On the Exhausting Exhilaration of Oneida

Catching up with our finest purveyor of impromptu noise-punk trilogies

What you oughta know about Oneida, Brooklyn's finest (and most robustly prolific, extravagantly aliased, and relentlessly propulsive) art-rock band, is that they just put out Rated O, the second in a long-threatened "triptych" of releases, spaced out by a year or so and collectively, informally dubbed "Thank Your Parents." Rated O is a three-CD set. A trilogy within a trilogy. Oneida do not do small gestures, nor, come to think of it, do they do mere gestures at all. Their muscular, maximal minimalism—i.e. pick a chord and bash at it for the approximate length of your daily commute—can provoke awe, hypnosis, or profound irritation (a passive-aggressive Wikipedia clause: "In addition to the use of repetition that easily outstrips the patience of most casual listeners . . ."). But above all, it's simply overwhelming, in length, in scope, in intensity. They aim to outhammer a drum machine the way John Henry outhammered a steam engine.

Thus has it been for more than a decade, a rapidly accreting catalog (Rated O is their 10th disc or, considering that 2002 fan-favorite Each One Teach One was a double album, their 12th, 13th, and 14th) conjured up by a glacially evolving lineup revolving around a trio of dudes named Hanoi Jane (bass/guitar), Fat Bobby (keyboards/snarling), and Kid Millions (drums). "Drums," though, doesn't really do the guy justice as a parenthetical: KM is an ecstatically violent dervish assaulting his kit with the ferocity of someone with several more hands, feet, and pints of blood than he seems to actually have. He shows up at all the Boredoms' goofy "77 drummers on 7-7-2007" and "88 drummers on 8-8-08" extravaganzas, presumably so just in case the other 76 or 87 folks don't show up, he can play all the parts himself. For a one-song primer to drummer and band alike, it's gotta be "Up With People," off 2006's Happy New Year, a breathless and incessantly anthemic arena-Krautrock jam equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, animalistic in its mechanical precision, too perfect to be human, too funky to be robotic.

A one-song primer defeats the purpose, of course—the purpose being to overtake, overpower, overwhelm. So get your affairs in order, specify a next of kin, and dive headlong into Rated O. Just to make sure you're paying attention, disc 1 begins with the mind-bending dub assault "Brownout in Lagos," a bewildering moment designed to make you think you accidentally put on that Major Lazer record or something. The majestic "10:30 at the Oasis" initially feints in a similar direction, but suddenly explodes in a gorgeous burst of motorik dream-pop that slowly erodes over the course of 12 minutes and change. The similarly epic "The Human Factor" is titled thus because it features an uncharacteristically unhinged gentleman screaming, atonally and inarticulately, amid robotic buzzing-refrigerator drones. (You will learn to skip it. Eventually.) Disc 3's jams are even more long-winded: "O" breaks out the sitars, while the unremitting 20-minute "Folk Wisdom" simply breaks everything in sight.

Ah, but disc 2, a sublime suite of concise, concussive near-pop songs with vicious Sabbath riffs, seething Stooges menace, and entropic Sonic Youth nausea, is where the real jams reside. I can't imagine how fantastic they sound even muffled through the wall of the bodega that adjoins Market Hotel, the DIY Bushwick venue wherein we find Oneida this sweltering Friday evening (pre-show announcement: "We were very close to having air conditioning tonight"), expanded to a five-piece and transformed into an all-consuming monolith, albeit a genial and remarkably nerdy monolith. Fat Bobby and Hanoi Jane spend five minutes during setup futilely yelling into microphones that refuse to emit actual sound; when they're finally audible, a polite burst of applause emits from the front row, and Fat Bobby shouts, only slightly too loudly, "This is like when Ravi Shankar was tuning at the Concert for Bangladesh and people applauded." Not exactly a common reference. The full-band, onstage group hug immediately before the show begins is also a nice touch.

Soon enough, though, we're in the thick of "Ghost in the Room," the absolute, undeniable highlight of both the whole Rated O trilogy and quite possibly all of 2009, if gleeful headbanging is your thing, another pulverizing Kid Millions fusillade carved up by triumphant power chords and general cock-rock grandeur. Oneida's best moments concoct a sort of fist-pumping nirvana in which everyone is too mesmerized to actually pump their fists; one Market Hotel patron sort of half-leaps off the stage so as to do a little crowd-surfing, except the crowd barely notices him and he flops helplessly to the floor.

This goes on for an hour of sweat-saturated delirium, and then, as an encore, "Up With People," which is like finishing off a three-hour workout by running a marathon. And it shows, within both the joyfully depleted crowd and the band itself—Kid Millions has been basically pounding out one extended, unfeasibly awesome drum-roll this whole time, and now it's time for 10 minutes of unrelenting Autobahn wind-sprints. On record, "People" is a marvel of flawless engineering, not a hair out of place, guitars, keyboards, and drumbeats overlapping with alarming exactitude. The live version is not like that: There's a rushed, sloppy, desperate quality, the layering far from exact, the threat of total collapse omnipresent, and this, in turn, naturally, makes the song even better, a glimpse at how hard it is to make it look that easy, a band pushed to its physical limits and already plotting how to advance beyond them, in the direction of many, many trilogies to come. An epic within an epic.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

 
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