Cluster buster was a term that was bandied about a lot during my days in advertising many, many years back. While the term itself may not be used in the context of music, that desire to be seen to be different, to stand above the rest is what drives many bands to proclaim themselves to be ‘experimental’ (it is my bias/belief that purveyors of that nebulous genre of post-rock are the most likely to do this), a ploy resorted to even by bands that make fairly straightforward pop tunes for such spurious reasons as singing in a language other than English! But all they end up doing is form yet another large dump of patent formulaic produce. Every once in a while, however, something emerges that refuses to bend to laid rules and tends to the tail end rather than the fat middle of the normal curve, for better or for worse.
I stumbled upon the UK band band Obey Cobra on one of my many exploratory ambles through Bandcamp. The name evoked metal or hardcore and frankly, I was more amused than intrigued. I played the album ‘Oblong’ on a lark (has to be my mascot bird 😏; never mind the idiom’s origin) and I was taken on an unexpected and rare trip that was sublime, disturbing, meditative, and provocative. Thankfully their idea of experimenting is not a wretched admixture of metallic scrapes, mindless squeals, and baffling 3-minute silences that punctuate or even form the entire substance of avant garde ‘art’. No, their trick is to inject subversion into known forms and coax a fresh perspective. Dreamy doom is how I would describe the opener “Ok Ultra” as. If I were to set Tolkien’s Rivendell to Gothic music, this would be it with its melding of ethereal beauty and infinite sadness. And when the last third of the song breaks into distilled chaos (while retaining the original flavour of the song), it brings home the depressing truth of life that you just can’t have too much of a good thing for long in keeping with the constant refrain of Tolkien’s world. “Capita” is all out psychedelic disturbia that could well be a tribute to ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ era Pink Floyd. For all that, it deviates with ease into a surprising shoegaze ending which on the face of it would seem jarring but Obey Cobra manage it as if it was the most natural thing to do and that makes the transition into the next song “Sunflowers” very smooth. It is something that you will notice through the album, this natural leading into songs which are quite different from the previous ones. It is quite a remarkable feat for a set of songs that are diverse in genre and tone. “Sunflowers” is to my mind the most straight-forward song in that it sticks reasonably to the genre while still remaining edgy. It’s almost a breather before the spiralling out (or in?) into the manic frenzy of “Sophia Can’t Walk”, a song that is made disconcerting by the contrast of the instrumentation’s regularity with the vocals as it builds up to an unhinged, impassioned intensity. It is also the one song for which I wish the lyrics were available with the album for that very reason. On all the other songs here, the human voice is used as another layer adding to the atmosphere of the music quite like in “Wunsch” and “Dim Beak”. Quirks diverse bind this set; e.g. there is “Intermission” after “Sofia Can’t Walk” which really is not. It seems like a short instrumental interlude but in an instance of a pause being used really well takes off on a little psychedelic jaunt. “Beyond The Wall Of Sleep” might ring thinly like a tribute to Black Sabbath but if it is, then perhaps it is so only in its title. The song, in my mind, is instead a tribute to the evanescent, wispy beauty of music and life itself, evoking shimmering moonlight on a cool forest night with a stream gurgling quietly in the distance its tune of inevitability and the impermanence of everything. What did I tell you earlier; there’s a little Tolkienish weave in this beautiful fabric! I think everyone that I recommended this album to came back to me blown away by the most surprising piece of the album, “Crinkle”. That thing I wrote earlier about each song being subtly crafted to lead into the next seamlessly? That rule too – as with many others – gets the boot here because nothing prepares you for this last song. The ethereal wistfulness of “Beyond…” is shed for the pulsing, sensual electronic beat of “Crinkle” with just a little intriguing garnish of something Donna Summer and a tiny dash of Big Audio Dynamite! It may well make you wonder how this album got to this point and have you loop back to understand that. That is great craft married to thought-provoking art!
You may also think, “Yes, yes, but what is the meaning of it all?” Art can exist without explicit ‘meaning’. At times its purpose is not to deliver a manifest message but just to push the boundaries of possibility. In this mode, it usually makes us uncomfortable which is the first step to breaking the status quo and to evolving. Recognisability and similarity bestow upon us the coziness of comfort. It’s our surprising variations, though, that make us interesting and push us to develop. What Obey Cobra has done on ‘Oblong’ is to wrap subversive art in the comfort wear of familiarity and done it well, for it’s a fine balance that the band has struck.
You can stream or buy (I sincerely hope it’s the latter) ‘Oblong’ on Bandcamp.
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