Hat dipped. Coat zipped. Eugene Robinson wanders on stage to join the rest of Oxbow, reluctant or just internally burdened, dressed like a film noir detective keeping outsiders at a safe distance. Perhaps he’s wary that his efforts to communicate will be miscomprehended, and perhaps that’s why the band open tonight with such a slow, deliberate statement of sincerity. “The Finished Line” is the closing track on the band’s new record The Thin Black Duke – an exhausted, slow-waltzing ode to an unfulfilled life, the guitar dragged along like sore feet, the drums alternating between moving and not. A meekly optimistic major key tries to salvage the glimmers of good where there can be none. This material has been many years in the making, and I can hear how the music has gained a certain lumbering profundity over the nurturing of time; the visceral pace of “A Gentleman’s Gentleman” plays carriage to a well-honed statement, lucid to the point that its visions become visible (which might explain why Robinson’s eyes are often fixed, narrowed into slits, on a spot at the back of the room). The sound in The Dome tonight is incredibly sharp. Every riff is outlined in bold; every crack of the snare ricochets right through me. The coat comes off. Then the jacket. Gradually, Robinson unsheathes himself.
Even older material feels stronger and more assured tonight. “Frank’s Frolic” staggers under its own weight, the drums improvising dangerously around those concrete slabs of guitar and bass, tumbling back into synchronisation and spilling over the lines again. Oxbow have always toyed knowingly with the threat of collapse. Dissonances and syncopations are played with the same conviction as crisp major chords and rigid 4/4s. Meanwhile, Robinson parades the stage and punches the air in front of him, snarling away from the microphone and arching upward into wails of seasoned despair; lyrics sometimes nakedly audible, and sometimes mangled by their very articulation. This is music that claims ownership over the chaos of everything, and with every slurred howl that Robinson projects into the ether, Oxbow further assert their conviction over what they know and what they don’t know, ferociously accepting of the feral flux that surrounds them, incorporating the swirl into a music that feels refined and under control.
In this respect, SUMAC operate upon similar lines. In moving so frantically between densities and textures and speeds of unfolding time, the trio acknowledge the shapelessness of life. Rhythms roll over themselves until the last beat of the bar is bent back to become the first; precarious undulations of tempo suddenly plummet into chrono-immune black holes of improvisation and noise. Coherence shatters and rebuilds itself. For some reason I’m surprised at how much this feels like a rock concert – Aaron Turner often moves to the brink of the stage to show off his chugging, botched-hydraulic guitar work to the crowd, teasing the room in games of anxious pull-back and explosive release, with drummer Nick Yacyshyn exerting an acute understanding of when to burst in and out of life for maximum climactic effect. Time speeds up, slows down; SUMAC indulge in the game of chasing their music into blastbeats or stranding it in slow-motion, forming dissonant shapes that straddle the junctures of emotional response (disgust, aggression, anxiety), stammering over metallic palm mutes that erect themselves as obstacles blocking the next step forward.
Yet the band are clearly enjoying themselves. Even during the sections of outwardly-splayed improvisation the instruments are beautifully aligned, finding parallel paths in the descent into disarray, indulging in the theatre of chaos while puppeteering the noise from above, whisking the pot into a frenzy of feedback and microtonal churn, with Turner often re-tuning/de-tuning his instrument as he plays it. Even Joe Preston, who is standing in for the usual Brian Cook, seems effortlessly versed in the band’s relationship with world around them, rupturing the earth between Turner’s feet and sending the guitar tonality on an ugly jaunt. It’s a vigorous, two-handed seizing of absurdity; an effort to survive the cyclonic causality of the universe by mimicking it, slotting into life’s erratic ballet of acceleration, falter, catastrophic misfortune and sudden surges of affirmative momentum. It’s a lot of fun to partake in this see-saw between extremes, but more crucially I consider this my vaccination: a simulation of the universe at its unpredictable worst, so that when reality itself reaches the same levels of rabid disorder (which feels awfully imminent, if it isn’t here already), I might be braced for impact. And if not, at least I had a wonderful time tonight.