Oxbow The Thin Black Duke

[Hydra Head; 2017]

Styles: noise rock, heavy metal
Others: The Jesus Lizard, Craw, Soundgarden, Swans, David Bowie

Oxbow’s new album is bound to trigger powerful associations in 2017. Its title pays homage to one of the late David Bowie’s most controversial creations. The Thin White Duke emerged from the drug-fueled pressure cooker of the late 70s, making his debut on the title track of Station to Station. Bowie’s Duke had a demure, aristocratic bearing and favored conservative dress, evocative of 1930s Europe. Most significantly, though, the Duke was heavily associated with fascism, and Bowie — arguably speaking on behalf of his creation — got himself into hot water at the time for making flippant remarks about Hitler, Nazism, and the theoretical benefits of a new fascist uprising (although, it’s worth pointing out that at least one author makes a compelling case that the Duke is not a fascist at all, but rather a representation of the effete Weimar aristocracy on the verge of being swept away). With the rise of Donald Trump in the US, the surge in ethno-nationalism and totalitarianism all across Europe, and the death of Bowie in 2016, the album might appear designed as a commentary on our troubled times… until you dig a little deeper and find out that the title and its narrative architecture have already been in place for five to ten years.

This is only fitting. After all, blunt political statements have never really been Oxbow’s style, but that’s not to say they are apolitical. Rather, like Swans at their most confrontational, they distill politics down to its starkest, most unsavory essence: power. The accrual of that which grants one person power over another, the exercising of that power over those in a weaker position. The signifiers of power — money and sex — are consistently recurring figures in frontman Eugene S. Robinson’s lyrics, but the threat of violence, power’s true basis, is never far away.

Furthermore, The Thin Black Duke is at best a cryptic homage. While he’s still a prodigious lover of women, Oxbow’s Duke seems largely devoid of the ceremonial romanticism that characterized Bowie’s. He, in fact, bares more than a passing resemblance to Robinson himself: mustachioed and bull-necked, with fingers that are “muscled and tight.” The last detail is perhaps the most ominous, because the Duke is a man of few words; “His hands do all the talking.

Coming in at only eight tracks and about forty minutes, The Thin Black Duke may seem like a slender offering to show for ten years of continuous labor, but Oxbow packs a lot into that scant runtime. Guitarist and chief composer Niko Wenner ditched the woodwinds that played a prominent role in Narcotic Story and supplements his dense arrangements with a brass octet and a pair of string quartets. It adds a grand, orchestral majesty to songs like “Cold & Well Lit Place” and “Ecce Homo,” and helps to accentuate some of the album’s recurring themes and motifs. This approach shines particularly brightly on”Other People,” with the additional instruments weaving their way in and out of the hazy guitar surges and Robinson’s anguished howling.

The band’s offerings here tend to coalesce around more readily identifiable grooves, with fewer lurching shifts or passages of abstract jazz-noise. “Host,” in particular, sounds reminiscent of Down on the Upside-era Soundgarden, with the way that Robinson’s ragged, tuneful wails rush in to fill the gaps left by the song’s ponderous riffs. Yet, Oxbow continue to mostly subvert typical verse-chorus structures, like the way that Wenner’s breakneck guitar on “A Gentleman’s Gentleman” imperceptibly sinks into the background for the song’s back half, while Robinson runs through his hissed lyrics again, this time in a maniacal rasp, to the accompaniment of a jaunty piano.

On “Letter of Note,” Robinson plainly informs us that “It’s not the artifact, it’s the art.” But there’s no denying the artifact clearly matters to Oxbow. In a 2016 interview with Pierre-Alain Clauzin, the band wryly observed, “This stuff is going to last longer than we do, so it better be good.” The Thin Black Duke is a concentrated work of beauty and malevolence that will go toe-to-toe with any other rock record released this year, and likely beyond. Oxbow can take twice as many years to make their next record, as long as it results in something this magnificent.

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