Oak, The Quiet Rebellion Of Compromise, 2022, Karisma Records,
Tracks: Highest Tower, Deepest Well (5:57), Quiet Rebellion (4:51), Dreamless Sleep (5:37), Sunday 8 AM (5:54), Demagogue Communion (6:16), Paperwings (13:52), Guest of Honour (7:03)
Oslo’s Oak have been my favorite “new” band since I discovered them in 2016 when they released their 2013 album, Lighthouse, on CD. The album blew me away. I had never before heard rock, classical, and atmospheric music synthesized with such precision and in such a beautiful way. I was equally if not more stunned with their 2018 follow-up, False Memory Archive. It continued their sound, and it saw the band mature as they developed their wall of sound, their compositions, and their arrangements.
In November the band released The Quiet Rebellion of Compromise, a masterpiece standing toe-to-toe with both their previous releases and any release from the giants of the genre (I’m looking at you Marillion, Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson, Big Big Train). Upon first listen I thought perhaps this record didn’t live up to its predecessor, but that was based upon my mild shock at some of the new elements the band added to their sound. After a few listens, their brilliance convinced me. I don’t typically rate albums for my Progarchy reviews, but in this case I give it a 10 out of 10.
This record includes the atmospheric overtones, the piano, the swelling rock sounds, singer Simen Valldal Johannessen’s deep brooding vocals and his evocative lyrics – everything the previous albums contained. But they’ve included more of the electronic influence to their sound on this record. While always there, it is more pronounced, especially on “Paperwings.” Typically not a genre I listen to, I wasn’t sure how to respond to the electronic elements at first, but after careful listens, I came to appreciate how it fit into the music and into the band’s sound.
Another element I did not expect was the introduction of black metal-style distorted vocals. I don’t listen to black metal, but I’m familiar with the unique form of distortion those vocalists use. It’s different from the type of metal I typically listen to, which tends to use either a grittier distortion (Meshuggah) or a higher-end distortion (Devin Townsend). Black metal vocals are low and smooth, befitting Johannessen’s natural singing voice. To be clear, he uses it on four lines on “Paperwings,” and considering the lyrical content of the album, it fits perfectly. The album covers intense themes of mental health and suicide, with the font used on the album cover based upon handwriting from actual suicide notes. Chilling, to say the least. But the band did their research, consulting scholars and mental health professionals. All that to say, the distorted vocals, while new to Oak’s sound, are used sparingly and to great effect when you consider these lyrics in the light of suicidal thoughts:
One thought takes holdOak – “Paperwings”
Seeps out rules all
Lights fade, time bends
One step so it ends
It took me over ten listens before I picked up on distorted growls deep in the mix on other tracks, not singing any particular lyrics – just adding to the band’s wall of sound. I think it appears in two places, and it’s very subtle. I’ll let you listen for it.
I appreciate how the band reach back into their previous work and pull in brief lyrical and musical excerpts, tying this record to those others and creating a sense of continuation. In doing so, Oak create their own mystique – a musical world you can fall into and feel like you’re somewhere else. Interestingly, it makes me feel connected to potential future albums as well.
Musically Oak blows me away. Whether its Johannessen’s soothing piano, Sigbjørn Reiakvam’s intricate drumming, Stephan Hvinden’s atmospheric guitars, or Øystein Sootholtet’s basswork (as well as acoustic and electric guitar and keyboards) – this band stands out. Steinar Refsdal adds some wonderful saxophone, which dances nicely atop the wall of sound created in the swelling instrumental passages that have become a signature part of Oak’s sound.
One of my favorite parts on the album is the bassline in the second half of “Sunday 8 AM.” The first half of the song is a bit of slow burn for me, but when it hits the instrumental part halfway through, I’m in musical heaven. The drums sing, the piano and keyboards build gently, and then that deep bassline comes in – wow. The musical highlight of the year for me. Even when the saxophone comes in on top of that, it’s the bass that steals the show with a memorable line that makes you want to skip back to the beginning of the instrumental passage once the song ends. I can’t even imagine how amazing this would be live.
I’ve mentioned the “wall of sound” a couple of times. What I mean by that is the way the band layer and gradually add (or subtract) musical elements to create a sound more majestic and powerful than any of the parts taken in isolation. Devin Townsend and Steven Wilson are masters of this sound, and I would place Oak up with them in terms of quality and its prominence on their records. It also helps that the album is mixed very well. There is a lot of dynamic range, with the record sounding very clear. They’ve also played a bit with the stereo mix, with some of the programmed sounds or percussion dancing around the mix.
The band use a variety of sounds, some of which have become staples in their music – percussion sounds I haven’t heard other bands use, thus making Oak’s music instantly identifiable for me. By including them on this record, I feel a sense of nostalgia to when I first started listening to Oak five years ago, even if the band have begun to include other elements in their sound. It still sounds unmistakably like them. They also include spoken tracks, probably from other sources like movies, which help add to the mystique. “Paperwings” has a passage with a hypnotist speaking to a patient over a calm musical section, which immediately proceeds a heavier and more chaotic section that eventually includes the distorted vocals. Musically we are drawn into the hypnosis with the subject.
Oak know how to end an album like few bands. “Psalm 51” off False Memory Archive may be one of the best album closers I’ve ever heard. The musical build-up to end the song is absolutely perfect. You’re left completely satisfied. I don’t think “Guest of Honour” is quite that good, but it was a high bar to match. Nevertheless, it’s a great song. The lyrics, “Walking blind through damp corridors / Piercing sounds, of footsteps or guns / Racing heart – I’m wearing you out” have particularly stuck with me, especially that last line.
The physical CD comes in a digipack, making it the nicest of their physical releases thus far. I’m sure the vinyl is even more stunning. I liked the album art from their first two albums a lot more than this, because I felt those fit the band’s aesthetic better. With that said, there’s something very unsettling about the expression on the face of the female bust on the cover, which given the subject matter on the album seems entirely the point. Suicide and mental health concerns are inherently unsettling.
It didn’t take long for The Quiet Rebellion of Compromise to blow everything else out of the way at the top of my best albums of the year list. It’s an album I can listen to over and over again, finding new bits to enjoy and investigate after many listens. That’s one of the things I’ve loved about their previous records. I can keep listening and never grow tired of them, and it appears this record has that same quality. Oak are a criminally under-appreciated band that deserve widespread attention. They’re one of the most imaginative bands in the genre right now, and they aren’t to be missed. Everything they have done is worth paying attention to. It isn’t often that a band like this comes around. Don’t let the close of the year pass without diving into this record.