REVIEW: Oxbow – Serenade in Red (1996)

The sonic equivalent to Sunset Boulevard’s floating-pool opening, the unhinged bordering on infantile murmurs of outspoken vocalist Eugene S. Robinson creep into frame. Waves form and relax without ever breaking. That is, until they do, and opening track Over slams into slide guitar swells and low horn rumbling. Drummer Greg Davis commands every puncturing beat, subsiding only while guitarist Niko Wenner and bassist Dan Adams quilt the listener in delicate mystique; every touch of the ride cymbal a looming threat (or promise) of what could come back at any moment.

Eugene S. Robinson’s vocals can be hard to explain. He subverts macho-man standards of barked yelling with something deeply human, unique while simultaneously universal. Never seeming to follow a basic verse to chorus lyrical delivery, Robinson could be considered an example of Cathy Berberian’s idea of New Vocality, sometimes sounding like the Russian futurists’ idea of Zaum, or dadaist sound poems. But the lyrics that do clearly present themselves upon first listening add yet another layer of eerie mystique. To take a line from Benjamin Louche’s blog,[Serenade in Red] is worth a purchase should you wish to hear what it sounds like when a man turns himself inside out over the course of an album…”

Just when you’re starting to settle into the shadow of Serenade in Red’s opening half, midway track La Luna comes barging through the door like a violent behemoth. Oxbow makes you wait in the noise they buried you in. Constantly destroying any resemblance to a basic verse-chorus and so on structure.

An untitled track of cinematic ambience leads into Babydoll. Piano layers film noir cinematic atmosphere, broken by hard-boiled grey-scale psychedelia. Wenner’s guitar cries and wails, while Oxbow’s rhythm section creates Stravinsky-esque levels of dramatic rhythmic tension.

Oxbow is, among other things, a band not to fuck with. Working at their own pace, with their own sounds, even an Oxbow song of lesser quality holds more merit than most Melvins ‘hits’. Their willingness to experiment with poetry and uncommon instruments (from a rock stand point), while completely disregarding conventional structuring allows them to craft work with such emotional potency as to make most notable rock groups banal.

You can read a great Bandcamp Daily article about Oxbow here: Oxbow’s Avant-Rock Experiments With Light and Shadow.

If you enjoyed the more David Lynchian elements of Serenade in Red, you may enjoy our Guide to The Fast Paced, Lighthearted World of DOOM JAZZ.

For fans of: Chelsea Wolfe, Unsane, Swans

Like Oxbow? Give these a listen: Racebannon, Loudspeaker, Bohren & der Club of Gore

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