With a back catalogue spanning four decades and about a dozen different pseudonyms, JG Thirlwell is an iconic figure in avant-garde music. He helped pioneer industrial and noise music during the ‘80s under the charming name of Foetus, did a stint in an early line-up of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, and has produced artists as diverse as Swans, The The and Nine Inch Nails. It’s safe to say the Australian songwriter and composer has never been interested in playing it safe.
Since the early ‘00s his work has focused more on composition and instrumental pieces, turning his hand to everything from neoclassical pieces for Kronos Quartet, scores for cartoons and twisted lounge funk with his group Steroid Maximus.
His latest album, Oscillospira, is a collaboration with the Swedish musician Simon Steensland and finds him delving into the darker corners of art rock. The pair met when Thirlwell was in Stockholm working on a commission with the Great Learning Orchestra, with whom Steensland was playing. What started as Steensland merely asking if Thirlwell would mind if he rearranged part of the composition has become a full album, melding the pair’s joint passions of electronics, chamber music and the avant-garde bands of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Oscillospira, named after a form of gut bacteria, is a collection of dense, spiralling instrumental pieces that draws inspiration from rock in opposition bands, such as Univers Zero, as well as industrial electronics. Opening track ‘Catholic Deceit’ (Thirlwell’s love of being provocative has not dimmed with age) sets the tone. It’s an eleven-minute epic that moves from gentle woodwind instruments to a cascading, percussive riff via frantic strings and choral vocals. Other standout moments include the eerie ‘Crystal Night’ and the doom-laden heaviness of ‘Papal Stain’, but really this is an album designed to be listened to as a complete piece.
The music Thirlwell and Steensland have created here is labyrinthine and challenging, clearly written by two men for whom commercial appeal wasn’t a consideration. This won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but for those who are willing to stare into the musical abyss there is much here to enjoy.
Oscillospira is out now on Ipecac Recordings. Order here.
Words: Dan Cadwallader