Coming out of Beijing, China, progressive metal quartet OU (pronunciation: “O”) look to emerge onto the music scene with a debut studio album that although can bring to mind elements from many different kinds of music and bands (Devin Townsend, The Gathering, Radiohead to name a few), it was never limited by trying to fit into a particular niche. Formed by drummer and songwriter Anthony Vanacore, who moved to the region more than eight years ago, the idea behind OU came from each member having a long history of playing in local house bands and seeking new challenges in their growth as musicians. Vanacore would go on to recruit talented guitarist and fellow house band veteran Zhang Jing, as well as highly sought-after bassist Chris Cui, with the three of them laying the initial groundwork for the song structure and creative approach.
In seeking a lead singer, the group tried out vocalists by presenting them with the instrumental notes (either played on a MIDI or the rough instrumentals) and inviting performers to interpret their own vocal melodies and lyrics. What far exceeded their expectations is the quality of talent that would ultimately lend itself to the finished product. OU recruited highly talented singer Lynn Wu to front the project, who would bring with her a rich blend of raspy, blues-esque posture counterbalanced brilliantly with powerful, soaring delivery. As Vanacore elaborates on, the contributions from Wu add a whole new dimension to the dynamics of these songs.
“When we did the recording process, what was great was allowing Lynn to interpret these already written melodies. I would put the tones to something like a MIDI piano and let her create from there.” Going on to add, “What I love (about Lynn) is that she can be so expressive with her voice. It can go from very sweet and serene, to a much deeper rasp.”
The opening track from the band’s first offering, “Travel”, is a strong palate setter that gets things started quick and punchy. Modulated synths and chugging guitar riffs go back and forth to bolster an opus that is led by Wu’s ever-shapeshifting vocal progressions – ebbing from sugary to snarled, and brought to a crescendo by blistering drum beats. The next song, “Farewell”, goes even further into the prog-heavy toolbox, with Lynn’s range ballooning even further. What first seemed to vary only from glittery to grungy is now blossomed, with Wu starting out in hauntingly unvarnished croons that quickly explode into operatic battle cries as the song reaching the heights of its boiling point. Nearing the halfway point, “Mountain” breezes through its runtime, morphing back and forth from a peppy pop number to an old school Djent breakdown-fest.
On their debut, OU set out with only one clear goal in mind, and that was to make certain that every song had its own unique identity. “I really wanted the record to be dynamic. We wanted each song to have its own voice, and at the same time not draw on and do unnecessary filler.”
And, to that end, you can’t help but marvel at how fruitful this endeavor truly is. In contrast to the songs that preceded it, “Euphoria”, which clocks in at more than 7 minutes, feels like what you might hear if a Radiohead cut was remixed by an electronic project like Telefon Tel Aviv. All that to say, you aren’t left wondering what Lynn’s vocal presence brings to an ambient track that’s initialed by almost-gothic organ tones, keys, and the faintest of etheric programming contours. And just as it draws the listener into an almost otherworldly trance, the band returns into full on bombast with the opening to “Prejudice”. Perhaps the most ‘straight-forward’ of the songs on this record, it remains a tour de force of what each individual musician brings to the group. Still, Wu absolutely takes over in these magnificent little pockets, where her vocal timbre reaches into breathtaking shrieks that are as ferocious as they are fleeting.
Implored to identify what driving forces inspired the creative ideas for the band, Vanacore chuckles rather exuberantly, almost shrugging off the question to state, “With this band, truthfully, I don’t know what it is…and I don’t’ want to know what it is!”
Perhaps the best display of her octave range yet, “Dark” opens with a passage that is so high, by Anthony’s account, “we couldn’t even utilize a pitch adjuster”. As distinct and wide-ranging as the group’s creative scope reaches, it becomes clearer and clearer the strength that they bring not just to this record, but projects that will come down the line. Lynn’s voice is a constant infusion of possibilities, regularly transforming from something eerie or serene, yet at times erupting into evocative flurries of muscular enthusiasm.
On the record’s closer, “Light”, Vanacore sheds light on an interesting backstory behind the song, “In Beijing, there was a club called DDC that hosted a lot of underground acts. A friend of mine did this monthly event there called “Creative Composer’s Collective” that would bring in all of these various composers, and everyone involved would write a tune. So, when I participated, I actually wrote the instrumentals for “Light” then. Originally, all the vocals were written for a horn instrumental, and I thought ‘what if I swapped out the horns for a vocal performance.’ Lynn added her own lyrics and it became what it is now.
As the band looks ahead to what they might aspire for on future records, Vanacore looks at the strengths that make the project so special, and gives clues to what you might be able to expect on the next album:
“We’re already five songs into our next record, and what comes next will have some continuity from this first offering. But what will always stand out about this project is Lynn’s vocal footprint. We’re grateful that our label was receptive to working with a band that has all Chinese lyrics.” Adding, “I don’t want to toot our own horn, but, as far as we know, this is the first time that a Chinese band has been signed to a Western major label. It’s very special and we’re in awe of that opportunity.