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Secret Wars: Oneida’s Battle for Identity

By: John Mahoney

Oneida’s urge to crank the Marshalls to 11 and blow down the garage door has always competed tooth-and-nail with their desire to father the next Tago Mago. While it may be theoretically possible to do both at once, at least on their previous five albums, Oneida have never been able to successfully fuse the two pillars of their sound – fuzzy ’60s psychedelia, and noisy krautish experimentalism – into a cohesive whole. On 2002’s double album, Each One Teach One, the Brooklyn-based trio even went so far as to separate the two, putting the record’s two prolonged forays into mind-curdling repetition on one disc, and saving the more conventionally noisy sub-10-minute psych-rock tunes for the other. But on their new LP, Secret Wars, Oneida successfully unite the disparate elements of their music. They channel experimental noise, acid-drenched riffs, and live-show spontaneity into a record of brilliantly crafted nuggets of lysergic rock that is easily their most consistent effort to date.

Much of this can be attributed to the album’s emphasis on Oneida’s typically minimalist live instrumentation. On record, Each One‘s 14-minute exercise in repetition, “Sheets of Easter,” comes off as exasperatingly experimental studio wankery. But when the track’s visceral, larger-than-life noise monolith is muscled out before your eyes on stage by just three sweaty humans – keyboardist Fat Bobby, guitarist/bassist Hanoi Jane, and drummer Kid Millions – wankery is the last thing that comes to mind.Secret Wars crystallizes this powerful live minimalism into some of the band’s most propulsive studio tunes yet. It is almost obscene how a track like “$50 Tea” rocks so convincingly hard when all that’s there is a repetitive keyboard thump, Kid Millions’ ridiculously frenetic hi-hat and tom workouts, and funnels of fuzz-drenched guitar squeal soaring above the fray. Everything continuously builds under Kid’s singsong vocals until the pressure gives way, bursting the track at the seams in a fiery breakdown. Simplicity also reigns supreme on the ingeniously titled (yet criminally brief), “Capt. Bo Dignifies the Allegations With a Response,” a track anchored by Fat Bobby’s left-hand keyboard drone.

Even the album’s more experimental moments are streamlined. Subtle harmonic variance shifts under the chiming guitar and drum repetition of “The Winter Shaker,” yielding new sounds on repeated listens. And the closing jam, “Changes in the City,” takes a simple bass riff and twists it into oblivion over the course of 14 minutes, adding coat after coat of fuzzed-out varnish until everything congeals into a singular, squealing wail. When the static clears, only drums, keyboard, and guitar – Oneida’s sole staples – are left tired and clicking aimlessly on the floor. The moment you realize these three exhausted and shattered instruments are the only things fueling the album is when it becomes clear: Oneida have finally given the world krautrock that actually rocks.

Grade: A