More than a dozen albums into their career, Thee Oh Sees have well established their curriculum vitae: full-throttle, kraut-tinged psychedelic freakouts dished out with a level of profusion Lil B would applaud. Depending on how much you appreciate the simplistic machinery that keeps the garage-rock clock ticking, this fruitfulness translates one of two ways: a tortuous torrent of same old same old or a complex, evolving stream of consciousness.
Lucky for us, the San Francisco outfit ventures into new territory with each LP it puts out. The last four full-lengths, released over the span of 24 measly months, saw frontman John Dwyer shifting his style this way and that, from low-fi fuzz-rock (Castlemania) to extended, spacey surf jams (Carrion Crawler/The Dream). The band’s most recent release, last fall’s Putrifiers II, showcased a mellow pop politeness in the vein of the Velvet Underground. This chameleon approach is risky, but time and time again, Thee Oh Sees manage to pull it off, thanks to their explosive dynamics as a group and their aural attachment to both the offbeat and the orthodox.
Floating Coffin, the group’s latest effort, is considerably unrulier than its predecessor. It’s a bratty, brash piece of work, teeming with somber synths, paranoid, multi-pronged guitar assaults and bloodthirsty yowls that struggle to cut through the din. The title track feeds off a buzzing current of nervous energy, thundering on toward infinity while your ears struggle to keep up. “Tunnel Time,” meanwhile, is a sneering, punk-rock ode that culminates in a wispy keyboard solo reminiscent of the fiddle-heavy coma of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Occasionally, the band ditches the gristle and grit and revisits its trippy past: “No Spell” and “Maze Fancier” pack the punch of classic Oh Sees and should satisfy any inklings for nostalgia.
There are respites from the raucousness. Despite a propulsive start, “Strawberries 1 + 2” settles into a relaxed groove in its second half. “Minotaur,” the closer—and arguably, the band’s most intriguing offering this time around—creates a gloomy atmosphere with cellos and Brigid Dawson’s lilting background vocals. Throughout the entire album, however, there are undercurrents of unsettlement; true to the album’s name, Floating Coffin has grim lyrical leanings, focusing on such uplifting topics as war (Dinosaur Jr.-y single “Toe Cutter – Thumb Buster”), corpses (“Sweets Helicopter”) and, of course, that poor, bored Minotaur, doomed to a 9-to-5 of bloodshed. With the vocals so low in the mix, it can be difficult to discern them from the churning instrumentation. Only Dwyer’s distorted yelps are consistently capable of cutting through the noise.
Floating Coffin sees Dwyer and company pulling off another successful paradigm shift, a step toward the sinister but with ample amounts of the flower-power charm that made them such favorites among psych snobs in the first place. In any case, it’s certainly something to mull over while the band plots its next attack on our eardrums. Call it a hunch, but I bet we’ll be hearing from these guys again very, very soon.