“It don’t feel too good to be/ Dead to the 21st century” are the very first words you hear on Castlemania‘s leading track, “I Need Seed.” It’s an odd little ditty written from the point of view of a cadaver who’s hoping to be home to new germinating plants. And while it feels wrong to apply this grim, kind of creepy metaphor to Thee Oh Sees’ prodigious body of work to date, when a band’s been around for over two decades and continues to bring a fresh approach to a style of music that’s been redone to death, the cadaverous shoe definitely fits.
Thee Oh Sees are just one band among frontman John Dwyer’s countless musical projects, and he started this particular group with the intent that it would be an outlet for his more experimental recordings. Dwyer excels at writing songs that always seem on the verge of spiraling out of control. He doesn’t excessively rely on too-familiar garage rock hallmarks, preferring instead to inject a more experimental bent. And with Dwyer’s rough voice and affinity for psych-blues, Castlemania definitely gets pretty Captain Beefheart-y at times. Although most of the songs at least flirt with a conventional pop song structure, on the whole, this album isn’t as accessible as some of Dwyer’s earlier efforts with this particular band. 2008’s The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In is less “weird” — but hey, that time the band was spending a night in a fancy room. This time around, they’re lying dead in the ground.
The aging Millennials among you may remember the Castlevania NES game, where you play a vampire hunter on a mission to take out Dracula, his minions, the castle, etc. in stunning pixelated 2D. Castlemania shares its namesake’s penchant for wallowing amid the more unpleasant things in life and being sort of at peace with it. It’s actually a pretty fitting umbrella theme for psychedelia — music that’s discordant, filled with unfamiliar sounds, and disorienting to the point where you lose yourself, but in a way that rarely alienates listeners. “Stinking Cloud” happens to fit the bill, combining a keening string section with a cacophony of jazz brass and flutes — and it’s not alone. Summery melodies sung in Dwyer’s croaking voice populate most of the album. Mellotrons and violins sharing time with roiling guitar feedback. And “Coprophagia (A Bath Perhaps)” might be the only time coprophagia and church bells have been paired together since the era of the super-corrupt Borgia popes. Both musically and lyrically, exercise in contrast is the name of the game. In nearly every song (at least, on the first half of the album), lyrics about lying inert in the ground or lazing around get paired with completely frenetic instrumentation.
The tracks that do deviate from Dwyer’s noisy garage-psych formula are interesting — and not just because of the contrast. Castlemania‘s concluding songs feature sole female member Brigid Dawson in a more prominent role, and these tunes turned out to be a bit more accessible than most of the others on the album. Dawson’s plaintive vocal turn on “I Won’t Hurt You” transforms Thee Oh Sees into a shuffling shoegaze outfit. “If I Stay Too Long” reimagines the band as a purveyor of radio-ready catchy lo-fi pop. Listening to the band expand their scope and show versatility gave me a bit of a different outlook on Thee Oh Sees. I had sort of lumped into the group of bands that flirt with the line between self-parody and experimentation, but Castlemania indicates that like the most accomplished psychedelia, Thee Oh Sees are thoroughly capable of adding dimensionality to “odd” — and oddness to “pop.”