Over the 30 years of Oxbow’s operations, no one has come comfortably close to classifying the Bay Area group. This could arguably be the result of Oxbow’s ongoing evolution, but accurately describing any particular phase of the groups’ seven-album career is no easier than describing the broader metamorphic arc of their creative path. This is especially true with their seventh album Thin Black Duke, where Oxbow’s elusive brand of harmonic unrest has absorbed the ornate and ostentatious palate of baroque pop into their sound, pushing their polarized dynamics into a scope that spans between sublime and completely unnerving. This is new musical territory for all parties involved.
As throughout their history, Oxbow grapples with channeling man’s most primal urges through a framework of meticulous, cultured, and cerebral instrumentation. But the unadulterated electric roar and percussive barbarism of their past work wasn’t as wholly satisfactory as it had been in the past. Other flavors were deemed necessary and called into play, both to slake unnamed thirsts and to suitably fit the Thin Black Duke’s lyrical themes, but also to explore the further reaches of Oxbow’s studied approach to tension and release, structure and dissonance, and melody and abstraction.
“Certainly we all became increasingly aware that none of us are getting younger,” says guitarist Niko Wenner. Recognizing one’s own mortality can render one’s art to the ranks of ephemera, but Oxbow lashed out at such notions. “For this record I wanted to go even further in the way we always make recordings, as music that hangs together over an entire album, ‘large scale coherence’ if you will,” Wenner says of his compositional strategy. “I was inspired by pieces like Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the formal technique in classical music where a small idea, a kernel, is reiterated, morphed, expanded and truncated, to make a piece of music permeated with the potent perfume of that small element.”
Consequently, the attentive ear will notice recurring musical phrases and motifs throughout Thin Black Duke. Noticing such details isn’t necessary to absorb and appreciate the album, but as Wenner suggests, “I think I’m not the only one that finds a visceral satisfaction when you can look into something you like deeper, and deeper, and find more and more there.”