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Oneida's Pathway To Ecstasy

Brooklyn's Oneida have been making dangerous psyche noise since 1997, marrying the trance-inducing power of repetition with the head-banging frenzy of speed and distortion. The trio's Secret Wars, out on Jagjaguwar, ups the ante, with fuzz-covered nervous breakdowns sitting side-by-side with skewed raga and blue-flavored guitar rock. It's an album where anarchy dukes it out with order, both pounding furiously at each other until it becomes clear that neither will win and that, in fact, they may be the same thing. When asked if the band's signature repetitive groove was a way of reining in the chaos that lurks under most Oneida songs, keyboardist Fat Bobby said, "I don't see the repetition as necessarily disciplining that chaos, or limiting the tension. For us, repetition is a pathway to ecstasy, the same way that techno or funk or high life achieves that kind of nonmeditative, physical trance-state."

Oneida are currently a trio made up of Fat Bobby, bassist Hanoi Jane and drummer Kid Millions. (None of the band members use their real names.) Secret Wars, the band's sixth full-length, is the first to be recorded without guitarist and founding member Papa Crazee, who left Oneida to form the country-ish Oakley Hall after 2002's Each One Teach One. Fat Bobby said after Crazee's departure the band spent considerable time trying to recast itself. "We would just get together and play, improvise, make a bunch of noise, and see what it sounded like," he explained. "Gradually, months of this stuff kind of taught us new ways to play and to listen to ourselves," he explained during a recent phone interview, adding, "You know, there are certain advantages to being a trio, and certain problems, and you have to learn how to get into the new empty corners without getting trapped in them. I think one of the effects was that we exploit space [sonically speaking here, not astronomically] in ways that were less possible with four noisemakers."

Secret Wars was recorded in two stages, with the first five tracks laid down during a single weekend at Brooklyn's Rare Book Room with Nicolas Verhes (who has recorded recent albums by Black Dice, Ted Leo, Fischerspooner and others). These tracks were originally intended to be released by themselves as an EP, but the process took on a life of its own. "We ended up with a recording that inspired other ideas in us, so we decided to pursue those thoughts and turn it into a full album," Fat Bobby explained. "We spent some time in our own studio fucking around and writing, and the rest of the album just fell together much more instinctively and off-the-cuff."

The resulting album is quite diverse, with hammering two-minute punk songs ("Capt. Bo Dignifies the Allegations With a Response"), gorgeously guitar-driven psyche ("Wild Horses"), a weird and off-kilter Indian-influenced acoustic piece ("Last Act Every Time"), and a slow and dreamy quarter-hour excursion ("Changes in the City") that is the opposite in every way but length of last year's "Sheets of Easter."

The album has an experimental, improvisational feel — and that has to do with the approach the trio takes to making music. Although individual songs are well mapped out, Fat Bobby explained, there is always room for accident and chance. "One of us will go somewhere else in a song, even by accident, and the whole foundation will shift in some way, and then we find ourselves somewhere different," he said. "You have to give chance a role in the creative process, and follow where it leads. Allowing outside things to subvert your intentions is difficult at first, because you feel helpless, but when you learn to react to chance and chaos, you can learn shit you never even knew existed."

That goes for audiences, too, at Oneida's intense live shows, where the manic collective consciousness of the band extends right off the stage. "Some of the greatest moments of my life have been at shows where we're just hammering the same fucking thing over and over, and really doing it right, totally together, completely oblivious to the flow of time and whatever, and people are throwing themselves around in a complete frenzy, not moshing or anything so self-conscious, but just dancing like they can't help it and can't control themselves — completely surrendering to something that we don't even have secular words for."

Oneida formed in 1997 in Brooklyn around core members Kid Millions and Papa Crazee, releasing their first album, A Place Called El Shaddai's, that fall on Turnbuckle Records. Hanoi Jane and Bobby Matador (Fat Bobby) joined in the same year, and have appeared on all subsequent Oneida records including Enemy Hogs (1999), Come On Everybody, Let's Rock (2000), Anthem of the Moon (2001), Each One Teach One (2002) and last year's split with Liars, Atheists Reconsider. The band leaves in mid-February for a 21-date European tour, with stops in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France and the UK. — Jennifer Kelly [Tuesday, February 17, 2004]

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