstrong unit not so much worried about pleasing potential listeners as they are pursuing some sort of vision of finding the true essence of rock music.
It’s not surprising then that their Thank Your Parents “triptych” manages to embody all of the tendencies that we’ve come to expect from Oneida. The first entry into this trio of releases was 2008’s Preteen Weaponry, which found the band at their most obtuse and least digestible form to date. Three lengthy tracks meant to form a seamless whole, it only served to presage the following year’s Rated O, a sprawling, gluttonous triple album that was both fertile with ideas and expansive in scope, but perhaps overly so, even considering what we had come to expect from Oneida. Lots of bytes and column inches have been spent trying to tap the meaning of Thank Your Parents. To this reviewer, it’s nothing new from Oneida. This particular undertaking is consistent with their modus operandi of rock deconstructionism. They clearly understand the rules, can take them apart and reassemble the pieces with ease, but, as always, they choose not to play by them.
Even though Oneida insist that the three parts of Thank Your Parents should be digested all at once or in their individual pieces, Absolute II must be taken as part of the whole to be fully appreciated. Any semblance of traditional song structure from the pre-trilogy days has been jettisoned. Those who have tuned out for a while, especially those who most value the band for Kid Millions’ prodigious drumming talents, will be puzzled by the beatless drone expanses on offer here. It seems that the band is striving to create a rock record with absolutely none of the traditional signifiers. Sort of like molecular gastronomy, they are seeking to distill rock music in the shape of something unfamiliar, like a pinecone that tastes like a potato.
Throughout Absolute II’s 40-odd-minute runtime, guitars and drums are nowhere to be found, at least not in any sort of instantly recognizable form. Opener “Pre-Human” seems to be mostly constructed from watery organ sounds of various timbres, the overriding noise being that of a croaking organ playing on and on, long after there’s no one left to hear it. It sounds like music made for an audience that has gone missing, proceeding on and on for an indeterminable amount of time. In its balmy murkiness, there is a hint of Sun Araw. In “Horizon,” we get some drone heaviness and a disembodied voice, like a flickering hologram trying in vain to communicate some pre-recorded warning. It’s all dystopian as helicopters and drones buzz ominously overhead. “Gray Area” marks the second movement of the record, all clangor and dread, before the title track, with its consistent, understated generator hum, wheezes and stutters to fade us out of the particularly stark reality contained here.
Whether or not Absolute II is any signpost as to where Oneida is heading as a band is anyone’s guess. They have never been content to play it predictable. Ultimately, as a standalone album, Absolute II is lacking. There are lots of noise rock and drone bands who release this sort of thing to tape on a regular basis. Oneida’s entry, while undeniably well-produced in comparison to some tape-scene bands, is really doing nothing too exceptional here. Instead, this album only succeeds as the final installation of their Thank Your Parents trilogy. But even then, the whole necessity of this enterprise is called into question. Rather than some clear artistic statement, we are left with more questions than answers. From a group as self-satisfied as Oneida, there is a pervasive feeling that, having completed such a grand statement, they will feel consummated and move on in accordance with whatever insatiable rock ‘n’ roll muse they have been following all these years.