I could write a novel about Ono. This Chicago avant-garde group are one of the great bands, and their story is endlessly fascinating. Few groups that had their heyday in the 80s have come back in the late aughts sounding completely rejuvenated and vital. Most important, they’ve continued to progress, honing their wild experimentation into incendiary, out-of-this-world performances and recordings. Like all great sonic art, their work isn’t just entertainment meant for toe-tapping. In fact, 74-year-old lead singer/whirlwind Travis will tell you he’s not much of a fan of mere “music” at all.
Starting with the very first, 1983’s Machines That Kill People, Ono’s records have always been journeys with the power to transform the listener in real time. Such is the case with their latest album, the hyperdetailed Red Summer (American Dreams), which includes several pieces they’ve been performing live in recent years. It’s a concept record that confronts ongoing race-based violence in the U.S., and it shares its title with a months-long stretch of 1919 marked by anti-Black white-supremacist terrorist attacks in dozens of cities across the country, including an epicenter in Chicago. The story starts to unfold with opening track “20th August 1619,” which refers to the date that African slaves were first brought to North America at the colony of Jamestown; something resembling carnival music slowly fades in, its jaunty bells almost soothing, but within two minutes everything swirls into unsettling, uber-processed oblivion. “Coon” exemplifies the classic Ono sound: it kicks off with samples (this time voices, hand drums, and woodwinds), and then Travis’s wildly delayed vocals echo through the void, heralding a sudden turn into dense industrial riffage that mixes white noise, sputtering drum machines, and skronky sax. Funky live drums permeate the anthemic “I Dream of Sodomy,” whose inside-out new wave could be a hit in an alternate universe.
Perhaps the best thing about Ono is their unpredictability; like life or a good thriller, you never know where they might go next. “Scab” starts off with an old-school Severed Heads-type beat that tapers into spoken word over a bleak soundscape, but then an actually catchy melody line saunters in, accompanied by tinkling Speak & Spell-like sounds. “Sniper” conjures Screamin’ Jay Hawkins via Throbbing Gristle darkness, serving up a lesson about Woodrow Wilson’s legacy of racism and his impact on the Red Summer. Underneath the lyrics, textural drums slowly open up into a cacophonous sound collage that’s in turn superseded by a jazzy melody, complete with moody electric-piano licks and an evocative sax solo—and just as quickly, this noir–ish street scene dissipates into the noise of a creaky door blowing open in the wind. Sometimes Ono are so sonically interesting that you can miss just how intense their lyrics are, but that’s not the case on “26 June 1919,” which refers to the gruesome lynching of John Hartfield in Mississippi, which was advertised in local newspapers and drew a mob of more than 10,000 witnesses. Album single “Tar Baby,” a regular part of Ono’s set, is a modern psychedelic classic, with its ominous strings, vocal chants, wild distortion, pulsing Can-like grooves, Stooges-style one-finger piano, and overarching spiral of backward-guitar madness.
“Syphilis” features seldom-heard Ono member Rebecca on vocals, and bandleader P. Michael undergirds its pedal-steel guitar and Suicide-type grind with monstrously funky bass. The song takes a broad look at the titular sexually transmitted infection and the compounding issues of race, sex, gender, and colonialism that surround its history in the U.S.; these aren’t topics that many bands could tackle, and the song feels even more relevant in light of the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on Black Americans. Ono close Red Summer with the transcendent live staple “Sycamore Trees,” which comes in with lapping waves of ambient sound and builds to towering operatic heights, with Travis’s deep, gospel-tinged baritone ringing from the mountaintops. Trust me: After this challenging but rewarding album journey, you’ll never be quite the same. Red Summer isn’t merely a collection of songs but rather an urgent document that addresses the past, present, and future—a work of art that penetrates the core of the human condition. v