Comfort zones are overrated—just ask the five members of the Atlanta-based rock outfit O’Brother. When they decamped from their home turf in early 2013 to take over a rented house on wintry Long Island, the idea wasn’t just to update the hard-edged sound they’d achieved on their debut full-length Garden Window with producer Mike Sapone (known for his work with Brand New, Crime in Stereo, Public Enemy and more). This time out, the band reconvened with Sapone to embark on a mind-expanding journey into strange new territory, lyrically and sonically. All it took was a little inspiration.
“I think with this record, we wanted to leave more room to allow the songs to change in the studio,” says lead singer and guitarist Tanner Merritt. “We basically had the structure, the skeletons, for all the songs, but we did a lot more experimentation while recording than we’d done in the past, which was a goal of ours going in. We just wanted an opportunity to work with soundscapes and layers and noises—and we were definitely listening to a lot more psychedelic music. We were on a huge Pink Floyd kick and watching live DVDs every day back at the house.”
Right from the opening ambient guitar strains of the leadoff track “Come into the Divide,” there’s a confident and resolute intention behind O’Brother’s new sound. It seems almost at odds with the album’s title, Disillusion, but then, grappling with uncertainty—and for that matter, casting it in the positive light of infinite possibility—has clearly become one of the band’s strengths. Another case in point: the new album marks the debut of Jordan McGhin, who joined the permanent lineup during last year’s summer tour, in the wake of longtime guitarist Aaron Wamack’s departure.
“Jordan has a real unique writing style when it comes to heavy music,” observes drummer Michael Martens, “but if you hand him an acoustic guitar, he’ll play some of the most amazing classical stuff you’ve ever heard. He’s invaluable because of his spot specifically in the band—he only plays baritone guitar with us, so that gives us a lot of our extra punch and low end, which I guess we’re becoming known for. His complementary parts really help make it all work.”
A tight camaraderie and chemistry keeps O’Brother together, infusing Disillusion with a focused energy that seems to flow directly from the hive mind of the band. It starts with the rhythm section; Martens and bassist Anton Dang have been playing together since they were teenagers, crafting an unspoken symbiosis that comes through in the heavy-leaded syncopation of “Perilous Love” or the well-timed hits that pepper the liquid atmospherics over the first half of the title track. Meanwhile, McGhin and founding guitarist Johnny Dang engage in a near-constant interplay, orchestrated with precision in the lushly textured “Path of Folly”—a persistent groove that surges with high-flying overdrive and tastefully twangy guitar passages.
At the center of it all is Merritt, who clearly set out to test himself. “Sometimes you get tired of doing the same thing,” he says. “I’d been listening to Tom Waits and other people who do crazy things with their voice, and I’ve always done the back-and-forth with pretty vocals and the abrasive coloring, so I wanted to step outside my boundaries a little bit. Trying to put that additional character in your vocals is almost like what I would presume acting to be like. You try to get in a mode and a mindset, and let each take and each part have its own existence and not be so stale.”
The approach stands out in an epic track like “Oblivion,” where Merritt pushes the upper reaches of his range in the verses (“I make my way like a wandering amputee”) and then lays back into a falsetto whisper during the hypnotic, Zeppelin-esque breakdown (“There’s an endless divide between me and where I need to be”). He drew on deeply personal experiences to craft his lyrics, particularly on the moody groove-rocker “Context,” which was inspired in part by a turbulent relationship and by his father’s struggle with memory loss. When Merritt sings “Trade my wounded pride for some peace of mind,” the dual perspectives of father and son—and of significant others in turmoil—shine through with stark clarity.
“We were pulling 12 to 14-hour days recording,” he recalls, “and then we would go back to the house and I would do another four or five hours each night trying to write lyrics to these songs. So there was very little sleeping, but it was amazing because it was the first time that we were able to be completely immersed in the creative process. We left home, rented a house and it was just the five of us with Mike [Sapone], all the time. We were always doing something creative.”
Sequenced like an episodic dream, with each song shape-shifting into the next, Disillusion captures O’Brother in a true state of creative transformation. The sprawling concept albums of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson and more provided the grist, but these five intrepid seekers have crafted a complex slab of bejeweled art-rock that shimmers vividly all on its own. With multiple points of entry and a host of memorable stops along the way, the album defines a journey that almost anyone can grasp: in this crazy tech-fueled world where literally everything can feel like it’s on a downward spiral, sometimes we just need to slow down, sit still and listen.
“To me, the way I’ve seen this record take form, it’s about not being scared of disillusion,” Martens explains. “Everybody has a certain disillusion with the things that they believe and feel, and how they compare themselves to other people, and I think that comes through. But it’s a hopeful disillusionment. We don’t want to be all about doom and gloom, and we’re not trying to question things in a negative manner. We want people to know that lyrically and musically, we’ve got an optimistic, realistic view on things. We’ve always had a tendency to stray from the beaten path, but to us, it’s okay to think a little differently, as long as your motives are positive.”