At times, Thee Oh Sees may have sounded scrappy and scuzzy on record, but by the time the San Francisco-based garage rock quartet released 2013's Floating Coffin—their seventh album, give or take—they had become one of the finest live acts around. On stage, they were just straight up better than their peers—faster, tighter, and weirder than the competition. And then they were gone. Sort of.
Later in 2013, singer/guitarist John Dwyer announced that the band would go on hiatus and would cease to perform live for the foreseeable future. Not long after that, though, he announced that a new Oh Sees album, Drop, would see release early the following year. It was all a little confusing, and when the band finally did rematerialize for some tour dates, drummer Mike Shoun, guitarist Petey Dammit, and singer/keyboardist Brigid Dawson were gone from the picture. Instead, Dwyer—who'd relocated to Los Angeles—was backed by bassist Timothy Hellman and drummer Nick Murray.
Arguably, Thee Oh Sees have always had a fluid membership, especially when it came to the band’s LPs, which Dwyer sometimes assembled entirely on his own (see 2011’s Castlemania). But when the guitarist stepped out from his bandmates, he tended to explore more tuneful territory, reserving the band’s heavier rock'n'roll output for the whole crew.
Mutilator Defeated at Last is Thee Oh Sees' first post-hiatus LP to be recorded using the band’s re-staffed touring lineup. It sounds different from the old version of the band, but notthat different. In the past, Oh Sees records were made more or less live, the band bashing out the songs in single takes with no or minimal overdubs. Since reformatting the group, Dwyer has become a bit more interested in the studio. As with Drop, this extra polish and attention benefits Mutilator. There are tasteful psychedelic embellishments—synth wooshes, delay trails—and new instrumentation, like electric organ and acoustic guitar. The fuzz and grime have been peeled back a little, leaving room for more density and detail.
By the time Floating Coffin came out, the old version of Thee Oh Sees were at the peak of their ability on stage, but the records were starting to become slightly predictable. Each would contain a handful of fast rock songs, a few slow zone-outs, and one or two detours that broke character. In a way, swapping out his personnel has allowed Dwyer to change the band without altering that formula at all. Mutilator is distinctive in Thee Oh Sees' catalog because different musicians perform it—the drums are slightly swingier, there’s bass guitar rather than a Telecaster covering the low end. Everything else is pretty much the same as usual, down to the lyrics about death and decaying flesh.
Thee Oh Sees have one type of song that is consistently great. It’s the fast and heavy track that combines the creepy and ugly sensibility of the Cramps with krautrock's streamlined sense of repetition—"The Dream" or "No Spell", for instance. On any given Oh Sees record, these are the songs that count the most. And Mutilator delivers plenty of these songs. "Withered Hand", "Lupine Ossuary", and "Rogue Planet" each strikes that perfect balance of druggy alienation and soothing forward motion, of sublime rhythmic focus and freaked-out guitar violence.
- Aaron Leitko, Pitchfork