Photo Courtesy of American Dreams Records
Red Summer, the sixth and latest album by avant gospel innovators ONO, marks the Chicago group’s 40 anniversary with a record that surveys the many racial injustices of American history and indicts the authorities that permitted it.
Led by two of ONO’s founding members, synth player P. Michael Grego and vocalist Travis, who goes by one name, the band’s current lineup creates a paranoid atmosphere that combines gospel, jazz, funk and industrial styles to perfectly mirror the painful imagery of Travis’ pronounced, echoey vocal delivery.
Beginning with the Wurlitzer-sounding opener, “20 August 1619,” Travis fills his lyrical space on this record to recount over 400 years of the injustices African Americans have faced, from the country’s founding to the present day. Using grim, imagistic phrases, he unflinchingly explores themes of struggle and violence by detailing events such as the Chicago race riots during the Red Summer on “26 June 1919” and a disturbing, unethical experiment that seven presidents failed to stop on the guitar-heavy “Syphilis.” On the latter track, he laments, “the hardest part of living is after you thought you died,” suggesting a sense of abandonment at the hands of society’s leaders.
But, if any song on Red Summer embodies the album’s message, it’s the driving lead single, “I Dream Of Sodomy.” While most of the record features instrumental dissonance, on “Sodomy” ONO’s members play in a unified way that resembles funk rock and might invite some rhythmic head nodding. Travis forgoes his usual spoken word delivery for a more dynamic vocal style, reimagining a famous speech. Lyrics such as “I dream of Napoleon/I dream of Andrew Jackson/I dream of artillery/And me I’m from Mississippi,” condemn systematic oppression and abuse. It’s not only the most impactful song on Red Summer but also the catchiest.
Although the majority of Red Summer tells powerful stories, several songs on the release feel slightly underdeveloped. Songs such as “Blk Skin,” “Scab” and “Sniper” express the same alienation and disenfranchisement as the songs previously mentioned but in a less memorable way. These tracks retread what is being said elsewhere on this record but without the historical examples that make the other songs so compelling.
The closing track, “Sycamore Trees,” ends the album with a somber tone and features Travis’ best and most expressive vocal performance atop a swirling gospel-inspired soundscape. “Take me for a walk/Under the sycamore trees/The dark trees that blow,” he sings the song’s lyrics that sound like they belong to an old standard. Being both the final song and the longest, it leads the album to a satisfying close and soothingly wraps up all the heaviness that came before it.
Even though ONO is now four decades removed from its inception, Red Summer proves the group is still capable of creating a lyrically potent, musically dense album that never lets up in its intensity. By coupling heavy subject matter with instrumentals that mirror it so well, Red Summer makes a lasting impression with both its music and activist vision.