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Listening to Charles the Osprey’s new LP “Consider” on Friction Records is a prolonged bout of déjà vu for this 31-year-old music weirdo. I have heard these stops and starts before. I have heard these shimmering melodies diverted by heavy distorted grooves (and back again). I imagine the two members of CTO (Rafael Ohli on Guitar and Derek Lancioni on drums) hearing Shellac for the first time and having their minds blown. And then they heard Don Caballero. It’s hard to ignore the hallmarks of these bands: precise, repetitive rhythms that turn on a dime. But this is no nostalgia act. These two Grand Rapids guys have created a genuinely solid math-rock record with just enough new elements to keep a weirdo like me interested.
Lancioni and Ohli aren’t alone in their affinity for mathiness. The character of this Midwest, indie-rock invention seeped into the soil a long time ago. It is heard in the repetitive trippy grooves of Battles, the jerky fits and starts of Liars or Deerhoof and the spaced-trails of Animal Collective. It’s even present in current Grand Rapids indie bands Little Africa and Ghost Heart. Yet I haven’t heard these elements come together in quite this way since the hazy days of the late 90’s. Back then, the Rust Belt was brimming with unusual, inventive bands like U.S. Maple, Five Style, Don Caballero, Shellac, Tortoise and Aloha. Charles the Osprey has taken the precise and complex elements from these bands and mixed them with the occasional pretty guitar part, hardcore/ pop punk drum pattern or metal riff. It’s an appealing mix.
On every track Ohli and Lancioni apply these sounds with an ADD familiar to fans of Don Caballero; everything is bound to switch up in about 30 seconds. Clean, melodies turn into heavy distortion in a flash and then -- without a hiccup -- return. Those listeners who don’t relish in instrumental grooves or are turned off by songs that don’t follow through with one idea will have a hard time with these 12 tracks. Luckily for me I gravitate to experimental, instrumental rock bands like a Kardashian to Justin Bieber.
I also have an affinity for two-piece bands. The limitations of using only two instruments can provide a gateway to the core of a song: rhythm and melody. One way around this is to use overdubbing, which CTO avoids. They state it plainly in the liner notes, “We wanted to create an album that we could perform live exactly how it is here.” This fact makes the album even more impressive. The range of sounds Ohli achieves -- from strummed upbeat rhythms to percussively tapped strings to some method of making his guitar sound like a keyboard -- keep things fresh while Lancioni’s deep bag of drum patterns keeps things moving and my head nodding.
The rapid change of styles could have made for a spastic album with no sense governing the track order, but it doesn’t. The first side starts off with poppy melodies and catchy grooves and slowly stirs in flecks of heaviness and distortion. The highlight of this side is “Conversations with the Deacon, pt I” and it’s transition into “The Idirian Culture War.” “Conversations, pt I” opens with a martial beat that paves the way for soaring melodies and dissonant metal riffs. Without a second’s pause “Idirian” comes in with a beautifully delicate solo guitar part that turns a corner and becomes a driving rocker.
All in all, the A side is good, but I would not have enjoyed the album as much without the flip. Distortion, anxious melodies, a hint of bluesy guitar and a kind of restrained Lightning Bolt drum style take over. This is the stormy side of “Consider”, with a Mensa metalhead steering the ship. It’s difficult for me to pick a standout track from the B-side. This is when Ohli and Lancioni really let loose and things get heavy. And then it gets pretty. And then it gets heavier. The tracks flow perfectly between each other and it’s generally difficult to tell where one ends and another begins. The record ends with “Conversations with the Deacon, Pt 3” as things disintegrate and CTO use anything lying around the studio floor (cymbal stands, beer cans egg shaker, squeezebox?) to wring the last drops out. What a ride.
I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the object as well as the music it contains. As any music nerd can tell you, the packaging is a major part of the record experience. I reviewed the orange vinyl LP version of “Consider” (it’s also available in green), which is pressed on heavyweight wax by the Czech kings of vinyl, Pirates Press. The attention detail continues on to the design which is standout. The sleeve is the kind of paperboard used on the first Tortoise digipak/LP and Shellac’s “At Action Park” unipak that (intentionally or not) refers back to the heyday of Math/Post-Rock. The full cover illustration by Ryan G. Hill wraps around the gatefold and features a fierce scene with a C.T.O. assault team taking on a vicious Rodan-sized osprey. Another image by Hill on the inside depicts another (or the same?) mega-osprey about to snatch up two assault troops playing guitar and drums (no doubt Ohli and Lancioni). The simple line work is perfect and even the font is well chosen. By far one of the best packaging jobs I’ve seen from Friction Records, which is saying a lot.
As a whole, this is one of the best records I have seen from a Grand Rapids band in quite awhile. It’s an inventive, exciting experience in a really awesome package. Don’t wait another 10 years to find out why math is cool.
Matt Poole has lived in Grand Rapids for 13 years and regularly shares his interest in music (and snack foods) as a contributor to The Hello Friends podcast. He also runs the record label 77 Records and generally spends most of his time thinking about music.