Mutilator Defeated at Last
The art of cacophonous world-building
by Jericho Cerrona
When it comes to establishing a tangential, self-contained universe, the Marvel franchise has nothing on John Dwyer. The psych-rock mastermind has been belching out a seemingly never-ending series of recorded music since the inception of his San Francisco band Thee Oh Sees in 2008. Before that, he was an underground sensation as part of drone noisemakers Coachwhips and Zeigenbock Kopf. Before that, he jammed out solo material under the moniker "Orinoka Crash Suite". Before that, well, he was probably blowing out speakers and thrashing guitars alone in his basement. Whatever kind of label one wishes to apply to the man--the millennial Robert Pollard, lo-fi demi-god, post-garage messiah--there's little questioning Dwyer's commitment to building his ever-expanding universe of rampaging psychedelia.
Mutilator Defeated at Last is the Thee Oh Sees' 14th album overall, and the sixth in five years. There has been some significant lineup changes in the interim, especially after after the band took a "hiatus" in 2013, which unsurprisingly ended with the arrival of The Drop in 2014. If that record saw Dwyer channeling his inner 60s flower child with Strawberry Alarm Clock-esque dreamy melodies and squeaking saxophones, Mutilator Defeated at Last is the sound of him getting back to pummeling cacophony. Truthfully, the mellower vibes of The Drop were a significant disappointment, playing as an inferior spiritual successor to 2011's psych/acid folk masterwork Castlemania. Here, Dwyer goes back to the well without necessarily repeating past hits. Opener "Web" is an absolute rager; building slowly with a menacing groove, ferocious drumming, and Dwyer's high-pitched, nearly whispered vocals before exploding into a series of psych-metal crescendos. The majority of the album follows the lead of this opening salvo, with minor variations where things slow down slightly in between; resulting in Thee Oh Sees most consistent effort since 2013's Floating Coffin. The inclusion of synths, which have been a part of the band's sound for a few years now, has steadily increased, especially considering Dwyer's electronic solo side project Damaged Bug has been occupying what little time he probably has left. Keyboards are present here too, especially at the beginning of "Withered Hand" and throughout the organ-led "Sticky Hulks", bringing a slightly deranged vibe to all of the garage-punk stylings.
Another thing that stands out here is the improved fidelity. Known for walls of dissonant guitar noise and lo-fi production, Dwyer takes a few baby steps toward legitimate clarity on this record, which shouldn't necessarily be confused with streamlined accessibility. There's still plenty of crunching guitar squall and swirling fuzz, but the separation between the guitars, bass, drums, and Dwyer's vocals, gives the album a more coherent atmosphere than some of their past efforts. The main problem with Mutilator Defeated at Last, and its a problem that plagues the band's modus operandi overall, is just how long Dwyer and company can keep this specific brand of garage/psych rock invigorating. One of the most shocking things is that after so many records, Thee Oh Sees still manage to write blistering riff-heavy jams, but there's also a sense that their sound is fairly limited when seen over the course of nearly a decade. Should one question insane prolific streaks when it extends to slight variations on the same sound, or simply be grateful that Thee Oh Sees still exist and continue banging out infectious racket? There's one thing that cannot be questioned here, and that's the fact that the monopolizing Marvel film franchise still has a long way to go in order to catch up with Dwyer's series of time-spanning, sonic mini-narratives.