JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

Marked for O’Death

By:  | published on April 17, 2009

Photo courtesy of O'Death“Oh, death, how you’re treatin’ me / You’ve closed my eyes so I can’t see / Well you’re hurtin’ my body / You make me cold / You run my life right outta my soul.”

Those words, most famously crooned a cappella by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley on the song “O’Death”, begged a creeping Grim Reaper to spare him another year. The song is haunting, bare, remarkably soulful, and a guiding light for five musicians who met in the early part of the decade while attending SUNY-Purchase, a state school in the suburbs of New York City. With a hankering for Gothic roots music, the band snatched the song title as its moniker and formed in 2003.

Seventeen months ago, as the quintet toured Europe in support of its second album, Head Home, death did not spare O’Death. Eliza Sudol, the 24-year-old fiancée of drummer David Rogers-Berry, died of an aneurysm in her sleep in NYC. The band was in Sweden at the time, and immediately shut down its tour to come home and grieve over the loss. Time passed, and the band was soon back to work, turning to their music for catharsis.

“If I hadn’t had this project to focus on, I would be truly lost in this world,” Rogers-Berry says. “I’m so lucky to have this band and this group of people to lean on.”

Sudol’s sudden death didn’t just bring the band closer—it brought its members the sort of tragedy and pain that provokes creative outbursts. The band had only written three songs since recording Head Home in late 2005, but began blasting through an array of ideas. O’Death returned to the studio in the early part of 2008 to record its third album, Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin, and anxiety steps in as the band’s sixth member.

“There is a lot of urban anxiety on this record, which is really one of the reasons that we feel such a tight connection to punk bands like the Ramones and Bad Brains and the Misfits,” Rogers-Berry says. “That’s why we’re singing about mountains and rivers and stuff, because of the struggle that we have living in an urban environment. It’s crazy.”

On “Home”, guitarist and lead singer Greg Jamie sings, “Find a sacred resting place / Where the pecking hens won’t harm her eyes / Home, home, the air I breathe.” The graphic imagery is counteracted by Jamie’s sweet tone and light flourishes from fiddler Bob Pycior. The track “Fire on Peshtigo” is based on the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, in which people jumped into the water trying to escape the flames, only to burn to death when the wind spread the fire over the water. “Mountain Shifts”, a jarring, off-kilter track that features similarly explicit lines like, “Her hair lays violent, dead in the street / I hope that she’s peaceful where ever her body may be,” is blunt and bleak. Verses alternate with a raucous, wordless chorus during which each player pummels his instrument and breaks into an almost demented chant.

Instrumental brutality has always been a part of O’Death’s incendiary live show. “It’s punk rock, man, that’s what Courtesy of O'Deathwe came to do, to get crazy,” Rogers-Berry says. “That’s how we repair our souls from all the shit we’ve dealt with.” On Broken Hymns, the band and co-producer Alex Newport captured that live, raw energy by refusing to rely on the mixing process to provide it. “A lot of the producers we’ve worked with say, ‘Give me a good, clean, strong signal and we can give it that dirty sound after the fact,’” Rogers-Berry says. “But that doesn’t make any fucking sense to us. That’s ass-backwards. Why don’t we just record the way we want it to sound? We only spent three or four days mixing the entire record, because a lot of the mixing was done in the recording. It was about making the room sound good and recording that. Alex totally understood us.”

The band’s raw sound, unbridled aggression, and largely Americana instrumentation (banjo, fiddle, and the occasional ukulele) has created all sorts of confusion from a marketing standpoint, particularly in the world of “if you like this, you’ll like this” online music recommendation engines. O’Death is far more than the sonic equivalent of road rage, unleashing pent-up anger on a surprising choice of instruments. The band brings a level of passion to the stage that you’d more likely see on the jam band circuit, but the songs offer much more than rhythm-centric verses that act as segues between solos. There are also unexpected tangents, frenetic bursts, and sweet verses, often in the same song. And there is nothing quite like Jamie’s voice, a nasally, almost discomforting instrument that puts the band in a wholly unique place.

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