OCS, “Memories of a Cut Off Head”
Memories of a Cut Off Head
It’s been twelve years since John Dwyer’s OCS project last released a collection of spooky campfire minimalism, which crackled imperceptibly in the background of Akron/Family and Animal Collective’s psych-folk bonfires through the early hours of the aughts. While both freak-folk ensembles went on to bigger and undeniably weirder things, Dwyer’s project was left abandoned in the woods with little more than a niche group of tapeheads to attempt resuscitation. The question on nobody’s mind: What has Dwyer been up to in the interim?
Over 600 minutes of original recordings from Thee Oh Sees (Oh Sees? Ohsees? O.C. OSTs?) later and Dwyer has built his own faction of West Coast garage rock to rival the colossal influence of Merriweather Post Pavilion at the beginning of the present decade. Overcompensating for the flimsy guitars and warbly vocals of OCS, his highly evolved spinoff has provided some of the most overwhelming riffs and incomprehensible vocal performances to the eroding garage genre in recent years. If there’s one thing Dwyer’s proved he isn’t, it’s whelming.
But with Dwyer’s audience still wringing their hands in anticipation of “The Static God” blessing the band’s future live shows with seraphic solos, he’s now rolling out an antithetical peace treaty in the form of an OCS reunion—that is, a return to the OCS ethos with the help of current bandmates, former Oh See Brigid Dawson, and OG OC Patrick Mullins. With string and horn arrangements by longtime pals Heather Lockie and Mikal Cronin respectively, Memory of a Cut Off Head is a full house notably lacking a garage.
Like Orc, Memory kicks off with its lead single, a title track as tranquil as “God” was spirited. “Memory” proves a concise synopsis of Dwyer’s growth over the past decade, funneling his complex soundscapes and Settlers of Catan imagery into the bedroom-pop capsules of his youth. The formula works to varying degrees of success over the album’s ten disparate tracks, flying highest when it’s treading the labyrinthine medieval interiors experimented with on recent Oh Sees releases, though much of what follows will likely get lost in the infinite scroll of Dwyer’s constant output.
The album’s undeniable highlight comes in the form of “The Chopping Block,” a minstrel “Space Oddity” harnessing the unsettling leitmotifs of OCS’s eeriest ghost stories. An exercise in casual sadism, the track spotlights a trigger-happy executioner wallowing in the satisfaction of another job well done (“The swinging man looks pretty good to me / I see he’s pissed himself”), offering up a second, more macabre meaning to the album’s titular cut off head.
Meanwhile, Dawson’s ever-present harmonies add an unpredictable dimension to a very Dwyer-esque tracklist: The harpsichord (see: mellotron)-driven “The Remote Viewer” is an early intro to the gymnastic vocal maneuvers of the duo, setting up the flutey “On and on Corridor”’s anarchic display: Dawson getting pseudo-operatic while Dwyer’s growls let on that he’s still thinking about thos Seeds. In placing Dawson’s songwriting chops to the forefront on Memory, it often sounds as if the album is the long lost spawn of “Minotaur.”
But such bursts of creative energy are rare on Dwyer’s return to the Cs. There’s a lot going on between the electric bagpipes, singing saw, and an instrument ominously referred to as “the thing” in the liner notes. Falling somewhere between the lo-fi novelty of their early discography and the eccentric noise of their recent output, much of Memory lapses into uncharacteristic normalcy.