Before Saul Williams graced us with his imprints of experimental hip hop, Chicago’s ONO were creating divergent works that drew from both industrial music and gospel.
The comparisons between the two are very much conscientious – both pushed the envelope for their respective genres, discussing themes about race and what it means to be a black person in their own time periods.
The avant-garde nature of ONO’s latest work, Red Summer, will no doubt further those comparisons.
As front person travis (spelt intentionally with a lower case T) focuses his narration on the collective’s hometown, racial violence and a long-standing history of slave ownership from 1619 (the album’s opener, “20th August 1619), Haitian operations and sexual abuse during the Vietnam war; an experience the vocalist accounts first hand, the musicality manages to veer between transgressive and, god forbid, groovy.
Take the single “I Dream Of Sodomy”, which focusing on travis’ heritage and that experience in the Vietnam War while serving in the U.S Navy. Lyrically, this should be maudlin episode – yet with the backing of band leader P Michael Grego’s infectious bassline, it transforms into a track with voguish swagger.
Nodding along to music that has such lyrical context isn’t something to be gleeful about.
But that’s been ONO’s modus vivendi since their inception in 1980. It’s been a staple years later with Trent Reznor and the release of The Downward Spiral and it became a staple part of Saul Williams’ watershed moment, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust, coincidentally produced by Reznor.
See how those comparisons are easy to make?
It’s the musicianship throughout Red Summer that sets it apart from Williams’ work. Rather than venture down an overt industrial rock paradigm, ONO tread towards more experimental compositions.
From the outset, ONO’s have always underscored their output as creating “noise not music”, and akin to Death Grips, the jarring electronic elements manage to create an unbridled sense of unease.
“Sniper” borrows from some homebrew ambient noise artists you may happen upon through Soundcloud or Bandcamp (there’s an entire Facebook group if you’re interested, let alone subreddits) and “Blk Skin” seems more apropos for a Warp Records’ artist than a gospel group.
There is a real hostility throughout Red Summer that you can feel from the music, let alone the lyrical content. The album title itself refers to summer of 1919, with the race-driven violence the United States so there is a lot of pugnacity – but how can their not be, given the elements the band explore not on this album, but throughout the majority of their back-catalogue.
These are themes that for the most part still see their repercussions in the present day. That we are going through a period in modern history where inequity is very much being demonstrated through a pandemic, ONO’s message is germane for so many stifled communities, regardless of ethnicity.
If the messages are a little too preachy, the music itself instils an ominous sense of malevolence that isn’t quite as jarring when the lyrics are included but definitely create the unease the group want you to feel. It’s an unease, I can only imagine, the majority of the group members have felt throughout their own history and the history of the cultures they are a part of.
It’s fantastic in its execution. Red Summer is more accessible than you’d think – yes it deals with transgressive themes and melodies (or lack of, for some people) can be quite antagonistic, but it’s very hard not to laud the album for the sheer restrained intensity it manages to conceive and accomplish.