Artists: JG Thirlwell & Simon Steensland | Alubum: Oscillospira | Genre: Avant-prog, Zeuhl | Year: 2020
From: Melbourne, Australia (Thirlwell) & Sweden (Steensland) | Label: Ipecac Recordings
For fans of: Magma, Univers Zero
JG Thirlwell is an Australian-born, Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist best known as the man behind the industrial act Foetus. He also acts the composer for the TV shows Archer and The Venture Bros, the latter of which is one of my absolute favorite shows. (It also made progressive rock a central plot element in one episode.) Simon Steensland is a Swedish multi-instrumentalist and composer with a long history in modern avant-garde rock music.
In addition to avant-garde and progressive rock influences, this duo makes extensive use of orchestral music. Much of this album sounds like it could have been the score for a creepy arthouse film. Atonal strings and minor key woodwinds dominate on this record, filling up most of the space not occupied by traditional rock instrumentation.
The opening “Catholic Deceit” demonstrates this approach, with its spooky chamber-music orchestration and rolling, propulsive percussion below stretched-out distorted guitar. Later in the song, a marching rhythm takes over, augmented by low brass and a distorted, pulsing synth. The song’s final minutes come to a climax with speedy marimba lines and chaotic, yet deft, drumming.
The second song, “Heron”, starts off slower than the opener, but by the time it reaches its midpoint, it’s brimming with dramatic guitar, synth, and choral parts. “Night Shift” has huge, metallic guitar parts and plodding, powerful drums. That song also features another march consisting of low brass and marimba that sounds like it was originally written for The Venture Bros before being retooled for this project instead.
“Papal Stain” is one of the most consistently urgent compositions on Oscillospira. There are the usual tempo and dynamic variations that mark all these sprawling pieces, but the mood of this song is especially tense. “Heresy Flank” has some distinct textural qualities. There’s this hurried scratching sound which I can only guess is muted acoustic guitar strings. Contrasted against bassy, heavy piano, it makes everything feel askew. “Heresy Flank” is also the most consistently Venture Bros-ish composition here.
The album closes on “Redbug”, which has some apparent Magma allusions. Mantra-like vocal chants, jazzy drumming, and insistent basslines build in intensity. Synths warble in the background, and electric guitar notes stretch and distend over the top. Once the intensity crests, the mood shifts to one of doom and despair.
Oscillospira is a long album that demands a lot of attention. The instrumental compositions morph gradually over runtimes which regularly cross the 8-minute threshold. Atonality can be a tricky tool to deploy, but Thirlwell and Steensland have used it masterfully on this record.