In 1980 Chicago's composer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Grego and poet and performance artist Travis Dobbs launched an agit-prop noise project called Ono (short for "onomatopoeia") that became a trio with multi-instrumentalist Ric Graham and absorbed random collaborators along the way.
The "songs" of Machines That Kill People (Thermidor, 1983) feel closer
to the theater of the absurd and performance art than to rock music.
The grotesque recitation over tribal chaos of Danger and the
theatrical Machines That Kill People
are the introductions to their intellectual madness, located
somewhere between the Fugs and Pere Ubu.
If the bluesy agony of O Jackie O and
the psychedelic chant Pyramid Of Drums are relatively cohesive songs,
The Model Bride grafts
free-form noise onto a theater of multiple voices and
ends with a spastic voodoobilly, and that random, irrational and contradictory
aesthetic also pervades the 14-minute morality play X-Ray,
which sounds like a solemn hybrid of
Japanese noh theater,
Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat and
Patti Smith's Birdland.
But the closest relatives to their intense thriller atmospheres are perhaps
Pop Group and
Ennui (Thermidor, 1986) begins from the expressionist operatic theater
with the seven-minute Were You There When They Crucified My Lord / Roll Away / Mass Of The Angels,
an improvisational piece for
voice and distorted guitar,
the first of three "nightmares".
Ashley Knight is a surrealistic skit with
drum-machine, electronic organ and more guitar feedback.
The third nightmare, the eleven-minute OZ, is an atmospheric kammerspiel for multiple voices and industrial hissing.
The four "daydreams" of the second side include the
magniloquent Ennui and the
seven-minute Aloe Cramps, that ends with a spastic sort of Velvet Underground-ian boogie.
In 2007 Travis and Grego reformed the group with new collaborators.
Albino (Moniker, 2012) begins with a new personal manifesto,
I Been Changed, which proves that they haven't changed: an operatic
declamation over a sparse free-form soundscape.
The nine-minute Albino is the theatrical tour de force of the album:
a visceral mock-heroic recitation in a chaos of distortions.
But the album is generally more musical than their 1980s albums.
Veil is a delirious dissonant boogie a` la Captain Beefheart.
The tribal funk-jazz Calvin is another sinister trip to the end of the (musical) world.
The pounding voodoobilly Berlin Cowboy is propelled by the terrifying impetus of Nick Cave's Birthday Party.
Diegesis (Moniker, 2014) is generally more musical.
Travis Wax Madonna is a tribal dance with
Fall-esque overtones and psychedelic horns reminiscent of Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom.
The possessed blues-rock rave-up of Blackpowermove sounds like a remix of Captain Beefheart's Electricity.
Spare harkens back to the acid-rock of the Iron Butterfly era.
The nine-minute Oxblood is another delirious and emphatic
Nick Cave-esque monologue.
They acknowledge their original anarchic agit-prop declamations only in Cqcqcq.
Spooks (Moniker, 2015) augmented the band with
Al Jourgensen of Ministry
on slide guitar,
Cooper Crain on keyboards,
Shannon Rose Riley on electronics and concertina,
a synth-man, a pianist, two guitarists and two percussionists.
The results are a spaced-out jam like Billy The Kid,
the frenzied voodoo dance of Snatch, which is almost a parody of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk,
the deliciously unfocused romps of Fatima Police and Invocation.
The eight-minute rhythmic locomotive Fleur De Lis is de facto a
swinging cosmic remix of Rihanna's Pon De Replay.
Your Future Is Metal (American Damage, 2018) is a live recording.
Grego and Travis assembled a new ensemble
(Rebecca Pavlatos on vocals and keys, Connor Tomaka on samplers and electronics, Ben Karas and Ben Billington on drums and percussion, Dawei Wang on guitar, Shannon Rose Riley on vocals and saxophone) for
the historical concept Red Summer (2020), recorded in 2017, about the racist attacks of 1919 by white-suprematist terrorists that resulted in the killing of several black men,
including the lynching and cremation of John Hartfield in Mississippi,
the stoning of 17-year-old Eugene Williams in Chicago,
the white riots in Washington
and the "Elaine Massacre" in Arkansas.
The album was released during the "black lives matter" protests of 2020 that followed the killing of unarmed black people by police in several cities.
The music reflects the sense of tragedy in an almost apocalyptic tone.
The disorienting minimalist trance of 20th August 1619 weaves together like a Moebius strip a folk flute tune and a Renaissance harpsichord dance, and layers on top the Brecht-ian recitation.
Coon blends reverbed declamations, shades of African percussion, free jazz.
The positively chaotic rant of BLK Skin and
the naked, alienated atmosphere of Scab are vehicles of trauma and neurosis, and
Sniper, at the intersection of abstract dissonant chamber music and absurdist theater, represents the zenith on that front.
Then there are songs that are more frontal attacks against the history of injustice, starting with
the post-dub tribal dance and expressionist kammerspiel I Dream Of Sodomy
(possibly the album's standout), followed by
the stately speech cum syncopated dance beat cum funereal chant
that decays into two minutes of demonic industrial pow-wow dance.
Syphilis is rap-jazz that soars in a crescendo of possessed and otherworldly voices, and
Sycamore Trees resembles an operatic requiem being
sung slowly over a solemn soundscape of percussion and choir, with a coda of horn fanfare and psychedelic drums.
It's an exhilarating parade of finger-pointing "je accuse" numbers.
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