Onkos – Vascular Labyrinth Review

Metal is all about pushing boundaries, taking sounds to new heights and to new depths. It’s the dialogue between progression and status quo, new sounds and familiar tricks, darkness and light, blasphemy, and zealotry – a commentary on the emphasis of excess. It’s music for the cast out and the alienated, and there’s something for everybody to drink deep from its well. Its fluidity calls for vast and daring forms of experimentation, and there is no shortage of earthmoving outputs from all over – both challenging and inspiring. All that being said, fuck if I know what the hell’s going on with Onkos.

A project of San Francisco-based musician Robert Woods-LaDue and Bay-area session jazz musicians, Onkos is definitely metal, but like, what? Most akin to Barcelona flute/double bass bastards Inhumankind, Vascular Labyrinth can be best described as a chamber jazz act covering death metal.1 On some tracks, Onkos offers dissonant death note-for-note, with blasting percussion and distorted guitars replaced respectively by marimbas and shakers and acoustic guitar, while others feature smooth and ominous avant-garde jazz. While sporting an absolutely polarizingly batshit style that plays hit-or-miss, Vascular Labyrinth benefits from smooth songwriting and the dare to be different.

Onkos takes their sweet time unfolding. After the acoustic plucking of “Awaken to the Sunset” concludes, “Furoncles Bitumineux” offers Voidhanger-core dissonant blackened death a la Thorn Genesis or Esoctrilihum through acoustic instruments that slowly evolves into swing-influenced Naked City walking bass-lines and brass explosions, an immediacy that sees a later summoning in “Lux’Lac,” which takes on a Meshuggah-esque polyrhythmic intensity alongside smooth Coleman Hawkins-inspired melodies that slowly descends into a dialogue between smooth jazz musings and manic attacks by its conclusion, and “Bethel,” a more blackened sprawl with bouncy guitar and marimba “blastbeats.” Tracks like “Laktro” and the title track achieve an exotic and more frantic Neptunian Maximalism vibe with layers of Caribbean percussion atop brass tumbles, insane piano trills, drawling sax slurs, and swing-influenced bass runs. “The Lamiae” and seventeen-minute closer “Lucius” offer oases of their own ridiculous varieties, sprawling noir-jazz lulls with flute and clarinet amid polyrhythmic acoustic chugs and frosty synth plucks, soundtracks to a rainy world of warped city streets.

As aforementioned, once you buy into Onkos’ version of ridiculousness, it settles like a smooth ride. However, there are moments when the carefully calculated whackadoodle-ness flies off the rails, especially exacerbated by Vascular Labyrinth’s bloated hour-and-five length. For instance, while “Lux’Lac” has brilliance and interest throughout, it could stand to lob two to three minutes off; similarly, “Lucius” could stand to conclude by its eleven-minute mark when it makes like Return of the King, forgoing the flute-laden heartfelt end in favor of a different, more warbling conclusion. However, Vascular Labyrinth’s most frustrating elements are the improvised guitar pieces. Aside from its misdirect as an almost Agalloch feel, intro “Awaken to the Sunset” features a somber approach that simply drags; however, nearly-outro “Goodbye to the Light” feels incompetent and nearly painful to listen to, because its lonely and unplanned polyrhythms feel like a moody high schooler showing his girlfriend The Dillinger Escape Plan on the acoustic guitar he brings every day when “Enter Sandman” is the only song in his repertoire.

The score I give Vascular Labyrinth is probably inaccurate, because I’m still recovering from the shell shock and the weird groove Onkos put into my feet. It’s Voidhanger-core, but the acoustic sessions, and that should make us all a little uncomfortable. But beyond the whack-ass first impressions, and assuming you’re willing to take the leap of faith to buy into it, Vascular Labyrinth has treasures unfolding within these scenic vistas. Its dark veneration of the Gorguts school of death metal is admirable, but it walks the crooked path of jazz, worshiping the steps of John Zorn, Edgard Varèse, and Miles Davis. While it has its moments of questionable improvisation and the style itself can feel impossible to surmount, Onkos possesses a certain je ne sais quois that somehow makes acoustic metal feel infectiously funky, swingy, and always intriguing. It’s an awkward lumbering beast, for sure, but you’ll find yourself falling in love with it.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 10 | Format Reviewed: 256 kbps mp3
Label: I, Voidhanger Records
Website: facebook.com/onkosband
Releases Worldwide: May 12th, 2023

Show 1 footnote

  1. They clearly love Gorguts.
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