OU - One

OU – One

Imagine a collaboration between Enya and Enigma, and Leprous and Liquid Tension Experiment. Now don’t, because that still won’t work as those bands all have quite Western sounds. So imagine that collaboration by similar artists with a more Eastern sound. Got it? Probably not, and even if you have, it’s still unlikely to sound like China’s OU, who have just been signed to InsideOut and are sure to make a big impact with their original blend of sounds and styles, moods and textures. I’ve been listening to this for a while, and even though I like all the individual ingredients that make up this glorious mix, the idiosyncratic result is so unlike anything else I’ve heard that I’m sometimes unsure how much I like it. And yet, I’m fairly certain One will absolutely be one of my favourite releases of this year. How much others may like it is perhaps down to how much effort they are willing to put in, as I would guess that OU’s music will not always be an easy listen for many Western ears.

When people talk about atonality and dissonance, it is generally based upon what they are used to hearing. Much Eastern music can sound atonal and dissonant to Western ears, and compounded with djenty polyrhythms and sudden bouts of syncopation, a lot of One might simply sound foreign (bad pun intended) initially. But for those willing to take them on, OU pack a lot of punch, and One is a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable debut. The idea of mixing pop and metal elements is not a new one – particularly, it seems, in Scandinavia (I am a great fan of 22, Maraton and VOLA, for instance) – but I’ve never heard them blended quite as OU have. There seem to be influences from dream pop, shoegaze, trip hop, ambient, indie rock, prog metal, jazz and djent; and elements of all these pop up in some fashion throughout the album. If OU’s new label-mates Leprous and Haken are not influences, I’d be surprised, but I’m guessing there’s also influence from bands like Radiohead, Portishead and Massive Attack, for example – and probably a few Chinese bands and artists I’ve never heard of.

I suspect there is a concept to the album, but as I have no idea of what is being sung, I can only guess. Based upon the album’s title, and the fact that there are four pairs of song titles that could be considered complementary, it might be that One dwells upon the idea of duality and yin-yang: the Chinese philosophical concept whereby two apparently contrary forces may actually be complementary, and the change and difference between them creates one mutual whole of interdependence and interconnectivity. Interestingly, the relationship between yin and yang is often described in terms of the Travel of the Sun across the sky, over a Mountain and a valley. Yin is the Dark area shadowed by the mountain, while yang is the Light area. This travel of the Sun reveals what was in shadow (the Ghost) and obscures (Farewell) what was revealed. Am I reading too much into the titles? Quite possibly, and especially as I can’t fit Euphoria and Prejudice into that analogy. But ultimately, there is no need to understand what is being sung to enjoy this album.

Opening number, Travel 穿 sets out the stall nicely with its frenetic and heavy instrumentation, and ethereal and emotive vocals. Any melody in this song is carried almost completely by Lynn Wu’s voice, as electronica swirls beneath and between the chugging mass of intense instrumentation. The distinction between vocals and instruments is even more obvious on the following song, Farewell 夔, which manages to sound paradoxically both lighter and heavier than the preceding track. Lynn has some particularly strong vocals and quirky melody lines on this song, and the music is at times reminiscent of the blend of jazz and math rock plied by Alarmist. Mountain 山 sounds ready made to be a single, upbeat and poppy – albeit in a very staccato and syncopated fashion. And, what do you know, upon looking for a video on YouTube, I discovered that Mountain 山 is indeed a single.

Ghost 灵 is pretty much exactly as you might expect it to sound: wispy, light and barely there. The vocals are slight and fragile, showing a side to Lynn’s voice that she has not previously shown. It’s a short and sombre piece, but undeniably beautiful, followed by Euphoria 兴, which is one of my favourite songs, building upon the ambience of Ghost 灵, but having more power in its performance (even in its quieter second half). Paired with Prejudice 豸 (but only if my guess about the pairings is correct, of course), euphoria might initially seem to have not much that one might consider complementary to prejudice. But, Chinese characters can often have multiple translations that are only evident in context, so without knowing the lyrics, it is hard to know exactly whether ‘Euphoria’ is the most apt translation. can also translate, I think, as ‘prosperity’ – which certainly could be looked at with prejudice in regard to dualism and yin-yang. Prejudice 豸 is certainly as heavy as Euphoria 兴 is light. Lynn really belts out her vocals on this one, and shows just how much power she has. And it’s another favourite song for me, largely because of Lynn’s vocals.

I feel like I am somewhat unfairly singling out Lynn, because there is no doubting how much the other band members add to the mix. But realistically, it is Lynn’s vocals that provide so much of the enjoyment I have from listening to One. As varied as the underlying instrumentation is, Lynn’s vocals are more varied still, and I love just how versatile she is. She reminds me a little of vocalists like Peter Hammill, Demetrio Stratos, and Claudio Milano – not because Lynn sounds anything like any of them (because she does not), but just because her vocal idiosyncrasies are so integral and important to the overall sound of OU. For sure, every member of OU performs like demons, showing some monster talent, but as great as the music is (and it is great), I keep coming back to Lynn’s voice. That said, Dark 暗 easily has some of my most favourite instrumental passages, and is probably my overall favourite song on the album. Dark 暗 definitely, to my mind, shows all of OU performing at their best, and pulling out all the stops.

After Dark 暗, Light 光 is almost necessary to come down from the preceding aural treat. It’s a perfect complement to its predecessor, and a perfect way to end the album. My only complaint, really, is that the album is simply too short. I long to hear more, not that I know how OU could have kept it up, as the second pair of songs is more impressive than the first, the third pair of songs more impressive than the second, and the fourth pair of songs more impressive than the third. It would be impossible to carry on like that for too much longer, I guess. Alternatively, it could have been deliberate to stop at eight. As I learnt when reviewing Nodo Gordiano’s H.E.X., in the I Ching, yin and yang are represented by broken and solid lines, which are then combined to make eight trigrams. But really, I have to reiterate that I’m only guessing here, and ultimately it makes no difference to just what an incredible debut album this is from OU. Don’t judge it by the singles, because neither is entirely representative of the album’s sound, and out of context of the album I simply don’t think they work so well. This is an album that needs to be listened to from beginning to end, to appreciate just how well the songs work together and build upon each other. Just as with yin and yang, the mutual whole is greater than the individual parts.

01. Travel 穿 (5:54)
02. Farewell 夔 (4:12)
03. Mountain 山 (4:18)
04. Ghost 灵 (3:34)
05. Euphoria 兴 (7:19)
06. Prejudice 豸 (4:31)
07. Dark 暗 (7:17)
08. Light 光 (4:05)

Total Time – 41:10

Lynn Wu – Vocals
Anthony Vanacore – Drums
Jing Zhang – Guitars
Chris Cui – Bass

Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: China
Date of Release: 6th May 2022

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