John Dwyer proves once again that his hands never leave the fretboard. The Osees frontman has taken time out of his busy schedule of leading multiple bands to bring us an album of instrumental acid rock with his newest project. While Dwyer’s other groups have explored every style of loud rock you can imagine, from scrappy punk to spaced out heavy metal, Bent Arcana is a different beast. If you are expecting an album of Osees castoffs, then you have come to the wrong place. Bent Arcana is a jazz tipped ramble through a quiet and meditative sonic landscape.
The album does not kick off, but rather prowls in with opening track, ‘The Gate.’ A skittering drum pattern and some soft guitar chords set the tone. They are joined by a sleepy, repetitive saxophone riff. It is a laid back but slightly sinister groove that makes me feel like I am walking through a sketchy neighbourhood in Los Angeles just as the sun goes down.
Once the mood is locked in, Dwyer begins to solo in unfamiliar ways. Not only has he stripped himself of his usual effects pedals, but his playing is the loosest and funkiest it has ever sounded. His guitar wraps around the rhythm section as if the bass and drums are not even there.
This jazz-afflicted style is felt throughout the album, like on ‘Mimi.’ Despite being less than two minutes long and featuring only one member of the band, it remains one of the highlights. Saxophonist Brad Caulkins plays two solos that alternate between complimenting and duelling each other. His playing is sultry and forlorn. It is a wonderfully calming tune and a great moment to catch your breath at the album’s midpoint.
However, the band also never manages to get hung up on this style. ‘Outré Sorcellerie’ is pure mood music. With an eerie ambience, tribal drums and the same repeating bass note, the music sounds straight out of a post-apocalyptic sci fi movie. Occasional howls and calls, both human and machine, only make the music more bizarre.
Perhaps the only song here that will sound familiar to Dwyer fans is the peculiarly titled, ‘Misanthrope Gets Lunch.’ The drums are especially infectious. Beginning subdued but gathering speed until they sound like a train thundering down the tracks. Other than the joyful pummelling of the drums, weirdness is still the order of the day, with a bassline that wanders around the beat in a very free form way.
It is around this point, after the brief rest of ‘Mimi’ that the album begins to lose steam. Up until now, Bent Arcana has been a joyful, if slightly directionless ride. But the final two tracks fail to stick the landing.
At just over eleven minutes long, ‘Oblivion Sigil’ is the longest track and plods its way to an unsatisfying finish. ‘The Gate’ was also over ten minutes long but it felt like it justified the length with fun soloing and that impeccable mood. Whereas ‘Oblivion Sigil’ flounders around with a pretty boring instrumental. Dwyer’s playing lacks personality apart from some brief moments of filthy fuzz guitar that I wish were more present on the song. It could have added some much-needed flavour.
‘Sprites’ brings some speed back with frenetic drumming and a catchy riff that sounds like it’s being played on an upright bass. Bringing the jazz influences full circle. But while the beat is bouncy and enjoyable, the sax playing feels uninspired and out of step with the much more energetic rhythm section.
It also ends in the same lowkey way that the previous song did which feels disappointing. The breakneck drumming could have brought the album to a speedy crescendo. Nothing that would spoil the albums quiet, moody style but something to leave a good taste in your mouth. Instead, the music retreats into the shadows from where it emerged.
Despite some hiccups towards the end, Bent Arcana’s debut is still a compelling journey into new territory for John Dwyer. More brooding than any of his previous work but still exuberant. It may lose its feet on the final two songs but the variety in the track list and the creative performances will make you revisit the album again and again. Listening closer as the oddities in the songs reveal themselves.
Words by Sam Bullock
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