Gig review: Thee Oh Sees at Leeds University Stylus

Thee Oh Sees. Picture: JPD
Thee Oh Sees. Picture: JPD
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If anyone is wondering what the term ‘cult act’ really means, they would be advised to check out Thee Oh Sees.

Whilst the wider public remains blissfully unaware of the band’s existence, they attract enough superlative-laden, unstinting devotion amongst those in the know to allow the band to sell out sizable venues, such as the setting of tonight’s 70-minute energy overload.

Also sticking to the cult act rulebook, Thee Oh Sees aren’t making it particularly straightforward for casual observers to keep track of their movements.

The San Francisco-based four-piece have swapped not just their line-up but also their name several times since their inception in the late 90s. Their discography stretches to such epic lengths you’d expect that at least one of the world’s recording facilities will be exposed to their murky basement-dwelling garage-rock transmissions at any given time; in fact, Thee Oh Sees are so prolific that when they recently called a hiatus, they could only manage to keep away from further noise-mongering for a couple of months.

Also keeping with the cult act codes and conventions, it can be quite hard for uninitiated to grasp what the fuss is all about. Catching Thee Oh Sees on tonight’s pulverising form proves an effective eye-opener.

Parked in front of a stack of amps that would be sufficient for a handful of standard-issue guitarists, sole original member John Dwyer (looking like a California skater dude who’s crossed over to the dark side) wields his over-driven instrument – held right under his chin, in the style if certainly not the sound of jazz-fusion noodlers – like a lance, as if he was engaged in a game of musical jousting with an invisible enemy. With the dual drum kits whipping up a pulverising barrage, it’s startling to realise the monumentally explosive opening minutes are in fact just a belated soundcheck.

With the actual gig underway, Thee Oh Sees’ chosen, appropriately cult-ish templates soon became apparent. Imagine a mix of the bubblegum melodies of the least weighty 60s kitsch-pop (delivered by Dwyer in a wispy falsetto that seems all the more ethereal next to the band’s muscular bombardment) crashing headfirst into the most sinister, psychedelically frazzled underground action the same decade had to offer, and you’ve a heady whiff of such highlights as ‘Plastic Plants’ (off umpteenth new album A Weird Exist) and subtly Can-flavoured ‘Web’.

It is unfortunate, then, that much of the set is dedicated to uncomplicated one-two-three-four punk-oid thrash that seems wastefully unchallenging next to the nuanced grooves and thrillingly alien, otherworldly rock n’ roll action the band whip up so convincingly elsewhere. Judging by the bubbling cauldron of fans doing whatever the garage-rock equivalent of dancing might be called in front of the stage (with frequent bouts of stage-diving and crowd-surfing for additional audience participation) throughout the shows, it’s safe to assume that the devotees hold no such reservations.