ONO, “Spooks”

If one subscribes to ONO’s exhibition emails, one will have noticed that the group recently added “Heroin” as a set-closing song. Video surfaced of the song from ONO’s CMJ set in Brooklyn, and last night ONO closed their Spooks release show with the song. Each of the group’s players masterfully builds their part throughout the song, turning a calm synthetic sea into crashing hurricanes of noise. Already playing at an earth-shattering volume (including earplugs), the band somehow crescendo, employing the simultaneous peaks of their tools. Brett tapped out with his Moog, lifting it and swaying it from his stand as the volume heightened. If I heard it right, DaWei was playing steel on steel with a beautiful Fender Telecaster, knocking that workingman’s guitar into an unclassifiable swirl; meanwhile, Rebecca, P.Michael, and Connor shifted between different timbres of synthetic tones and keys that were impossible to track. Even during the crescendo, dynamic blips would enter and exit, while organ and clavi tones shifted to glorious choral sustain. Ben systematically hurled himself at his drumkit, providing acoustic tremors that managed to match the intensity of the electronic players one-for-one.

During a recent series of email interviews with ONO, Rebecca shed some light on her method, which also defines the compact and forceful supporting parts in the band: “For the most part, what I use is pretty simple; conventional keyboards, along with a vocal processor. Lately I am using a new amplified instrument that PMichael designed and made which is part of a series that he calls The Beast. He has clear ideas of what he wants and I do my best to follow his lead and end up challenging my own assumptions about sound alot of the time. With so much going on, I feel like less is more as far as what I contribute-I look to accent or fill in places that aren’t being explore, i.e. registers or melodies in a sort of orchestration.” Rebecca’s note about “less is more” highlights the effectiveness of the crescendo, for by pacing the song and allowing each player their own space throughout the set, the noise is that much more effective. ONO undoubtedly have a clear vision from the top, but the band as a whole unit showed that they are consistently honing their sound into something is is completely unseen and seemingly impossible by any other genre’s measure or execution (that the band can morph from two to five to seven to ten players makes ONO genius, audacious, and intimidating).

It is as though each member were fighting the tide of this crashing hurricane, as Travis repeated, “all the dead bodies piled up in mounds. All the dead bodies piled up in mounds. All the dead bodies piled up in mounds. All the dead bodies piled up in mounds,” and so on: not even Lou Reed could have taken the song to such a dark and harrowing place (and I mean that in the best way possible). This was “Heroin” repurposed for the bleak capitalist violence of Chicago, where either TIF funds sway [any remaining] progressives away from their working poor base, or rival sets are freed by mass-incarceration to commit unpredictable acts of structured violence (even with this harrowing chant stuck in my brain on the drive home, my street was blocked off by seven police cruisers and yellow tape as three more car passengers were shot by another approaching vehicle [perpetually]. The repetition of that chant was inescapable and hauntingly real). Travis’s closing remark hit the spot: “Sorry to leave you with a bummer, but sometimes life is like that.” Spooks could have no better introduction, for it is nothing if not a completely contextual and therefore highly political form of art.

Spooks is an album that has cooked for a generation, and is now seeing the light of day as one of ONO’s original founding missions. The double LP itself appears to be split into at least two different forms, where the band plays off highly-theatrical (a good thing), unstructured lyric-driven songs on the one hand, and a set of soulful noise that once again raises the stakes for ONO’s convergence of Gospel and noise. In fact, over most of the summer, I found myself returning not to the reissues of the band’s original albums, and not even to my favorite from 2014, Diegesis, but Albino, the first waking recording released by the group after their two decade sabbatical. What struck me while revisiting Albino was its dense, packed sound, where hard, methodical drumbeats pull along a set of perfectly controlled, heavy, heavy noise. Perhaps the songs were ONO’s most “conventional” in terms of structure (I dare say), and by contrast Diegesis seemed monolithic (in terms of production) and emancipatory (in terms of execution). Spooks wants none of that: this is ONO at their most industrial, where acoustic drums battle beat-making synths, synth bass, and synthetic squalls (not to mention processed, metallic guitar, crisp, piercing keys, and other series of oddities).

P. Michael noted that if the album sounds live, that’s an illusion created by Cooper Crain, ONO’s “man behind the curtain.” In fact, Crain’s production on Spooks is actually more airy and open than the production of their previous Moniker albums, which presents the surprising result of an uncompromising noise album appearing rather accessible and neat (another good thing). P. Michael himself has repurposed some of the band’s material into pop-soul formats during recent sets (“Oxblood” via Drake, for instance, when ONO opened for Algiers in June), so it is worth speculating where the bandleader views soul in his recent repertoire: that uncompromising noise swings more, it has more movement, which makes Spooks a doubly difficult and rewarding listen.

Travis tells his story of Spooks in the most effective way, and what I will add is this: I am compelled to listen. Lyrically, Spooks is heartfelt, confrontational, traumatic, and political. There is no realm of comfort, no narrative arc like Diegesis that replaces suffering with a glimpse (however brief) a triumph. But, Travis himself said it perfectly: “sometimes life is like that,” and the listener is better for having this opportunity to engage with this epic poem. While the music of the album works to its most action-packed and uncompromising sounds on the back end of the album, Travis’s opening poems pierce the listener over the freer, less structured early songs. In this sense, the vocals and instruments pass along one another throughout the album, creating several positions of strength/weakness, dominance/subversion in retribution. I implore you, once you listen to the album properly [one or several times], to try the album “backwards,” opening with the “Invocation.” From there, Travis’s greetings take the place of “kyrie eleison” on Diegesis, signaling (first) that this is an earthly affair and (second) that what haunts us may be fully material and psychological (rather than [necessarily] divine). From these greetings, the lyrical performance and poetry of Spooks will take new directions, in which “all the dead bodies piled in mounds” may be implied (and shockingly not spoken once on the album). In this sense, leaving the divine unspoken opens fully material and revolutionary imagery.

Spooks is now available from Moniker Records. Albino and Diegesis are also available on Moniker. Galactic Archive & Priority Male have reissued both of ONO’s 1980s albums, too.