Oneida does whatever the hell Oneida feels like doing. It’s their M.O.—that, and an endless exploration of rhythm and repetition. Most bands maintain a following by reliably catering to the expectations of their fans, but far fewer artists can earn the unflinching trust of their audience regardless of the directions in which they choose to move. Björk comes to mind, as does Radiohead. And while Oneida cannot claim a fan base as large as the aforementioned artists (which is a shame, really), a dozen years of consistently engaging experimentation and their refusal to be pinned down to one genre have garnered them a devoted following that knows to expect nothing besides quality music of some sort. So when Oneida announces that the second installment of a triptych that they’re calling the “Thank Your Parents” series is going to be a triple album, no one bats an eyelash.
When a band is obsessed with discovering how many different ways a particular groove can be tweaked, bent, broken and reassembled before its possibilities have been exhausted, it can be difficult to sustain a listener’s interest through one disc, let alone three. Make no mistake, Rated O is a certifiable Difficult Album, and Oneida openly embrace this distinction. The band knows how to rock, and plenty of face melting is accomplished during the second disc, but the disc that prefaces it contains some of Oneida’s most challenging work to date. The band is testing itself as well as its audience. Disc One opens with “Brownout in Lagos,” a hypnotic dub jam featuring pulsating electronics and some vocals that are guaranteed to frighten off a casual listener. There’s nary a guitar in sight until well into the third track, “10:30 At The Oasis,” and even that eventually gives way to more phased-out pulsing and the industrial rhythms of “Story of O.” It’s fascinating music, but it’s the kind of stuff that plays hard to get, only revealing its depth when actively engaged by the listener. The disc ends with the album’s only throwaway track, “The Human Factor”—10-plus minutes of buzzing, aimless drumming and torturous howling.
Oneida is not all about impenetrability, and anyone with enough focus to make it to the second disc will be rewarded. The band is still set on exploring every nook and cranny of the rhythms that drummer Kid Millions and organist Bobby Matador conjure up, but rather than stretch these experiments out to their breaking point, the band crams each rhythmic idea into easily-digestible 3 to 7 minute morsels, and slathers them in fuzzed-out guitar heroics. It’s the closest Oneida comes to resembling its live show on Rated O: an overwhelmingly loud machine that splits the difference between krautrock grooves and psych-rock jams. “The River” crashes the party with pace-setting drums and keys and swells of feedback, takes a few minutes to get comfortable with its surroundings, and then erupts into a fretboard workout. “I Was A Wall,” with its bloozy riffs and robotic organ, is the MC5 transplanted somewhere in the future. “Luxury Travel” augments the formulas employed on the rest of disc two with chanting and spacey sound effects.
Disc Three begins with “O,” which develops a sitar-and-organ drone into an oddly beautiful climax of melodic repetition over the course of 13 minutes. “End Of Time” cuts out the melodic aspect of the equation and revels in pure textural bliss. “Folk Wisdom,” the final track on Rated O, functions as a synopsis of the album as a whole, blending dub-influenced electronics, textural drone, and full-on rawk into a 20-minute thesis statement.
Rated O is not easy listening in a world of iPod shuffles and Adderall, but when engaged, it reveals itself as consistently thrilling, even over the course of three discs. The press kit that came with my copy of Rated O claims that “this is one of the greatest triple albums ever recorded.” It’s an audacious statement for a relatively unknown band to make, but considering how many double albums end up bloated, messy altars to self-indulgence, how many truly great triple albums can you name? All Things Must Pass? Sure. Sandinista? Eh… Suddenly, it’s clear that Rated O really does sit somewhere at the top of the incredibly short list of great triple albums. Oneida does whatever the hell it wants, and so do lots of other bands, but few pull it off as well as Oneida does on Rated O.