REVIEW: OU – One

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If someone had mentioned the term, “Chinese prog,” to me a few years ago, I’m pretty convinced that I could not really have known what to expect. I would probably have bet on it being something truly exotic. Well, let me tell you: it is. One of the most interesting breaking news of late has been the announcement that the Beijing-based prog-quartet, OU, has signed a deal with InsideOut Music. Their international debut “One” will be released on May 6th, 2020, and the music does indeed sound exotic, fresh, and dynamic almost to the point of being surreal. The album is quite a prog-overkill, what with influences coming from Devin Townsend, DREAM THEATER, HAKEN, and RADIOHEAD – as well as from the neo-noir science-fiction anime soundtracks, the free-floating ambient soundscapes of Vangelis and Brian Eno, and, on occasion, from the freaky fusion of Frank Zappa even. Imagine mixing this all together with a notable pinch of oriental flavor and there you have it: a new sonic realm you probably have not encountered before. I don’t usually dissect new albums song-by-song unless there is something utterly intriguing and fantastic in each album track. This is one of those rare occasions when it really must be done in order to get the full-fledged flavor. While there is a distinct, overarching, and other-worldly aesthetic to this album, each song offers you a unique peek into the band’s art so that there is no easy way of summing up this eight-track outing with a mere few words. Even the word, “exotic,” does not quite seem to suffice.

The album opens with “Travel,” which traverses waist-deep in the somewhat Devin Townsend -like prog spheres. All the songs are actually sung in Chinese but for simplicity’s sake, I use the English translations for song titles here. What really sets the song apart is the prominent use of space synths that resonate with the thick air of Nintendo boss battles and sci-fi anime soundtracks. The impression is something like “Ziltoid on acid.” 

Next up, “Farewell” throws in a good bunch of modal, distinctively oriental guitar motifs that would sit well on the albums of, say, Marty Friedman or Steve Vai, while the off-kilter syncopations and rhythmic modulations resonate strongly with the air of HAKEN. Add the dramatic vocals of Lynn Wu and you’re in for a jolly good prog-ride on the Orient Express! The song’s coda is such a high-speed, staccato punch-up that it makes me wonder how these progsters are going to pull it off on stage. I’m sure that, should the day ever come that sentient AI started writing progressive rock music, it might just as well sound something like this. 

By the third track, “Mountain,” the plot thickens substantially, with the song being nothing short of a progressive overkill á la DREAM THEATER or maybe even Frank Zappa with a modern synth-metal edge. The syncopated riffs bounce a bit restlessly all over the place but there is, anyhow, certain appeal in this sort of prog overindulgence. This sounds a bit like ANIMALS AS LEADERS or HAKEN – but on steroids. Maybe I wouldn’t put this song on while cruising down the highway, though. It would probably result in getting a speeding ticket, if not crashing the car off the road. The band seems to be aware of this too, since the follow-up track, “Ghost,” is an exclusively electronic, Vangelis-like ambient meditation, which serves as a nice breather, switching your mind into a completely different mode. 

If you think, four tracks into the album, that you have the band figured out, you’d better think again; “Euphoria” puts a brand new facet of the band forward, resonating with the thick air of “Kid A”-era RADIOHEAD. The first half of the song follows the proggy formula of the previous tracks quite nicely, albeit with the vocals being drenched in effects in such a way that it is strongly reminiscent of “Everything In Its Right Place” by Thom Yorke & Co. The latter half of the song takes a reckless dive deep into the ambient realms of Brian Eno, in a similar manner to “Treefingers” from that particular RADIOHEAD album classic. It is one thing to inject an ambient track or two among a bunch of high-octane proggy onslaughts, but to cut a song off with an ambient 2-minute coda showcases a musical philosophy that is inherently different from the ones that we are accustomed to in the West. 

Prejudice” is another Townsend-styled prog piece – one that is elevated to a whole new sonic realm by the somewhat Björk-like vocals of Wu. Once again, there are so many nuances and details squeezed into a single song that it takes a good few listens before you really get the hang of it. So, obviously, it might require an acquired taste for progressive overindulgence to be able to enjoy the album in its full glorious prog-splendor. It definitely helps if you have spent your delicate teenage years listening to the eccentric, vintage prog-mammoths from the 1970s. 

The rhythmic main motif of “Dark” takes my mind on a stroll down the musical memory lane lined up by bands such as HAKEN, LEPROUS, and Devin Townsend. Albeit the song does sport all sorts of eccentric nuances, such as the heavily vocoder-filtered vocals and a good bunch of rhythmic tricks, it is the most straightforward of the selection. I feel tempted to say it really does stand out on the album and it is, perhaps, the best point of entry into the exotic world of OU.

What could possibly be a better way to bring closure to this prog extraordinaire than the 4-minute ambient hymn, “Light?” The closer resonates with the air of the minimalist ambient music of Brian Eno, as though free-floating through the vast ocean of our inner space. I guess you couldn’t really bring an album like this to a close with nothing else since by going for the opposite end of the spectrum, nothing less than a sonic, brain-exploding big bang would do.

After the first listening session, it is quite obvious that these Chinese proggers are not set out to take it easy on the listener. Their debut is by far not about iterating on the same old, sepia-filtered vintage prog formula ad nauseam, nor is it about nonchalantly throwing djenty polyrhythms about. “One” sounds so genuinely exotic that it is like a breath of fresh air in the slightly over-saturated prog scene. Of course, the album does boldly go somewhere so out of this world that it is not for the weak of heart. Consider yourselves warned.

Written by Jani Lehtinen

Tracklist

  1. Travel
  2. Farewell
  3. Mountain
  4. Ghost
  5. Euphoria
  6. Prejudice
  7. Dark
  8. Light

Lineup

Anthony Vanacore – drums

Lynn Wu – vocals

Zhang Jing – guitars

Chris Cui – bass

Label

InsideOut Music