The stilted syntax of the name He Whose Ox Is Gored and the absurd pretentiousness of it make this Seattle quartet stand out in the blizzard of not-so-interesting nomenclature you see spattered on flyers and in club ads.
Anyone with an eye trained to seek out the unusual would have to be intrigued. Thankfully, the group's sound bears a similarly exceptional quality, fusing doom metal, shoegaze rock, and hardcore—with goth undertones and even house-music rhythmic throb occasionally sneaking into the mix.
"It's funny," says guitarist/vocalist Brian McClelland, "everyone seems to have their own interpretation of the name. It's an Old Testament reference, but it's used more as 'Whose interests are at stake' in modern terms. I've always loved the name as I've interpreted it, more like 'Who is at a disadvantage' or things that we struggle with in the human exchange. And everybody has a stupid-ass metal name these days. It's important to find something that you believe in and stand for it."
McClelland—who moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Seattle in 2008—formed He Whose Ox Is Gored with bassist/vocalist Travis Brenden during the summer of that year. Synth-and-sample specialist Lisa Mungo joined soon after; all had the distinction of working at Guitar Center at the time. They hired drummer Patrick Huerta after going through drummers with Spinal Tap–like efficiency.
The band has released two EPs so far, Op Amps and the Tad Doyle–produced Op Amps II: Into the Ethers. Both throw thrillingly overcast shadows over technically impressive songs that move with elegance and unpredictability. Whereas a lot of heavy rock can be ham-fisted, as musicians strenuously try to be the most evil motherfuckers ever to burst a forehead vein, the Ox value nuance over sonic nunchaking. Which doesn't mean they're not above the occasional larynx-shredding vocal, but the Ox writhe with more serpentine subtlety than most in the field.
It's well known that metal and its many variants are glutted with bands that fetishize gore, violence, blasphemy, and the dark side. For several decades, this musical style has triggered an obsession with the extremities of existence. But maybe it's possible to reach the limit of this kind of immersion in life's most wretched situations and crave something less abject.
The notion forces the Ox members to wonder if they are, indeed, metal.
"I've never really considered us metal in a conventional sense," Mungo says. "We all come from different places musically and just ended up starting a heavier project." But Huerta declares that the Ox are "totally metal, bro." McClelland laughs and then elaborates about metal's extreme nature.
"I think plenty of people live outside of the conventional mass media and consumerist lifestyle, and their art reflects that. Most artists are talking about things that motivate them just the same as any other artists—you know, emotional output and the struggle against mediocrity [laughs], but because it's not romantic-comedy, Hallmark puppies-and-roses-type imagery, people think it's more extreme.
"Sure, there is a dark aesthetic sometimes, but the root of it, the feeling that you feel and the drive that makes you express it are the same thing that plenty of people create with constantly."
A lot of bands want to rub their listeners' minds in the muck; others want to help them transcend it. The Ox's music carries a grandiose aura that seems more high-minded than a lot of stuff in this vein—although I've not cracked the code of the band's lyrical universe yet. McClelland says, "The confusion that surrounds our name and our style has felt most welcome."
It seems pertinent to ask a band named after a biblical phrase if they view humans as merely godless meat destined to become worm food or as soul-possessing beings ruled by a god by whose grace you can achieve eternal life in heaven. Or perhaps something else?
McClelland bites. "Everyone wants to feel special, but at the end of the day, people are animals. We eat, shit, destroy the environment, and die. We could do plenty of things to fix the state of the nation, the planet, or anything else, but humans in general have an excellent record for acting completely against our best interests. Even then, you can do anything you want! You can make anything happen. When I drop dead, all I can hope for is that I created something that was meaningful, that I put my entire life force in it, and somebody felt something. Later, the autopsy will reveal there was an entire strip of bacon lodged in my aorta."