There’s a lot to unpack with a band like Oxygen Thief, particularly when it comes to comparing where they started and where they are now, and how that fits into the wider scope of the Xtra Mile roster. What was originally conceived as the artistic sobriquet for Barry Dolan to plough a typically smart and witty singer-songwriter became a full band, and expanded their sound into something more akin to the post-hardcore of the early- and mid-2000s. And that can be telling, especially when, as the early singles from this album have indicated, a band like Reuben, the dearly-missed post-hardcore veterans and Xtra Mile alumni, have clearly been within eyeline. That’s far from a bad thing, but it can lead into a discussion concerning where Oxygen Thief’s own creative impulses lie, and whether or not Confusion Species can muster up enough ideas to become its own thing.
It won’t be a long discussion by any means, as a mere couple of listens into this album is more than enough assurance that Oxygen Thief are making the sort of creative, relevant music that’s always a joy to see, with their influences feeling a little more than a mere canvas but never so intrusive that it prevents them from being their own prospect. It’s actually quite the opposite, especially when most of this album centres around Dolan’s own thoughts and feelings on the state of modern Britain and the divide that been rendered in a post-Brexit landscape. It can all be very tongue in cheek – song titles like Uncommon People and Rubbish Life Is Modern flip the script on Britpop’s notoriously white, male creator-base to lampoon it, and the jab at “blue passports and imperial measures” on Graffiti; Irony; Lists takes aim at just how farcical the Brexit proceedings have turned out – but it’s not as if the serious stuff isn’t there. Suspension Bridge Of Disbelief is Dolan’s lament at the bigoted views of his hometown (and, indeed, the country at large) that have only come out of the woodwork in the past few years, while Lost In The Post- examines the spin-doctoring and manipulation that’s presented an unjust, unhealthy option as the right option to so many. It’s the balance between the political vitriol and a lighter, more humorous touch that makes Confusion Species stand out most though; it’s not dry or hectoring in any way, but still gives the sort of bracing and nuanced commentary that this sort of thing needs to hit hard.
Of course, an album so focused on political forcefulness as this is basically nothing without good presentation, and thankfully, Oxygen Thief know how to capture that lightning in a bottle in a way that can sound heavy and imposing, but unfailingly melodic. It’s here where the Reuben comparisons reach their greatest level of validity, with Dolan’s regional accent and timbre sounding very like Jamie Lenman and the penchant for heavier, angular playing being deeply embedded in that same wheelhouse, but it’s not as if it doesn’t work, or it’s a style that’s had any and all mileage totally drained from it. What’s more, none of it feels cynical or deliberately like a lesser imitation; there’s a real meaty bounce and groove to Troublethink and I Used To Be Elephants that feels borderline metallic at times, particularly the latter, while Athiest Dior and Graffiti; Irony; Lists both excel in terms of hook-work, showing a distinctly pop core that works alongside the heavier instrumentation effortlessly. It’s not even like this is all that polished or toned-down either, with a rusty, gnarled guitar tone and unintrusitve production that seriously makes this album feel heavier and more vicious than some metal albums released this year. It can be genuinely impressive at times, not only for the sound that Oxygen Thief are able to produce but how often it works.
Then again, the same could be said for Reuben, arguably crystallising the best possible comparison that could be made between the two. While Reuben pushed what post-hardcore was to its upper limits a decade ago, Oxygen Thief are kind of doing the same here, maybe not to the same magnitude but for results that speak for themselves. It leaves Confusion Species as a remarkably smart, sharp album with a lot to say and a magnetising way of saying it, with nary a dull moment or unfortunate slip-up in sight. To nitpick, they could maybe develop their own sound a bit more, but that’s pretty much the only black mark on an album that comes out of its sonic and thematic battlefields predominantly unscathed.
For fans of: Reuben, Million Dead, Ducking Punches
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Confusion Species’ by Oxygen Thief is released on 16th November on Xtra Mile Recordings.