Review Summary: A one-of-a-kind album by a one-of-a-kind band.
Some bands are just too diverse to be pigeonholed in certain scenes and musical trends. The 90s rock band Morphine, for instance, is considered an alternative rock act; however, their saxophone-based jazz fusion sound and an almost surf rock-ish vibe would suggest other influences that extend beyond their alternative label. Then you've got Alice in Chains, who bring sludge metal, doom metal, classic rock, and blues to their grunge repertoire to form a unique sound that pleases numerous audiences. Well, if any band were to join this list of artists who thought outside their scenes, it would be Oingo Boingo. Fronted by composer and vocalist/guitarist Danny Elfman, Oingo Boingo were frequently labeled as a new wave band for their fast punk-influenced rhythms and heavy use of synthesizers, as well as their generally quirky attitude. However, simply limiting them to this genre would be downplaying just how unique they were. Progressive rock website Prog Archives
lists the band as "crossover prog," and labeling the group as progressive or experimental indeed seems more apt than just "new wave." The band combined classic punk, new wave, progressive rock, ska, jazz, alternative rock, and a multitude of other genres to create something way different from the pack, and this fact only makes it more understandable that Danny Elfman would continue to experiment heavily in his film scores.
Only a Lad, while making only small waves commercially when it came out, served well to lay the groundwork for what to expect from the band. Fast tempos, high energy, lots of horns, lots of synthesizers, eccentric singing from Elfman, and elements of jazz and classical music were all part of the Oingo Boingo experience; luckily, the album ended up finding an audience in the Southern California pop/rock scene. Nothing to Fear, the band's sophomore effort, pretty much expands upon Only a Lad stylistically without making really drastic changes. Then again, with how odd the band already were, they didn't exactly need to change too much. There is, however, more of an emphasis on guitar distortion and overall heaviness, which would please fans of the band's more punk-inspired work. Songs like "Insects" and the title track have some damn low and heavy guitar riffs that contrast the loud, bombastic horns very nicely. "Insects" in particular finds a fantastic balance between the two; a few times within the track, you have a low metallic riff from Elfman and lead guitarist Steve Bartek while the trumpeter and two saxophonists play a really nifty Middle-Eastern melody over the top of it. Stuff like that provides neat nuances to keep you frequently coming back to the album, and the horn playing in general is usually what adds those nuances when combined with the rhythm section and vocals.
Speaking of vocals, Danny Elfman gives perhaps his best overall vocal performance here. He suits every mood his compositions throw at him, from creepy to quirky to sad to gleeful. His eccentric performances give a ton of personality to the songwriting, like mixing slightly whispered and raspy mid-range vocals with low chants in opener "Grey Matter" or showing a bit more lightheartedness and restraint with the bizarre mid-tempo number "Whole Day Off." He's definitely a versatile performer, just as he's a versatile songwriter and composer. His writing on here is some of Boingo's most complex work yet, showcasing their penchant for odd time signatures and frequent musical mood swings. While I mentioned that the band's work features generally fast tempos, there are times in which the band tone down to represent moods other than complete batshit insanity. "Private Life," while still on the faster side, is definitely more restrained and straightforward than much of the band's work; "Insects," meanwhile, touches on many bases in terms of speed. The main motif is heavily characterized by the lack of the snare drum... well, until the fast dance-like sections that occasionally (intentionally, I'm assuming) interrupt the general flow. This diversity is what makes the band so interesting to listen to; if you ever wanted to listen to a sort of precursor to Mr. Bungle, Oingo Boingo's music fits the bill very nicely.
In fact, in keeping with that Bungle comparison, you can consider Nothing to Fear the band's version of Mr. Bungle's masterpiece California. An increased sound palette, increased accessibility, and a heightened sense of cohesion makes the comparison pretty apt. Nothing to Fear takes the music of Only a Lad and makes it even better, retaining the eccentricity and overall oddness of Oingo Boingo's sound but slightly tightening and refining the musicianship and adding more subtle compositional nuances here and there. If there's one Oingo Boingo album you must own, this is probably it; I think Nothing to Fear could safely be dubbed the band's finest hour.