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Doom in Denver: Oryx and Un @ Hi-Dive (Live Report)

Oryx. Photo credit: Thomas Hinds

Among the many prolific local scenes in the USA right now, none provides the same level of raw, unbridled savagery as Denver, Colorado. For some time now, its doom scene in particular has been known as a breeding ground for bands that eviscerate the very darkest horrors of their own psyche to craft truly primal and shocking sonic landscapes that push the limits of the genre itself. Having just completed my own move to the city, I wanted to bear live witness to this aesthetic movement as quickly as possible in order to partake in its soul-splitting catharsis.

What better way to immerse myself in these sinister vibrations, I thought, than to catch a set from Denver sludge/doom trio Oryx on the first show of their run with Seattle funeral doom outfit Un? What better night to reflect upon their interpretations of human angst than Election Night? In addition to providing me with a strong first impression of staple local venue Hi-Dive, I saw the show as an opportunity to experience two radically different regional approaches to the subgenre side by side.

Seeing Denver’s animalistic ferocity contrasted against the Pacific Northwest’s introspective melancholy would provide a greatly enriched context for both performances, and with each group touring fresh off a 2018 full-length, I expected viscerally honest and emotional deliveries of their respective new material.

I strolled in to Hi-Dive just as Oryx was about to take the stage and to my pleasant surprise found the venue decently well-populated, considering the dual threat of Tuesday night and the event’s direct competition with the Bloodletting North America Tour playing across town at The Roxy, whose stacked bill included Decrepit Birth, Arsis, and Pyrexia. Although the kitschy, relatively understated Hi-Dive describes itself as a “funky hipster bar with cheap drinks and live music from punk to bluegrass,” the crowd that night was clad in black, with leather, denim, and back patches dominating my view. These doom fans were members of a devout order: they would not let the threat of early-morning commitments or some tech-death show stand in the way of their unholy communion.

Many already stood toward the stage, brimming with anticipation for Oryx’s imminent sermon of chaos. Their enthusiastic attendance stirred my own excitement, and a strong gut feeling that I was in the right place; heeding their guidance, I made my way to the front row just as the band’s sound began to pour out of the speakers.

Immediately Oryx’s three-piece combo of guitar/vocals, bass, and drums engulfed the audience in a deluge of cataclysmic despair, with dissonant walls of sludge-ridden doom displaying the pandemonium of raw expression stripped down to its bare bones. Although their setup was straightforward, it was also brusquely effective, with the group drawing efficacy not from impressive equipment but rather the energy and personality of each member’s performance. Vocalist Tommy appeared like a deranged swamp-thing howling out demonic growls and tortured shrieks through strands of hair hanging across his face; meanwhile, drummer Abbey violently whaled down on her compact, essentials-only kit with a voracious, feral look in her eye.

This display of passion bordering on insanity was matched by a fantastic sense of on-stage communication between the three, with successful cues and remarkably organic tempo shifts relayed via body language alone. Not one moment of rhythmic sloppiness was incurred throughout the entire set, with the band writhing and shifting together as though controlled by one mind.

Another striking feature of Oryx’s set was its immediacy. The set featured no fancy illumination, just one harsh spotlight pointed toward the drumkit, glinting off the steel of the cymbal stands and creating a David Lynch-esque air of creeping dread. With this complete absence of theatrics, the experiential veil between the band and audience was lifted — I felt that every person locked into the music resided within the same creative matrix. The sense of contiguous space was intensified by a staircase built directly into the front of the stage, and the plain fact that anyone could calmly walk straight up into this auditory ritual of madness, though none dared.

Caught up in the sheer weight of this savage exhibition, the crowd stood motionless, transfixed on the maddened animalistic brutality they were witnessing. But in many moments, when sizzling static gristle melted into disgusting cosmic sludge breakdowns, the entire room could not help but be drawn into a steady unison headbang, all bodies swayed together by the sheer power of the group’s sound.

During their performance, Oryx showcased long compositions twisting through gnarled, violent passages, evoking the musical analogue of trying to escape from a chain mail suit woven from barbed wire. After playing a few choice cuts off their third and most recent full-length Stolen Absolution, the band placed a heavier emphasis on material from their brand-new Born Into Madness EP, demonstrating incredible versatility in flow and style of riffing. With seamless transitions between blackened tremolo hellscapes and crusty, southern, NOLA-style beatdowns, the group ran the full gamut of sludge all while orbiting an ironclad doom core. The group’s ability to morph and mutate so effortlessly through different tonal qualities was largely thanks to their shrewd and discerning use of the loaded pedalboards hooked up to the guitar and bass, with both guitarists carefully adjusting their timbre accordingly with the attitude of the music. Ultimately, Oryx’s sound came across like a corpse reanimated against its will, a body with dripping flesh and decaying bones wanting nothing more than to be released from this world. Unleashing an unfiltered display of burning hatred and revenge, they created a frighteningly tangible rendition of utter psychological meltdown.

As I headed to the bar before the night’s final set, my mind swam with macabre, unsettling thoughts; the deer heads mounted above the liquor only conjured up images of slain animals with the skin from their flayed skulls being meticulously wrapped around cold wooden effigies.

Un was to be the provider of solace for the disillusionment induced within me by Oryx’s furious nihilism. Before the band had even finished their soundcheck, I knew their sound would offer an entirely inverse perspective on the realm of doom. The group consisted of four members rather than three, with both guitarists wielding seven-strings, and a much larger drumkit now looming heavily toward the back of the stage. The loose tank-tops and wild greasy locks of Oryx were replaced by sensible flannels and shorter, more conservative cropped-back haircuts (although I found great humor in the fact that Tommy from Oryx and Clayton from Un both wore the exact same Primitive Man shirt, the only difference being that Clayton’s still retained its sleeves).

That shirt, however, was not the only similarity between the two groups: both recorded their latest full-length LP with Dave Otero at Flatline Studios in Westminster, Colorado, with Un’s Sentiment having been completed only two months prior in September. Both also utilized a similarly dense array of pedals to assist in the construction of ambience, although Un’s approach to atmosphere would prove to be very differently construed than that of Oryx.

Ultimately, the shift in image was not necessarily indicative of the difference in sonic quality between the two bands, but rather in attitude and personality. From the very first moments of their set, Un began to take the audience on a more fantastical albeit somber quest. The lights dimmed, and fog slowly billowed out across the stage as ancient tones began to awaken from their primordial slumber. Piercing straight into the philosophical core of funeral doom, the group opened with gilded harmonies and elegiac, heartbreaking waves of melancholy before bursting into the mammoth brunt of a hefty yet pensive doom march, painting a landscape of medieval legions proceeding through a dying meadow in late Autumn. Like a colossal stony mountain, ancient and with every crevice overgrown with moss, Un’s textures were imbued with the signature Pacific Northwest aroma of forlorn wanderlust, riddled with the anguish of loss.

Un. Photo credit: Thomas Hinds

The band’s live performance was as singular and unified as their entire aesthetic, but with an added layer of depth inaccessible on any recording. The layers of percussion, guitar, bass, and vocals all integrated together into one river of thought, with tributaries branching off in various directions but all ultimately flowing from the source. If Oryx played as if with one collective mind, Un played with one collective heart. The conviction with which they delivered these songs proved to me that their work is a glimpse into an arduous and ongoing journey of intense personal introspection, a journey that began in the deepest recesses of the soul, not without its uncertainties and insecurities. But instead of reacting to this suffering with primal viciousness or dissonant loathing, their music shows incredible restraint and fastidiousness in releasing these heavy emotions, signifying a mature relationship with one’s own soul in which the hardest questions have been asked time and time again, always better understood but never truly answered.

Though both performances were rife with equal quantities of raw emotion, Un took a route completely separate from Oryx, conveying this emotion with a harrowing roar rather than an excruciating shriek. The group ended their set with the title track from Sentiment. After lumbering through gilded quixotic fields of broken ideals they delivered the album’s most straightforwardly heavy passage, a righteous doom breakdown that sends the song off over the misty horizon. However, even in these especially brutal moments, Un does not rely whatsoever on dissonance, but instead crafts a consonant sound that feels wholesome and somehow nostalgic.

In this way, Un’s ambient philosophy helped heal the wounds Oryx had torn open by reminding me that pain was consummate, that it is something we cannot eliminate but must come to terms with and choose to face fearlessly. Like a steamroller, their crushing tones purged painful realities out of my spirit. Un also provided an impressionistic foil to Oryx’s expressionistic untamed brutality; where the latter sought to convey the unfiltered sounds of searing rage in order to bare their own souls, the former wove a tapestry that invites a direct relationship between one’s own suffering, fear, and insecurity and the story of perseverance told within the music.

All in all, the night was a massive success in showcasing the abilities of these two highly talented and rapidly growing doom bands, with two sets that couldn’t have complimented each other any more effectively. The juxtaposition between the two provided me with uniquely contrasting perspectives on pain and suffering: its genesis, its concrescence, and finally the gradual process of release, acceptance, and moving forward.

— Thomas Hinds

After a run of Midwest and East Coast dates (below) with Oryx, Un will go on to take the stage in support of Withered in the southern US.

11/11 – BROOKLYN, NY, LUCKY 13 *
11/19 – DALLAS, TX, THE N9NES +
11/20 – MEMPHIS, TN, HI TONE +

*With ORYX

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