OU – II: Frailty Review

OU comes from Beijing, which is a circumstance that invites some pretty simple assumptions, very few of which turn out to be right. Simply put, OU doesn’t sound like a Chinese band, at least not in the obvious ways that might imply. Rather, they sound like a band that loves all kinds of music and expressing it as art in the style of heavy metal and, most of all, in unexpected ways. The band and its music were conceived of and developed in China, but primarily by an expatriate New Yorker, Anthony Vanacore, who fell in love with the people and language and art. It’s certainly no foregone conclusion but probably a pretty safe bet that art gets done better when its maker is also an avid beholder, an idea that shined through so brightly on OU’s debut album, One, and continues on the follow-up, II: Frailty.

Release date: April 26, 2024. Label: Inside Out Music.

OU’s music is prog metal which, of course, can mean so many things that it almost means nothing at all. It is probably more helpful to add that it’s modern prog metal because OU has a sound most consistent with that subgenre’s standard bearers, like Leprous and Caligula’s Horse, Haken and, of course, Devin Townsend, who co-produced this album with Vanacore. The thing is, even that doesn’t get at OU’s sound. Vanacore, who also plays drums, is the primary songwriter here, but he’s quick to point out that guitarist Jing Zhang and bassist Chris Cui are also active in the process, which already adds variables to the songwriting equation, not to mention the impact of vocals and lyrics. And then, influences seem to range from all eras of traditional and prog metal as well as thrash, but there’s also so much more going on from jazz and fusion to classical to electronic and ambient. The impression is that the development of this music is a product of constant evolution rooted in a traditional, even conservative, love of the music, the kind of love that holds tightly to the romantic notion of the music one grows up with, constantly discovering then anticipating and buying a copy, sitting down to listen to it mindfully and, when you love it and especially when it offers up something new and unexpected, obsessing through countless spins because music is special, which gives rise to the notion that moving the music forward, progressing, is only as valuable as the history in its wake.

Despite being categorically Prog, Frailty relies very little on the stereotypical flashy instrumental acrobatics that have come to define and ultimately hamstring so much prog metal. Rather the songwriting emphasis is very much on building a rhythmic and atmospheric framework in support of vocalist Lynn Wu. Guitars, synthesizers, bass, and drums are fashioned into a lattice of sound, texture, complex time and syncopation that sometimes can take a bit to absorb but still feels cohesive and fundamental to Wu’s extraordinary vocals. For her part, Wu has a thing or two to say about complexity, as she boasts great range and versatility through layers sometimes 4 or even 5 strata deep and wields her voice like an intricate instrument in its own right (notice her wordless droning in “Purge”). Wu’s ability to sing to the strength of the song is key, which surely also reflects thoughtful songwriting, but the point is that they flow so well together as to imply a oneness. (Also notice Devy’s contribution, sung in Chinese. Super cool.)

Keeping Wu’s lyrics in Chinese is important both in the words and their expression, which can be heard in obvious ways, like the uniqueness of the overall sound, but also in subtle ways, such as her use of the “zh” sound, somewhere between the American English “sss” and “sh” sounds with just a touch of “zzz.” There’s a lot of it in OU’s songs, because there’s a lot of it in Chinese language, and the songwriting accommodates and incorporates it in a way that feels intentional, natural, of a piece with the instrumental sounds. The timbre of her singing voice is pretty unique, as well, at least in the context of such heavy music; it’s beautiful and delicate, strong and fierce in turns. It’s interesting, too, and really fun, the way her voice is occasionally processed to create a kind of uncanny valley for the listener in which she sometimes feels like a synthetic reproduction and on the verge of sentience. (Given the nature of timbre, of course, ymmv).

There was already a hint of Devin’s influence on OU’s debut, and it’s unsurprisingly much more pronounced on II, where his work with Vanacore on production yields a sharp and bright and modern and, most importantly, full, enveloping sound. OU songs often have a lot going on but also often have very little going on and then again often have a very different few things going on than the few things that were going on before the big swell of many other things crested and then crashed. It takes a discerning and dexterous touch to get all that from the studio to the listener’s ear in a way that keeps them engaged across such a diverse topography of sound but OU and Townsend pretty much nailed it here.

Some listeners may not appreciate the diversity of sound and style on the new album, at least not at first, because it really does span the full range; it can be jarring. Then again, it’s through that kind of eclectic songwriting and flexible approach to arrangement that Frailty‘s strengths are revealed. No two songs are very much the same and variability within songs is equally emphasized even as OU’s identity is bolstered by the interplay of the band’s corporeal strength and Wu’s amazing spirit. In the end, anyone who loves heavy progressive music and is at all willing to lift the gate for a vaguely familiar and alluringly strange visitor is going to love the wonderful mosaic of sound and texture and time and tempo on offer here.

Posted by Lone Watie

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