In its sixth full-length album, Oneida continues to push the outer borders of mind-altering music, riding repetitive riffs and faintly mystical lyrics to transcend time and space. Referencing trance-inducing musical genres like techno, funk and high life, the band hammers its endless grooves home, with just enough variation around the edges to lock you in. Secret Wars
is a gnostic kind of album, hinting at an ineffable other reality of which CDs, like the Roman ruins in "Caesar's Column" are only pale and dusty artifacts. Most people invoke the pharmaceuticals when they describe Oneida, but that's just how you get there. The place you end up in -- through these anarchic grooves, LSD, sex or religious ecstasy -- is the place beyond.
Secret Wars is the first Oneida album not to include co-founder and guitarist Papa Crazee, and it feels slightly calmer and less monolithic than last year's Each One Teach One. The remaining three band members -- keyboardist Fat Bobby, bass player Hanoi Jane and drummer Kid Millions -- have, according to Bobby, had to find a new way to play together, working around the spaces left by the absent Crazee. The tunes seem slightly airier and more meditative. Even on the most frantic tracks -- "$50 Tea", for instance, where everything, keyboards, bass and drums, is percussion -- there's an otherworldly tranquility in the vocals. The track is like meditating and having an anxiety attack at the same time, serenity and jumped up nerves doing business in the same fragile head. Odder still is "The Last Act, Every Time", which sounds like a music box running fractionally too fast, the ballet dancer whirling nervously to music that is disturbingly, microtonally off, and yet within those parameters, incredibly precise and structured. "Wild Horses" feels more traditional as it follows a slouching, circling classic guitar groove, yet this track, too, ends up in a dreamlike déjà-vu-ridden place.
"Changes in the City" is the disc's longest track, running nearly a quarter of an hour on a hypnotically compelling interchange between bass, drums and keyboards. It evolves at a glacial pace, the bass's call eliciting slightly different shades of response from the keyboards, the drums clattering commentaries on the whole conversation. It changes so slowly that you feel, at first, that it is all of one piece, but the end is far different from the beginning, and you've no idea how you got there.
Secret Wars is more than a good album. It's an incredible experience, taking you out of your daily life into a mysterious and mind-changing space. Mystics describe an experience of coming out of darkness to a place where all life seems connected and everything makes sense. It may seem like an overstatement, but that's what Oneida sounds like to me -- the musical equivalent of coming through chaos to enlightenment.