In a genre like garage rock, that often relies on simplicity, tradition, and back-to-basics thinking, a band with the consistency and creativity of Osees is a rarity. In just twenty-three years, the group has gone through fourteen band members, twenty-three records, and now five name changes. But what would usually result in at least a subtle staleness, instead, continues to drive them to more creative spaces. Their nineteenth and twentieth studio records, Orc (2017), and Smote Reverser (2018), brought them to a creative high through their entrancing thematic presentations. Their most recent record, Face Stabber (2019), proved to be one of their most progressive releases, featuring a twenty-one-minute song as the closer. Protean Threat certainly joins the ranks of these other records in quality of instrumentation and amount of experimentation, but shrouds itself in an ambiguity that handicaps its ability to shine through as an as-outstanding record.
Much like its album art, Protean Threat is hard to pin down, due to the infinite directions it splays into. Within the first album feature, they quickly exhibit harsh, energetic noise rock. The intro track, “Scramble Suit II,” begins and ends like a Lightning Bolt song, with repetitive, oppressive bass riffs that block your brain from any meaningful activity. This, and future track, “Terminal Jape,” both scream out “math rock,” surprisingly way more than any of the longer cuts do, despite running at only two minutes each. The second track, “Dreary Nonsense,” seems to continue the pattern of suffocating instrumentation by featuring some alarming, alternating guitar chords, and fuzzy electronic squelches to accompany them. But while all of these songs attack with an unapologetic intensity that’s infectious, the rest of the record simply defies the expectation set from the gate.
When their punchy, abrasive brand of rock takes its large breaks, it’s with tracks like “Wing Run.” In it, some smooth, harmonic synths run alongside some pretty funky guitars that spiral upwards as they continue on. It’s also the only fully-instrumental song on this record, losing Dwyer’s demonic vocals, which allows for an improvement to the mood. “Said the Shovel” doesn’t include synth lines from the ‘80s, but is just as mellow. Lengthy, echoing guitar chords come back to run the show, leading to an ominous, hypnotizing, and ethereal state that follows Dwyer’s hushed tone. “Gong of Catastrophe” constructs a similar environment, but a much fuller one, condensed through an ever-present, driving bass line that shouts from the background.
The songwriting and stylization of the record doesn’t completely follow this simple dichotomy, through several individual tracks that are completely separate from a majority of the project. “Wing Run” is one example of this, but so are both “If I Had My Way,” and “Toadstool.” “If I Had My Way” layers in a very bluesy tone, that’s rarely present elsewhere on the project. Its incredibly rhythmic, grimy guitars are reminiscent of Booker T. and the M.G.’s, and other Sandlot (1993) soundtrack classics. But “Toadstool” couldn’t be further from this, splicing together standard ‘70s psychedelia with an electronic flare of filters, and the occasional glitch. It’s by far the most complex, developed song on the album.
Its sporadic idea-displays, and internal dynamics are not something foreign to Osees, but the saving grace of albums like Orc and Smote Reverser are the solidified themes and visuals established early on. Clever transitions can also sometimes make up for out-of-the blue swaps, but don’t necessarily do so on Protean Threat. It all begins with the first beat of the record, which blasts your eardrums without any preparation beforehand. Most of the subsequent transitions aren’t quite as bad, coming in at a much more reasonable volume, but some manage to be just as awkward.
Another shift that’s arguably bigger, but not necessarily harmful, is their entire sonic approach to the project. Over at least the past five years, Osees have been on a huge psychedelia kick, creating longer and longer compositions that continue to get more intricate each time. The aforementioned example of the twenty-one minute song one-upped their previous record’s twelve minute song, “Anthemic Aggressor.” So, throughout these past years, they’ve shown no desire to shift away from the overarching genre-goal they’d run toward for some time. However, this time, the record sits at a mere thirty-eight minutes, only double that of their last record’s closer, through only thirteen tracks. They manage to continue to make intriguing work, but in a more art punk and noise rock direction, which is a swap that came seemingly from nowhere.
Through the surprisingly-short length of their twenty-third studio album, Protean Threat, Osees explore a variety of different genre-splicing ideas, and continue making quality rock music. The issue comes with its inability to focus on one solidified style, or one solidified theme, that could potentially tie the project together. As a result, some of its unique tracks lose their effectiveness, pushing this down below some of their more recent records, which displayed themselves in more containable packages.