Illinois trio Oakeater has been active for the past decade, but Aquarius is only their second full length release, with most of their other work being splits, collaborations, and mini-album releases. This diverse array of release have allowed them to hone a distinctively dark, yet diverse array of sounds that draw from most of the expected places (metal, noise, dark ambient, etc.), work those elements in their own way to create a unique, if bleak, suite of songs.
The band, consisting of Alex Barnett, Jeremiah Fisher, and Seth Sher, are all rather well known for their other projects: Barnett as a solo artist and frequent collaborator with Faith Coloccia, Fisher as part of Panicsville, and Sher as a member of Coughs. Their work together as Oakeater stands entirely on its own, however, and is decidedly different as a sum of its parts.
Opener "Wishful Beginnings" presents the project’s influences rather clearly. The distant unsettling rhythms and slowly shuffling malignance instantly calls to mind the more ambient moments of SPK’s Leichenschrei with a bit of TG's "Hamburger Lady" to ensure the creep factor is off the charts. The short "Hatchet" sounds like it is built around a rhythm created from clattering aluminum cans, but with an exceptionally dark cello-like bass drone to increase tension.
"Maps" is another piece of dark, creaking ambience and low, lurking rumbles that would not be out of place on a horror film score. Expanding synthesizer passages and occasional outbursts of heavily processed voice flesh out the piece, coming together with an undeniable, but hard to pin down sense of eeriness. "All that is Sacred" would be the closest the trio comes to pure noise on Aquarius. Sweeping layers of electronics and subtle percussion are mixed with shimmering cymbals and odd found sounds. With the inhuman voices added in, the trio pushes the piece brilliantly between space and dense dissonance.
The album closes on a strong pairing of songs, ones that capture the Oakeater sound exceptionally well. "Aquarius" immediately stands out with its oddly treated, multifaceted rhythm that propels the piece throughout. Swells of darkness are weaved in and out by the trio, as screamed, almost black metal styled vocals cut through like a dull, rusty knife. The song builds tension brilliantly, with the band adding more percussion and soaring guitar towards its dramatic conclusion. "Respite", however, ends the album on a restrained, yet menacing note. Bizarre percussion and distant metallic bashing pierce through the funeral synthesizers. Eventually the synthetic rhythms become more aggressive and rapid-fire, leading to an abrupt and jarring end to the record.
One of Aquarius' strongest assets is the fact that it sounds like no one else in recent memory. The touchstones are rather clear: the chaos of harsh noise, the bleak darkness of early industrial, and the pained, inhuman vocals of heavy metal, but Oakeater use these standard features in anything but standard ways. It makes for an impenetrably bleak, yet not at all cliché record of sinister music, with a healthy dose of ambiguity that contributes to an unsettling, at times uncomfortable, but always powerful piece of music.