February 19, 2003

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Local Live

Bottled Og
Hemlock Tavern, Feb. 2

THE HARDEST BANDS to write about are the ones who aren't completely bizarre or off-the-wall yet who also don't sound like anything you can immediately put your finger on. Oakland four-piece Bottled Og are one of those bands. The more you listen to them, the harder it gets to describe them. To loosely paraphrase Donny and Marie Osmond, they're a little bit noise, a little bit rock 'n' roll, a little bit hardcore, and a little bit metal (and even prog), too.

Whatever they are, they sounded pretty darn good at the packed Feb. 2 show at the Hemlock Tavern, their first show in about half a year. Like Burmese – drummer Mark Schaffer and bassist-vocalist Mike Glenn's other band – Bottled Og don't play out too frequently, but you get the sense from watching them that the periods in between their performances are dedicated to some strict research and development in the practice room.

Bottled Og do not sound like Burmese, though, nor do they project the same evil, suffocating vibe as that dual bass-dual drums outfit. Their foundation may come from the Burmese contingent – Glenn's prominent fuzz bass and Schaffer's booming drums – but they're distinguished by the art-noise guitar interplay of Jason Pace and Andrew Kleindolph and by a generally more intricate and melody-amid-the-racket approach to songwriting than Burmese's grind-and-sludge assaults. Plus, they actually sing sometimes.

The set covered a lot of ground despite its compact, sub-30-minute duration. They opened with a slow, repetitive dirge that had Glenn on vocals, growling and shrieking as he clutched his fist and stared up at his arm's shadow on the ceiling, and later returned to slow, heavy stuff ("Black/White Rider") that sounded a little bit like one of Neurosis's more somber moments. Every other song was distinctly different from the one that came before it. Though not drastically, in the sense of "Wow! Now they're playing ska! No, wait, now they're playing funk metal!"

One of the standouts was "Kum in My Haus," an ominous, up-tempo death jazz march with Kleindolph on trumpet and sneering, purposefully grating lead vocals. Pace sang lead on the last song, "The Boxer," which is written from the point of view of George Foreman's wife after he's kicked the bucket, and which may be the first anti-Foreman song anyone's written to date, opening up a whole new realm of possibilities in the area of protest singing. This song has the same combination of dual-guitar dissonance and nervously catchy vocals that I guess people find appealing about Sonic Youth, only without the smug New York artiste vibe I've always found off-putting about those avant-rock figureheads. (Actually, I just cheated and looked at the "influences" section on Bottled Og's MP3.com page, where they do indeed cite Sonic Youth, along with Pere Ubu, Chrome, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. That all makes sense, but only in retrospect.)

Another good thing worth noting about Bottled Og is that they don't have an especially cool stage presence. It's pretty neat when Glenn clutches his fist and when Schaffer twirls his drumsticks in between beats during the slow parts. But on the whole, they don't score too high on the hipness meter. That's good; it means you can trust them.

Bottled Og have been around for 10 years, with four of their five original members still in place – they left the other one behind when they moved here from Iowa in the late '90s. They have a whole bunch of recordings out – many of them self-released CD-Rs, although they're not CD-R-grade in terms of quality – and these reflect the aforementioned "research and development" tendencies: a few misses here and there, but also lots of diversity, refinement, and progression over the years. They seem due for a legit release with their present-day lineup, and if someone in the band or at a label were to put the right time and effort into it, it could be a real winner. (Will York)