WHAT’S YOUR SIGN by Oneida and Rhys Chatham
Genre: Experimental Rock, Minimalism
Favorite Tracks: “A. Phillip Randolph at Back Bay Station,” “Civil Weather”
There isn’t a more empowering yet daunting term in music then “experimental.” When an artist chooses to bravely brand themselves with that genre tag, it gives them free reign to create something truly unique, free from the constraints of musical tradition and the fundamentals of song and album structure. There really is no middle ground with experimental music: you either accept its anarchic rejection of the rules or be frustrated by its unwillingness to do so. What an artist does with their limitless musical sandbox can be mind-blowing in its innovation and make you question why we have rules in the first place. However, it can also be a solid reminder of why such structure exists, resulting in listeners throwing their hands up in defeat while screaming, “I don’t get it!”
Such a phrase was repeated more than the word “fuck” in a Tarantino movie while I listened to WHATS YOUR SIGN, a six-track long collaboration between noise rockers Oneida and minimalist composer Rhys Chatham. While there are the drums and guitars expected of any rock band, only the first track has coherent vocals, mostly in the form of one line repeated incessantly, with Rhys clearly handling most of the post-production shenanigans and tinkering. There are only two songs on WHATS YOUR SIGN; the rest of it is long stretches of noise that has to be hacked through like weeds to get to anything that has nutritional value.
Each of the first four songs have interesting melodies that serve as sturdy backbones, but they end up buried by layers of droning, crackling static and sharp, squealing guitars, with a lack of any other rhythm to latch onto to. Experimental music is supposed to provide a soundscape for a listener to get lost in, but WHAT’S YOUR SIGN feels like someone handing you a blank sheet of paper and telling you to complete a Mad Libs on it. Without any lyrics, the music has to be emotive and colorful enough to speak for itself, both figuratively and literally, but there are too many blanks here to generate any emotion other than annoyance.
It’s not like there aren’t some intriguing sounds here, but it’s intriguing in the sense of how it was made rather than fascinating to listen to, much like Kevin Smith and his movies’ backstories and behind the scenes being far more entertaining than the movies themselves. Songs aren’t sonically monotone, as they vary themselves well enough and don’t incessantly repeat the same noises, but they are emotionally monotone, which is a far more egregious sin. For the subtle ways that tracks like “Well Tuned Guitar” and “Bad Brains” change over their running times, they never pan out to anything that I couldn’t get from listening to a broken radio trying desperately trying to find a signal.
WHAT’S YOUR SIGN does save its best for last. While there’s about two starting minutes of ambience, “A Phillip Randolph at Back Bay Station” has a solid payoff with flashy and intricate drum work and ominous horns that sound like death itself is near. The lone, melancholy guitar chords contrast well with the noisiness of the rest of the mix, and it fades out to rather sinister vocals of someone cackling. The horns on “Civil Weather” are more droning and less expressive, but the drum work is still impressive and there’s a harshness that actually manages to engross rather than ostracize.
There is a certain type of listener who will love WHAT’S YOUR SIGN. Someone who has a lot of patience and isn’t as much of a music fundamentalist as me will have a much easier time appreciating the compositions and letting themselves be sonically hypnotized. It requires a lot of investment, though, more so than I was willing to provide. There’s nothing wrong with a challenging, hard to deduce record, but the payoff better be worth the difficulties, and WHAT’S YOUR SIGN’s highlights are not worth sitting through its more mechanical, superficial, and tedious moments to get to.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend