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Live Review: Thee Oh Sees @ Crow Bar

Thee Oh Sees

Thee Oh Sees are the kind of band people come out for. Even those who don’t usually tolerate the seediness of the Fortitude Valley nightlife precinct made the effort to venture into its dingy depths on Friday night to watch Thee Oh Sees at Brisbane’s Crow Bar, locally known as a haven for all things noise.

The consequential physical discomfit of being packed in so tightly with an impressive turnout of punters as well as enduring awkward conversations with distant acquaintances was certainly worth the effort. The band delivered a high-energy set that pulsated through their extensive discography and latest album release, both of which nicely exemplified their longstanding relevance in the modern garage scene, and continual growth as both a live band and as songwriters.

Having been together since 2008 and produced so many quality records, Thee Oh Sees are at an awkward time in their career. They’re not quite old and irrelevant enough to kick the bucket, but they certainly need to change things up to sustain the momentum of their career. Luckily for fans Thee Oh Sees have certainly shaken things up with the release of their latest album “Mutilator Defeated At Last”which more than justified a tour. Their newest album sees Thee Oh Sees expanding their two minute hard and fast garage anthems to explore influences as varied as krautrock, prog-rock, and lo-fi, all of which lend themselves particularly well to the live arena and to Crow Bar’s moody, cave-like underground bar setting.

2016 has just dawned and it sees the band return to Australians shoes with a full-bodied line-up including Tim Hellman on bass and two drummers with newcomers Dan Rincon and Ryan Moutinho. Unfortunately, Brigid Dawson of the original line-up was absent from the live set-up, although she did record backing vocals and keyboard parts for the new album.

While it may feel a little bit like audiences are cheated from the authentic Thee Oh Sees deal, the combined drumming of Rincon and Moutinho fills in the gaps and works incredibly well in a live setting, transforming the recorded songs into an entirely different (and louder) beast. ‘All in all Friday night’ seemed like a good omen for a great year of music to come for Thee Oh Sees and for Brisbane’s live music scene, with solid performances from support acts Kitchen’s Floor and Blank Realm that nicely set the tone for the night; sweaty, loud and adrenaline-charged.

Apart from a more full-bodied line-up, Thee Oh Sees’ music has never sounded as dynamic and diverse as it does now. This may seem like a bold statement to make, especially for a band’s whose laurels reside with their no-fuss attitude to gigs and music. Dare I say it, but with “Mutilator Defeated At Last and their current live set-up Thee Oh Sees have truly grown up, even though it may have taken them a quasi break-up to get there. Of course, the band retains their garage influences with new songs like Rogue Planet coming in at under two minutes and making your heart skip a few beats, recalling some classic Nuggets-era garage. New song Poor Queen is also kept within the fleeting two-minute time frame, however it is a good example of the band’s evolving sound, with a slower tempo that allows you to breathe and take in Dwyer’s impressive guitar riffs. This was also true of Lupine Ossuary, which was even given a prolonged two-minute instrumental intro of trance-inducing guitar wailing that truly demonstrated the band’s accomplished musicianship, a point that often goes acknowledged with garage acts.

While the bulk of the band’s live set consisted of new tracks, there were also a few old favourites thrown in for good measure (and perspective) that proved beyond doubt that the quality of the band’s music has not faded. In particular, the exhilarating tempo of The Dream was a welcomed nostalgia trip.  Clocking in at around ten minutes live, The Dream is surely Thee Oh Sees’ magnum opus of garage thrashers, with guitar riffs that verge on sonic insanity, and a repetitive, but pulsating drumbeat that kept the audience nodding and dancing along for the entire tune.

The absence of Brigid Dawson’s vocals was felt on old favourites like The Dream, as well as on the newer trackTurned Out Light. One of the great elements of Thee Oh Sees’ sound is the combination of Dawson’s soft, feminine vocals with Dwyer’s idiosyncratic drawl. Nevertheless, Dwyer more than made up for her absence with his unstoppable zest, along with the mind-numbing drone produced by the two-drummer set-up, which ultimately brings back some of that Thee Oh Sees magic that was missing with the stripped back three-piece setup.

It was great to look back at some key periods of the band’s history with several excellent tracks from 2013’sFloating Coffin, as one of their heavier and more goth-garage inspired albums. This same aesthetic is developed and refined on Mutilator Defeated At Last with highlights such as Sticky Hulks, which included a phenomenal organ solo. The song was even more atmospheric when performed live, evoking easy comparisons to the opulence of prog-rock, but with a distinctly raw guitar riff that nicely contrasted against the delicate sounds of the organ. In this way, Sticky Hulks was a prime example of how extensively the band’s talents have grown without having to sacrifice their garage ethos.

Web was another moody track off the latest album that built up an increasing sense of urgency with an expanded instrumental introduction, with the band taking their time to get to the main guitar solo. Dwyer slowly articulated every word of Web in a harsh, guttural whisper, which added to the song’s dark and dismal aesthetics. If Thee Oh Sees have one secret weapon that’s kept them relevant and interesting all these years, it’s definitely Dwyer’s accomplished guitar playing and his ability to drastically change sounds within a single song, leaving one with the distinct impression of musical vertigo.

Even though recent times have seen the future career of Thee Oh Sees cast in doubt, the gig truly showed that music is what John Dwyer lives and breathes. But it wouldn’t be Thee Oh Sees without the rest of the band and the talents of the new live set-up must be commended, even though when it comes down to it, Dwyer truly is Thee Oh Sees.

Friday saw Dwyer deliver a top notch performance that would make you think he was still in the earlier, honeymoon stages of his career, rather than this being the landmark of ten albums and multiple tours later when cynicism is supposed to set in. While there may be a few question marks as to just what “Mutilator Defeated At Last” means for the band’s career and what Thee Oh Sees mean to Dwyer, at least for now we know he’s not willing to let Thee Oh Sees go without a damned good fight. Luckily, neither are we!