As a general rule, one doesn’t see very many metal musicians rocking tie-dye in their promo pics.
Then again, San Francisco’s Robert Woods-LaDue isn’t your average musician. And yes, I realize I left out the ‘metal.’ Given how preternaturally talented he is, it seems reductive to put any single genre tag on his musical – especially when he doesn’t seem to use any such strictures when formulating his own output. The word Woods-LaDue seems to use most often in discussing his own music is ‘experimental,’ but it’s not the sort of ‘free turf’ experimental music for which another group of tie-dye clad San Francisco musicians became known. It’s more controlled (and presumably not reliant on psychedelics), but no less of a mind-fuck as a result.
After over a decade of making experimental percussion-driven music with Dennydennybreakfast and avant-electronica as TFPP, Woods-LaDue is trying his hand at death metal with Onkos,
The band’s self-titled debut, which is due out on May 24 on Digital and Ltd Digipack CD from I, Voidhanger Records, does have a lot in common with death metal: it’s heavy as fuck, with gnarly riffs played on down-tuned guitars and subhuman growls. However, there are a few key differences. Those down-tuned guitars? They’re all acoustic. And instead of double-bass blasting, the percussion comes courtesy of a half-dozen differently pitched chekeré – the beaded gourd instruments Woods-LaDue is holding in the above photo, which he also makes himself.
As such, listening to Onkos involves concurrently experiencing musical and cognitive dissonance. The compositional density and overall complexity of the music is reminiscent of someone like Gorguts, but the textures feel completely alien. There’s no better example of this on Onkos than “Adens,” which we’re thrilled to be premiering here today at Clandestine Sounds. The longest and possibly most challenging song on the album, it’s also probably the best entry point for those unfamiliar with the unique character of Woods-LaDue’s music. If you can wrap your head around “Adens,” then you’ll be more than ready to experience Onkos in its entirety when it drops on May 24.
I also had the opportunity to chat with Woods-LaDue about the
album, and he’s as fascinating an interview subject as he is a
musician, and pretty damned insightful to boot. After you’ve
finished digesting “Adens,” you can check it out below.
Clandestine Sounds: Hey – so first off, thank you for the interview. Onkos is one of the more unique and fascinating projects I’ve encountered in a long time, and I’m stoked to have a chance to talk about it. You’ve primarily done experimental and avant-garde, percussion-heavy music with bands like TFPP and Dennydennybreakfast – projects that don’t really fit neatly into a single genre or described in a few words. Onkos seems almost straightforward by comparison – death metal-influenced acoustic music using non-traditional instrumentation – but the music is still anything but. I’m curious – where did the impetus to do Onkos come from?
Robert Woods-LaDue: With regards to my musical background, I essentially grew up playing music in a variety of contexts. I took piano lessons, learned to play guitar and sing songs, played percussion in band and orchestra, as well as drum set in rock and metal bands all when I was rather young. I even got the opportunity to study composition and music theory in high school, for which I am rather grateful. I’ve been interested in all sorts of genres, including Metal, Avant-Garde/Experimental, and more since I was really young. I went on to study percussion at University of Miami, Florida and then composition and percussion at California Institute of the Arts. For the past ten years or so, I’ve mostly been studying Afro-Cuban percussion in the San Francisco Bay Area and pursuing musical efforts such as Dennydennybreakfast and TFPP.
With regards to Onkos, it has taken a while for the project to emerge. When I first started writing material for ensembles of chekeré in 2012-2013, the particular ensemble of Onkos was one of many experiments that I conducted. The Onkos material got moved to the back burner as I continued with other efforts, and I would go back to it now and then and try out things. It was sometime after my last DDB release in mid-2018 when I was inspired to finally work to complete a full album of this material. I had many seeds of ideas I had generated over the years, and I needed to sit down and develop them. Once I can imagine how an album will take shape it’s like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and from that point forward it’s just a matter of hard work to bring the thing to life.
CS: Since you mention the chekeré, that is something I wanted to specifically ask about. The PR materials mention the musical foundation for Onkos is “six chekeré and a battery of acoustic guitars,” and you’ve been making chekeré yourself for close to a decade now. For any readers who aren’t familiar, what is a chekeré? How did you become so interested in that particular percussive instrument?
RWL: So the chekeré is a percussion instrument that is a dried gourd with a net of beads around it. It is found in all kinds of cultures worldwide, but most commonly in traditions that come out of the African Diaspora. One of my teachers of AfroCuban music specifically taught me how to make my own chekeré and encouraged me to make some. After that I kept doing it, mostly as a hobby. I play chekeré often when I am playing Afro-Cuban music, but I always saw a potential for the instrument to be used in other ways. There’s plenty of other applications of the chekeré you can dig up on the DDB/TFPP sites. The five or six chekeré ensemble that is used for Onkos was settled on actually because it has nice stereo image on recording. I typically will pan the highest two pitches of gourds hard right and left, the middle-pitched gourds will get panned to the center, and the lowest gourds slightly panned right and left. Ensembles of three or four were not quite enough instruments to be “heavy” and interestingly varied, while ensembles of nine and twelve chekeré were too complicated to perceive the details.
CS: I’ve mostly listened to the album via earbuds, so I’ve definitely been able to pick up on those differences in tone that you mentioned – it gives the record a very full sound. Is there much bass on the album as well, or do the chekeré carry the majority of the low end in terms of the rhythm? I’ve been able to pick out synth in the mix, but I can’t tell if there’s bass in there among the layers of guitar or not.
RWL: Yes, there is bass. All the songs have at least: one vocal, bass, one synth, four guitars and five chekeré tracks. Many of the songs have more than this, however. The bass is often in the same register as the guitars, as I am using a detuned guitar. The guitar tuning I use is C-G-D-G-B-E (low-high). With respect to the mixing of the bass, and I hear this a lot with metal in general, there is a prominent boost of the hi-mid frequency range and a de-emphasis of the low end. The chekeré do occupy a very particular spot in the low frequencies, so it is necessary to make room for them by not boosting too much low end from other instruments.
There is an artifact you may be interested in seeing that came up as part of the mixing and mastering process for this album that shows the frequencies that are pronounced by each gourd per song. All of the frequencies are within a rather narrow range of ~80-150 Hz. These exceptionally low frequencies made the mixing/mastering of this album very difficult.
A couple of interesting things about the frequencies of gourds that I’ve come know after making more than 40 of them.
CS: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone create a table of frequencies as part of his or her process before – this is really fascinating. How aware of this – I’m not sure what to call it, frequency clustering? – were you while writing and recording the album? Was it something that occurred naturally via your choice of chord phrasings and harmonies, or was it more deliberate than that?
RWL: No, I did not consider the specific frequencies or pitches of the chekeré with respect to the harmonic content of the songs. I made this chart mostly to see what was going on with the frequencies during the mixing process. I did, however, consider the relative pitches compositionally, which is to say that I thought of the gourds in terms of lowest, second lowest, etc.. I would notate the chekeré in the score, just one line per gourd.
CS: Then as you were writing, which came first: the riffs or the rhythms? Did you build the song structures around the checheré parts, or did you write the rhythm guitar parts and then add in the checheré? Or does it vary from song to song?
RWL: Almost every song on the album was composed from a different starting point, actually. Some started with me notating chekeré patterns (“Idaru”), some started with me improvising the chekeré patterns (“Legko”), some are based on guitar riffs (“Hepatic”) or keyboard parts (“Adens”), and some are based actually on the lyrics (“Charred”).
CS: That seems like a good place to segue into talking about the lyrics. Thematically, the record deals with cancer and its various treatments. I’m really intrigued by the way the lyrics themselves almost structurally devolve as the album progresses. It’s like the line between reality and hallucination starts to blur with “Adens” and then disappears completely when the lyrics take a polyglossic turn starting with “East.” Given that clear progression, I can’t help but wonder – is there any sort of narrative to the album?
RWL: Well, there isn’t really a through-line or a linear narrative, but the concept here is singular. You’ve essentially captured the main points with the consistent theme of the lyrics. As with the songs themselves, there are different starting points and different methods used for constructing the lyrics for each song. I start with a theme and let myself sort of wander around poetically just to see what evolves. I use a variety of techniques like personification of ideas or other words, translation and transliteration between a couple of languages, giving words my own nicknames, digging into etymologies a bit, etc. Sometimes I will write out one idea about 20 different ways and sort of play my own game of conceptual telephone. Sometimes I take a bit of an exquisite corpse-style approach where I pretend I don’t know what I’m talking about in the previous word. Sometimes I’m just looking for alliteration or a rhyme. All these techniques get applied at random really, and it also makes a difference if I’m starting out with the lyrics first or writing them as I’m applying them to other things I’ve written already. Sometimes I’ll go back a re-write things based solely on how easy it is to growl them.
CS: I was wondering if there were any surrealist elements in what you do, because I’ve tried running some of the phrases in “East” through Google Translate and not been able to make any sense of them. Did you choose the name ‘Onkos’ for the project using one of those techniques? If I’m not mistaken, an ‘onkos’ is part of a mask from a Greek tragedy, right?
RWL: Yes, so I don’t want to give too much of the magic away, but just as one example, the last phrase in “East” is “masé yo nu дicдaнc.” ‘Masé’ is in reference to one of the goddesses of the Arará tradition, ‘yo’ is literally just spanish, ‘nu’ I don’t quite remember but I think that is something transliterated in cyrillic and translated as if it was russian back to English, and the last word is like a half-transliterated version of ‘distance.’ The meaning of that phrase is well obscured, even from me. How I arrived at this particular phrase could have been from leveraging any of the methods I listed above. So Onkos, as you have guessed, is also arrived upon by these same type of methods. It is specifically one of the etymological roots of the word ‘oncology.’
CS: I was guessing it was a medical reference of some sort, at least until I looked it up. The link to Greek tragedy, however, seems oddly apt. Even before we started discussing it and I learned more about your songwriting approach, I got the sense that the album existed within its own, very particular mise-en-scene. The more we talk, the more removed (for lack of a better word) it seems from any other treatments of the subject – or musical approaches, for that matter – that I’ve ever heard. With that in mind, why did you choose to use cancer as the thematic basis for the album instead of opting for a completely Dadaist approach or something similar? Do you need a conceptual foundation for the kinds of ‘language games’ you use when composing lyrics?
RWL: I simply felt compelled to use cancer as my thematic base here. It is something I knew I wanted to do since the very beginning of my journey towards this music. Cancer is both tragic and terrifying – it’s 100% real and nearly everyone has had to deal with it in some way. Cancer is an existential threat to each individual, and that is compelling to me. I’m not sure I’ll stick with that theme for future releases, but there is certainly plenty more to be written.
The use of the ‘language games’ is bit more of a default for me. All the things I described I use for my other projects as well. It’s a general lyric writing process I habitually use, although I go rather hard on some of the methods for Onkos specifically, such as the use of transliterations.
CS: I’d like to circle back and talk a bit more about your musical approach here, independent of the percussive elements. You use a lot of unconventional chord phrasings for a metal release, and the PR notes make specific mention of “interlocking harmonies” and “augmented, half-diminished, and octatonic chords.” I’ve seen writing and production credits for the album, but no musician credits. Did you create all of those interlocking parts and layers yourself, or is Onkos more of a traditional ‘band’ when it comes to recording?
RWL: While the composition and recording process was entirely a solo effort, I have every intention of this music being performed live. I have a group together now and we have one debut show planned thus far. Perhaps for another release I will try to leverage the band for the recording process, but I will most likely continue to drive the compositional efforts myself.
With regards to the harmonies, I think I have to revisit percussion first. I’m navigating between two genre-specific idiosyncrasies with the chekeré. Part of what makes an ensemble of six chekeré interesting is that they are organized in a manner that allows a space in the music for each voice to speak as you would do in Afro-Cuban music. Conversely, what I think makes metal heavy in general is the tendency for everyone to play the same things at the same time (at least rhythmically speaking). It’s a balancing act going back and forth between these ideas while leveraging them to weave an interesting composition. The harmonic and melodic content has to support and be supported by this concept. “Idaru” might be the best raw example of this.
With regards to those specific chord types, it is worth noting that octatonic harmonies have got to be one of the most common types of harmony in metal generally speaking, so that isn’t too terribly novel by itself. The Half-diminished chord is rather fascinating to me. It is a chord that exists within a standard diatonic scale, but it’s use cases are so specific. Taking the half-diminished chord outside of its normal function in a progression, and building riffs that leverage it takes some work. The process of mixing all these things together and being generally adventurous creates a lot of augmented chords. For some songs this effort was more focused, while for others I kind just did whatever seemed appropriate.
CS: I was planning to ask about possible gigs. How large an ensemble have you assembled in order to translate this material to a live setting? I’m guessing a four-piece wouldn’t really do it justice.
RWL: Yes it is indeed a large ensemble. I currently have 13 people in the band, but I could perhaps do with as fewas seven or eight people. One of the things that’s interesting is the guitar riffs actually sit very well on cello/viola because of the alternate tuning.
CS: I can totally imagine that. I’ve also been told that the cello is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice in terms of its range and timbre, which could open up some interesting possibilities in terms of accenting or augmenting the growls. Switching gears, how did you end up getting together with Luciano and I, Voidhanger? Even for a label known for signing boundary-pushing artists, Onkos seems like a bit of an outlier.
RWL: I was turned onto I, Voidhanger around the time I was finishing the album. I contacted them because I could not think of a more ideal label for this music. Luciano has been incredibly nice and easy to talk to, and he was very willing to support my project. I am honored to be a part of this incredible roster of artists.
CS: Pete Hamilton’s cover art for the album is really striking. How closely (if at all) did you work with him on the concept?
RWL: Luciano and I had a long back-and-forth, looking at lots of options for cover art. I felt like we were very much on the same page. He suggested this artwork, and he worked with Pete directly to make this happen. I could not be happier with the way it turned out.
CS: Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists – is there anything else you’d like to add?
RWL: Thank you so much for your
kind interview and support! This has been a pleasure.
Lo que nos trae aquí hoy es el debut de ONKOS, un proyecto de un prodigio musical conocido como Robert Woods-LaDue que presenta una nueva cara del death metal, de cuerpo acústico, extraña composición y extravagante instrumentación. El modelado de este título está tallado por shekeres (instrumento africano), guitarras acústicas, y hasta sintetizadores. Explicar cómo se hizo es más fácil que decir a qué suena, aun así, un trabajo de tal manufactura merece el intento.
La poca paciencia que transmite el debut es perceptible desde el
inicio, antepone una inquietud al escucha que llega mucho antes de
imaginar qué pasará y lo que se logra quedar desde su honda y
penetrante atmósfera. Debes estar alerta de una interesante
“ejecución” de death metal que fuera de exhibir brutalidad, es una
abstracción conceptual, es metal extremo análogo si se quiere,
donde el hilo conductor son los growls y nada más.
No es la primera vez que he presentido el poder del sonido análogo y cómo bien usado puede superar en muchos aspectos a lo eléctrico, pero eso no quiere decir que este sea 100% plugged free, se dan el lujo de experimentar con sintetizadores, de este modo profundizan un sonido que a pesar de lo primitivo va en capas, contrastando la versatilidad de los pasajes que se escuchan.
El instrumento prominente es la guitarra acústica, de claras intenciones a la intranquilidad, con acordes que contrastan las armonías que hacen gran parte de la personalidad del disco, junto con los shekeres le dan un legítimo sentimiento étnico y combinados son como un choque cultural no solo entre el metal y lo ritualista, sino contra la teoría musical convencional.
Los guturales parecen deshilarse a un tempo del que lo haría un vocalista de doom, lentos y de baja frecuencia. Debido a cómo fluye este ecosistema, no hay forma de “explotarlos debidamente” pues no hay riffs headbangers ni baterías punteando, pero lo saben disimular con tonos bajos y arpegios que aumentan la tensión e intencionalmente seducen al escucha, diseminando la esencia tradicional que disfrutamos al escuchar voces guturales pero expresadas en un nuevo “idioma”.
Debido al corto tiempo de la mayoría de los temas, 41 minutos pasan como agua; debido a la naturaleza de la propuesta, 11 canciones desfilan como unidad; es una propuesta original, pero ejemplos similares se pueden encontrar, varios que la misma I, Voidhanger Records incluye en su catálogo, dígase Lüüp e Inhumankind.
Después de escucharlo repetidamente llegué a la conclusión de que la experimentación va más por la fusión anormal de instrumentos que por la estructura musical. Aun así, no cualquiera puede clamar que ha inventado su lenguaje sin considerar los matices y las intrincacias de tal hazaña; acá, la resonancia está aterrizada y las ideas se desenvuelven con un sentido de balance, coherente en todos sus aspectos.
ONKOS es una carta atrevida, una de las tantas perspectivas que
se pueden tener en este espectro del vanguardismo; su lado
difícil, y del que muchos no van a pasar, es precisamente lo que
lo hace ser, pero una vez se acepta, das cuenta de un ameno
balance que gusta más allá de lo que pretende. Es un trabajo muy
peculiar que, más que capricho, gana su lugar en el espacio de
convencionalidades con sentido.
There have been many routes that metal has taken in recent years
as it seems the experimentation to create new sounds has become a
near obsession for some acts as we see metal taken to new
territories that we never really thought of beforehand with some
becoming quite popular or others remaining obscure trails through
someone’s unique creative process. The idea of acoustic metal is
one that I’ve heard before and felt quite odd as it is something
that feels alien to metalheads. Yet, that hasn’t stopped some
visionaries from trying their hands at it and it’s Onkos that has
created the most compelling piece of its kind that I’ve heard yet.
Don’t get me wrong, this style is, like pretty much all metal,
far from something for everyone. It’s an exceeding weird and
conflicting sound that I can’t but be oddly fascinated by as we
can hear the very fabrics of metal genres falling right over in
the face of works like this where the mere idea of it existing can
be enough to shatter many common notions we have towards metal
itself. But, somehow, Onkos didn’t lose a sense of heaviness with
his debut album – “heaviness” taking on a completely different
form with this record that I can’t describe in words despite my
best efforts. And even after listening to this record for hours,
it’s hard to not be confounded with how well this record works in
its own weird way and then it’s impossible for me not to call this
a truly unique piece. Onkos still delivers us many elements that
are very typical for metal: growls, fast rhythms, and songwriting
that’s very fitting for death metal. Onkos, though, provides an
absolutely completely different experience through the use of a
slew of acoustic guitars, six chekeré, and much more to bring
forth flavors that create a very primitive sound of metal in the
most literal sense. There’s nothing quite like it that I’ve ever
heard before, but it all comes together remarkably well as Onkos
showcases plenty of expertise that fits perfectly in such an
experimental take on an already immensely diverse genre.
I’ve always said that one way to bring any sort of attention to
your band is to do something different even if it’s just a little.
Extremes were gone to in the creating of this record the kind of
which we rarely ever think of if at all, and I feel really
comfortable saying I couldn’t ask for a better example much less
for a debut album. There’s a near endless amount of ingenuity
that’s gone into the making of this album, and should this be just
the beginning for Onkos then those who are willing to give this
weird shit a chance should keep their eyes peeled. For, surely,
true greatness can be right around the corner.
In place of the usual crushing and distorted electric guitar riffs, a barrage of acoustic pizzicatos and muted, frantic tremolos tear the silence. Bombastic and sinister thumps of shekeres, not triggered blast beats, carry death metal rhythms. Spaced out, ominous synths flow in and out of focus. Tempos and harmonies shift constantly. And above this idiosyncratic mayhem, tormented growls tell horror stories of battles with cancer. The eponymous debut of Robert Woods-LaDue's project Onkos is one of the strangest records I've heard in a long time. An experience worthy of the moniker "experimental metal".
Woods-LaDue's acoustic take on black and death metal is equally
terrifying and fascinating. By deviating from the usual aesthetics
of the genre, familiar tropes and structures appear deranged and
threateningly wrong. Touches of insanity seep through
the gruesome and naturalistic lyrics – "My abdomen is falling out
/ A fresh disgorge / Cancer, cancer," he mutters deliriously on
"Hepatic" – and turn Onkos into a genuinely unsettling
and unpleasant experience. An archetype of morbid curiosity that
forces us to face the grim reality and fragility of our bodies.
And now for something completely different.
Let’s begin with the chekeré. According to The Font of All Human Knowledge, “it is a West African percussion instrument consisting of a dried gourd with beads or cowries woven into a net covering the gourd…. In performance it is shaken and/or hit against the hands.” That same source explains that the chekeré “is common in West African and Latin American folkloric traditions as well as some of the popular music styles”.
As a result of the musical project Onkos, that last sentence quoted above will now have to be amended to add “and avant-garde death metal“.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Onkos is one of the many projects of Robert Woods-LaDue, a resident of the San Francisco Bay area. We are told that he has been making chekeré out of dried gourds since around 2010, composing music for large ensembles of the instrument. In Onkos, the instrumental palette includes six chekeré of different sizes and tonalities. It also includes a battery of acoustic guitars, the heaviness of a bass, and synthesizers used in varying ways to add differing dimensions of sound and mood.
We are further informed that in the music of Onkos the harmonic landscape is complex, and includes “heavy use of the many flavors found within augmented, half-diminished, and octatonic chords”.
Vocally, Woods-LaDue adds an ugly growl and occasional ghastly shrieks. Lyrically, we’re told that Onkos is “focused on the plague of cancer and the life-disrupting therapies to fight it… a delirious observation on the long, slow cellular unraveling of body and mind, as represented in Pete Hamilton‘s metaphysical cover painting”.
Well, you probably don’t get it yet, but you’ll begin to
understand if you listen to the song we’re premiering today from
Onkos‘ self-titled debut album, which will be released on May 24th
by I, Voidhanger Records, a label treasured by many of us for
having a risk-taking approach to the curation of music that’s well
off the familiar beaten paths of metal. (Onkos is so far off the
beaten paths that you can barely see them any more.)
The song we’re presenting is “Hepatic“. It is a vibrant and
head-swirling piece of music. The rippling and darting acoustic
strings dance, interwoven with the deep boom and compulsive rattle
of the chekeré. The synth melodies slowly glide and simmer around
the percussive choir. The effect is bewitching — but there are
both feverish and dark moods in the music as well, both frenetic
guitar harmonies and ominous chords, rapidly changing rhythms and
perilous ambient waves, and of course the gruesome and gritty
vibrations of a human larynx.
I found the song bewildering yet entrancing even on the first
listen, and indeed so fascinating that I’ve been returning to it
several times a day since then, sometimes trying again to decipher
what I’m hearing and sometimes just letting myself be carried away
by it, and it has made me smile every time. Hope it has the same
effect on you. (I haven’t heard the rest of the album yet — and I
can hardly wait for the chance to do that.)
At the end of this post you’ll see a video that I found of Robert
Woods-LaDue showing the chekere of various dimensions that he used
for Onkos, demonstrating how to play and record them, and even
explaining a bit about the musical notations used to document the
rhythms. It’s an appealing video in part because it shows the
endearing difficulty (which we’ve all seen see in other contexts)
of a person who is very good at what they do, so good that it’s
probably second-nature, trying to explain it to someone else who
is completely ignorant about the subject matter.
Robert Woods-LaDue recorded the music of Onkos. It was mixed and
mastered by Sean Price at Misery Loves Company in Oakland. As
mentioned, Pete Hamilton made the cover painting. The logo was
designed by Devin Smith, and long-time I, Voidhanger ally
Francesco Gemelli was responsible for art direction and layout.
The album will be released in a limited digipack CD edition, and digitally, and you can pre-order it now: