September 19, 2012

CD Review: 'AWL' invites successive probes, culminating in an experience

RSO is the one-man-band project of musician Ryan Owens.


To say that RSO's "AWL" EP is an exercise in minimalism is a bit of an understatement.

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Produced by Todd Hutchisen

★★ 1/2

Based on a four-star scale

RSO is the one-man-band project of musician Ryan Owens. He sings and plays all the instruments, and by "all," I mean three: Voice, guitar and drum box. This is music that almost defies classification, but could best be described as a punkish take on a form of very primitive blues. Simple, primal and dissonant, there is something oddly compelling about this music, even if some may find it downright unpleasant.

Let's start with the voice. Owens delivers his vocals in an anguished howl that at first calls to mind a slower version of early '80s L.A. hardcore. But with repeated listens, one can hear the blues creeping in, albeit blues filtered through a punk-rock sensibility. In fact, Owens' singing really isn't all that far removed from Kurt Cobain's take on Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" from Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged in New York." What he lacks in technique, Owens more than makes up for with conviction and emotion.

Then there's the guitar; the simplest arrangements of riffs, pounded out through clanging, overdriven distortion. This is far from traditional song structure, and the riffs function less as a way to advance musical ideas and more like punctuation, driving home the point of Owens' pain.

There are no solos of any kind, certainly no hooks to grab onto. Owens howls a line, clangs out a two-chord riff to make his point, and occasionally thumps on the drum box. Most of the songs consist only of voice and guitar, with the final track delivered completely a cappella.

The production on the EP is just as sparse as the music. There is a slight filter effect on the vocals, making them sound tinny like an old transistor radio. But other than that, it seems as though producer Todd Hutchisen simply hit the record button and left the result largely as is. Don't expect a gloss or sonic sheen of any kind. Or bass, for that matter. This is the trebliest release I've heard in quite some time.

Did I enjoy "AWL"? Hard to say. "Enjoy" may not be the right word. More like "experienced." And yet I found myself compelled to revisit that experience at least a dozen times, so there is definitely something at work. RSO is like that canker sore under your tongue that you just can't leave alone, even though you know it's going to hurt every time you touch it with your tongue. Unpleasant though it may be, after a while, you can't help but like it.

For $5, you can download a digital copy at Or, for $10, you can download the album and get a 7-inch record with a limited-edition hand-screened jacket. Visit the RSO website at

Rick Johnson is a freelance writer and radio host from Westbrook. He can be reached at:


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