2020 Music Reviews

Album Review: JG Thirlwell and Simon Steensland ‘Oscillospira’

Oscillospira Review Album

For years, composer JG Thirlwell obscured his identity through alter egos. Not content to be a shapeshifter in name only, these monikers represented a multiplicity of musical personae: Steroid Maximus, Wiseblood, Baby Zizanie, Xordox and — perhaps the most infamous — the various permutations of Foetus, which included Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel, You’ve Got Foetus on Your Breath, Foetus Art Terrorism and more.

In recent years, Thirlwell has been scoring animated series; first, there was The Venture Bros. and now, Archer. He’s collaborated with dozens of artists across musical genres such as Zola Jesus, Lydia Lunch, The The, Melvins, Swans and Simon Hanes, to name but a few. Such musical origin stories might seem tedious to those who’ve followed Thirlwell’s career for the last three-plus decades, but — for everyone else — it is necessary to explain just why there are those who have followed his career for so many years.

Thirlwell’s latest endeavour is a joint project with Swedish composer and musician Simon Steensland, who, like Thirlwell, has released solo works as well as collaborative ones. Steensland has also composed the music for over 150 productions of Sweden’s major theatre companies.

If all you’ve heard from Thirlwell’s oeuvre are his TV scores, then Oscillospira will likely have you ransacking the internet for anything and everything you can find. It is a stunning accomplishment, one whose fundamental pleasures reveal themselves further with repeated listens.

The drumming on Oscillospira (courtesy of Morgan Ågren) is impressive, ranging from subtle and restrained to heavy and bombastic. Oscillospira also showcases the versatility of the violin, from wails and shrieks to pizzicato flourishes. The instrument dominates many of the tracks, beautifully complementing the female vocalizations that appear throughout. Perhaps unexpectedly, there is quite a bit of electric guitar and bass on the album. Instead of manifesting as anachronisms, they fit perfectly within the aesthetic of the more traditional orchestral instruments like oboe, clarinet and xylophone; in “Redbug,” they even call to mind the work of Robert Fripp.

The evocatively titled “Papal Strain” asserts itself as the centerpiece of the album. Longtime Thirlwell fans might find it a spiritual sibling to older instrumentals like “Lilith” or “Asbestos,” but it is outstanding in its own right. The tension and release throughout the track is sublime, teasing an apocalyptic ending of histrionic violins and thudding basslines.

It’s not the only sublime moment on Oscillospira; in fact, there are many which are far less immediately obvious. The ending of “Heresy Flank” is superb, featuring a driving beat offset by howling vocals. Strings and vocals blend to transcendent effect in “Mare,” like falling slowly off a cliff while stars explode in the sky beyond. “Crystal Night” is one of the most incredible Thirlwell compositions in recent memory: heartbreaking violins punctuate the heat waves of a desert mirage as sepulchral vocals fade in and out.

One of the most remarkable elements within Oscillospira is a motif which can only be described by quoting William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” This monstrous set of notes appears about halfway through “Night Shift” courtesy of guitar and drums, and eventually transforms into a cacophony of tremendous force, accompanied by operatic vocals. A melancholy melody provides exquisite contrast.

In conjunction with the religious references of the track names, the music on Oscillospira evokes the drama of creation and destruction on a grand scale. As Thirlwell has noted more than once, the idea behind the “Foetus” moniker is one that allows for constant self-reinvention. Oscillospira is the latest level of ascendancy towards his apotheosis.

Oscillospira was released through Ipecac Recordings on April 24, 2020.

Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.