Jana Hunter is a member of Lower Dens. You can follow Lower Dens on Twitter here.
Listening to someone else take what is more or less a familiar palette (guitars, drums, synths, but no vocals) and effectively express something with it that you wouldn’t evokes a particular kind of admiration — championing, not competitive. It’s like watching somebody wearing clothes that you, too, own, but they’re wearing them inside out, and somehow they look better than you do wearing them the normal way. That’s how I feel about this new Oneida record.
I know these instruments and recognize the ways they’re being manipulated; I even imagine that I can relate to something like the motivation, which is, in a way, beyond describing — it’s just what these people find themselves gravitating toward when they get together, and it’s hard to say if that’s anything more than a set of feelings that they share. The important thing about that, though, is that it shows that Oneida has been at this a long time. They don’t have just one idea that they share and work with; they have and have had enough of them to be able to palpably create a sense of a group that’s made a world, or at least a sustainable environment.
A List of the Burning Mountains is a heavy and sometimes foreboding record. At times it accomplishes what you want from doom metal, like an acute description of the way you feel when you gotta make a difficult decision, torn in any number of directions and unable to move in any of them. It’s thick and slow and patient, except that the drums are kind of rollicking the fuck out most of the time. There aren’t a lot of bands I could take that from, but they pull this off — and then some. The standard mode for this idea might be to let the drums be the stable foundation and let the other instruments provide “environment”; Oneida flips this and lets the melodic instruments drone — make guitars sound like insect swarms and I’m basically yours unless something else spoils it — all enchanted while real dry drums sit out front and move more or less constantly. It’s chaotic but it doesn’t feel like it once you’re, you know, in it.
The album consists of two 19-minute pieces. Somewhere in the early part of Side 1, the drums work their way out for a couple of minutes, and the record becomes its most baleful. Then, without any predication, a transition brings the drums back and we go from focused, heavy intensity to a broken-open and prone version of that same feeling. This is my first favorite moment on the album. This is what happens when people with every potential to be a more traditional kind of rock band somehow veer into exploration that is its own reward.
Oneida’s tendency towards repetition is especially revealing. I remember, during a period when I spent maybe too much time with a four-track recorder, stopping in the middle of recording a song to write something like “repetition is light.” I meant, I think, that in repeating something you come to know it better; its nuances and intricacies are revealed. This is especially true of music, and even more especially true in Oneida’s music. This is a band that’s keyed into an essential thing, a rare thing in what’s presented to music listeners as being even remotely or tangentially related to “rock.” When I say their tendency toward repetition is revealing, I mean that this is a band that knows what they’re doing, and seems to have a good idea of the context of music in which they’re doing it.
Speaking of repetition and light though, this record isn’t insistent like “Sheets of Easter” (from 2002’s Each One Teach One) or other Oneida works. It’s a cousin, though, in that it takes a very few elements and for a good long time (A List of the Burning Mountains clocks in at 40 minutes) reintroduces them to each other without ever flaking out or letting it get tired.
Around the 16th minute of Side 2 comes my other favorite movement — the bass has been oscillating a steady, thick foundation for, I dunno, a while, the keyboard you’ve heard on the whole record is still wandering all about what would be the sky if this were a landscape, and the drums are still going. And suddenly in come these precise, unidentifiable distortion blasts in time with the drums, and what has been mostly pure exploration coalesces into something sharp and forceful. After it’s said what it can say, the bass drops, the rest of the instruments begin to go their separate ways and finish their individual sentiments, eventually fading, leaving you feeling like you’ve just heard, for the first time in a while, a complete idea.