For fans of long-stading New York rock band Oneida, People of the North was everything that could be asked for in an experimental side project. Even for a band as wildly eclectic as Oneida, People of the North’s debut album Deep Tissue did feel like something of an exhaling release. By the time Deep Tissue dropped in 2010, collaborators Kid Millions and Bobby Matador had already been fooling around with the side project for upwards of seven years. While Oneida was busy attemping to detach themselves from the traditional concept of the band with their minimalist and ambient trilogy-closer Absolute II, Deep Tissue felt raw, gritty, and deeply entrenched back in the depths of wandering psych-rock. If nothing else, it pleased those fans turned off by the Zen-like stillness of Absolute II.
Here in their sophomore release, Steep Formations, Kid Millions and Bobby Matador somehow manage to pull off another reinvention of their sound. However, some of the basics still remain the same: the album is, once again, split into three tracks — each pushing either the twenty or thirty minute mark. Oneida and People of the North have always been known for their affinity for repetition, but this seventy-minute cycle really stretches out the sounds and emotions the project is shooting for.
Like all forms of minimalism, Steep Formations isn’t interested in telling a narrative or following a succession of musical events. Instead, People of the North is interested in capturing one moment — one fragment of time spread out, zoomed in, and dissected across long amounts of uninterrupted musical experience. The opening track, “Border Waves (Part 1),” features twenty minutes of possibly the most unsettling drum playing of all time. While the minimalism of archetypical composers like Steve Reich often features driving rhythms and pulsating eighth notes, “Border Waves (Part 1)” feels more like watching somebody fall down a never-ending escalator.
“Border Waves (Part 2)” very much picks up where the previous track left off: screeching organs and distorted phasers float up and down over the fumbling drums with little regard for what’s going on beneath them. Once again, Kid Millions’ drumming is off-beat and unnatural like an awkward drum fill that never end quite reaches the downbeat of the next bar. These two tracks’ total lack of tonal or rhythmic center is some of the most experimental and inaccessible stuff these guys have ever concocted and is certainly a big step away from the more straight-forward psych-rock of Deep Tissue.
This is most notable in the final track, “Steep Formations,” which features just a singular sound stretched uncomfortably across thirty minutes with no drums or percussion to be heard. Sounding like the Inception horn blast stuck in a tormented state of looping stasis, the track is violent, relentless, and will stop at nothing to aggravate your ears. While Deep Tissue had years of live performance to dig into for inspiration, Steep Formations feels like Kid Millions and Bobby Matador trying to head back into the realm of more heady experimental music — and not always for the better, in my mind. Something about the album just feels a bit unasked for. It’s not the conclusion of an epic trilogy of triptych or a rumination on a deep psychological theme — it just is.