If God is going to set this world on fire, that fire breeds mystical divinity and material scourge. Following The Word, standing against the forces of nature, society, and divinity, a lone person is inclined to feel this fire as judgement. Yet, there is a power of love that reconciles that judgement, where those judged, those lost, or those forgotten, regain their voices and desires against the forlorn fear of that fire. Chicago’s expansive, morphing ensemble ONO enact these voices on Diegesis, their latest LP for Moniker, and the desires expressed advocate for the helpless, those lost, and answer transgressions with emancipatory triumph.
What is The Word? It splits reality, between coercion or authority, and perspective, narrative, or speaking. To speak is to reclaim the powerless against those vast empires, to counteract that scourge. On Diegesis, this “split” is between front man Travis’s vocals, extensive spoken narratives, and poetry, and P. Michael’s chameleon bass. While there are as many as eight contributors at any given point on Diegesis, the bass and drums often lead, pacing anything from thick, soulful funk to stark industrial tones. Piano, keys, synthetic flourishes, and guitar follow the grooves, coloring clever stabs and embellishments that set rich moods for Travis’s vocals. Those vocals truly split the music, often countering the instruments, trying to pull the mood in a different direction. Fear and dread crash funky parties, and playfulness invites the listener beyond cold noise.
One of the general differences between Diegesis and the group’s last Moniker effort, Albino, is the appearance of brief soundscapes and snippets within songs. On the whole, the group revelled in continuous timbres and tempos on their Albino songs, presenting a forceful portrait of an ensemble celebrating their cohesiveness. Diegesis is full of constant stops, periodic silence and vocal excursions, and complete reversals of previous verses or melodies.
This feeling of constant change heightens the tension between vocals and instruments, and it also leads to obsessive listening habits — if you want to hear that sound again, you cannot simply wait for a turn to a refrain or a reprise because the ensemble might lead you in a completely different direction. As a result, the listener can truly hone in on certain moments during return listens, which leads them directly into Travis’s heartfelt narrative.
“CQCQCQ” and “ARMY” include Travis’s presentation of exceptionally personal experiences, emboldening the speaker. One of the claims about ONO is that the group blend industrial and gospel sensibilities — a very clear combination on Diegesis. Travis speaks about his military service in direct and poetic voices, frequently hollering commands or muttering facts on a distant radio transmission. On June 8, 1967, Israeli forces launched a series of two-hour air and naval attacks against the USS Liberty, “inflicting 34 dead and 173 wounded American servicemen.” “CQCQCQ” recounts the horror in startling echoes.
Against this matter-of-factness, Travis’s role call is matched by wayward instruments, alarms, and one of the strongest use of beats on the album. “CQCQCQ” becomes skillful bricollage, a succession of passages with a the first alarmed sequence giving way to total funk, joyful resonance decaying into a lone, strummed guitar. This is perhaps the strongest contrast of the album, as the vibrant, bass-y jam betrays the fear and death of the narrator in an alarming delivery. Here, the link between gospel and noise is strikingly clear.
Kyrie Eleison: “CQCQCQ” ends in prayer, a liturgical mantra, one of the strongest intersections of The Word and the speaker in Diegesis. Travis’s narrative is intense and full of loss, but he also raises hope and themes of love into his testimony. “We will live again,” he repeats throughout the triumphant “OXBLOOD,” although his glorious pronouncement need not be categorically religious. “Outlive the medicine man / Outlive the master plan:” the speaker experiences the scourge, crying for mercy, but grows, and endures, instead of succumbing to judgement.
If you’ve had the chance to see ONO live, the instrumental players can vary, depending on the roles in the show, or the noises requires. ONO have played in Chicago since the 1980s, and their cast of live players draws from waves of members. As P. Michael explained to me, some members joined after 1981, and “played the most live shows with us in the 80’s and are sometimes taken for original members. They are as close as you’ll get to original.”
On Diegesis, the cast of eight players digs deep into the band’s history, while also employing several recent graduates into Chicago’s noise scene. Between songs, producer, mixer, and engineer Cooper Crain edited interludes created by the group for the Audiolfactory Creolization project. Overall, this cast effectively swings from the industrial lines and piano-driven, worldly hip hop on “ARMY,” to a slow, spooky wet beat and ethereal synth on “OXBLOOD.” These themes are echoed throughout the album, and established with the rumbling funk and trumpet flares on opening cut, “travis Wax Madonna.” P. Michael effectively summarized their approach: “ONO has always been a collection of Major Characters.”
Ultimately, those ethereal synths on “OXBLOOD” lead into the triumphant cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Burning of The Midnight Lamp,” which finds final harmony between the players and the vocal. ONO’s greatest ability is to embrace glory alongside harsh or difficulty realities. Their toughest moments of doubled, industrial guitar-and-bass, or rollicking trumpet and wayward, manipulated beats accompany restrained, dynamic collaborations. Even “Burning of The Midnight Lamp” sounds like industrial instrumentation played with the touch of a warm, 1960s rock group, which is quite a sleight of hand on Diegesis.
If God is going to set this world on fire, that material scourge can be answered by open speaking, or narrative. ONO offer love that reconciles judgement, with Diegesis surpassing the bands previous efforts in its heights of joyful funk, dense beats, and the shape-shifting soundscape that gives ground for an emancipatory speaker.