Song: "Oh Death"
Album: Side Trips
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There have been a few eras in history where music appeared to burst at every seam, with countless styles mixing with one another, and entirely new musical approaches being birthed. Though they seem to only occur every thirty to fifty years, it is in these musically explosive times that the following decades are mapped out, and yet some of the most unique moments in such periods become comparatively lost over time. This was certainly the case in the late 1960's, as rockabilly and rock and roll gave way to the psychedelic and heavy metal sounds, but it is the former of these two that showed some of the widest range in diversity of any style in history. Though nearly everyone is well aware of the psychedelic rock movement, as it has yielded many of the most famous bands in history, there was also a completely unique "psychedelic folk" scene simultaneously building, and few bands represent this sound than one can find in the catalog of the US band, The Kaleidoscope. While they are far less well known than a number of their peers, once one experiences their music, there is no question that they stand as one of the most distinctive groups in history, and their 1967 release, Side Trips, is similarly unparalleled. Filled with sounds ranging from folk to tribal to country to psychedelic to Middle Eastern, there may be no other song that better represents the wonderfully singular sound of The Kaleidoscope than their 1967 track, "Oh Death."
If there was ever an album that could boast about a wide range of instrumentation, it is Side Trips, and the massive talents of each member of the band is on display throughout "Oh Death." The fact that a majority of the song is based around a fiddle gives one instant insight into the sound of The Kaleidoscope, as there are few recordings in folk from that era that have a similar approach. It is the way that the band is able to so perfectly balance this sound with the meandering bassline that makes it the highlight of the record, as this is a fusion that would influence countless other groups. The way in which "Oh Death" seems to sway back and forth almost gives it the feeling of a "drinking song," and it is in this reality that one can detect influence from older European songs and chants. However, there i a stark contrast to this idea in the traces of dorbo and dulcimer than can be heard, as these are far more related to African and Middle Eastern music. Yet it is again the ability of The Kaleidoscope to strike such a wonderful sonic balance that enables the track to rise above becoming muddled or confused, and "Oh Death" instead takes on a persona that cannot be found elsewhere in recorded history. There is no "lead" instrument, and it is the smaller sounds from the bells and distant drums that give the track an unparalleled level of atmosphere, and in many ways, this element makes it far more psychedelic than the more popular songs associated with the genre.
Working in perfect harmony with the music over which he sings, Solomon Feldthouse possessed what is without question one of the most distinctive voices in the entire history of recorded music. Though it fits in with every song in the catalog of The Kaleidoscope, due to the mood and lyrics of "Oh Death," it is hard to argue that he ever sounded better than on this recording. It is the unique blend of speaking and singing that makes Feldthouse's voice so easy to recognize, and throughout "Oh Death," one can easily picture him singing the song in an ancient pub full of other patrons singing along. The way that he presents the lyrics enable the entire song to feel far older than it actually is, and one might assume that the words were taken from a traditional source, as opposed to being penned by country musician, John Reedy. This reality shows the power of a conscious mood being set on any song, and "Oh Death" is able to hit just as hard even after hearing the song a number of times. The way that Feldthouse spins this dramatic tale of a man battling with Death is far beyond that of almost any other similar lyric, as the dark and almost "knowing" way with which he sings is rarely anything short of completely captivating. However, the story that runs throughout "Oh Death" is absolutely timeless, and in the end, not even promises of wealth can sway Death from his duty, and Feldthouse's vocal mastery delivers this reality in truly spectacular fashion.
After experiencing "Oh Death," one cannot help but find strong influences of the track in the music of countless later bands, and yet this only makes the reality that The Kaleidoscope remain comparatively unknown even harder to understand. In so many ways, one can see the direct link to the music of Black Sabbath, as the lyrical imagery as well as the musical approach are unquestionably similar. Furthermore, one can argue that almost every band that "followed" Black Sabbath were in fact taking a large portion of their sound and style from The Kaleidoscope, and yet the band also gave life to another side of music. One can easily hear how this song shaped many of the "crossover-folk" bands that emerged in the final years of the 1960's, as the wide range of influences that can be heard in the music of The Kaleidoscope clearly played a massive role in the music of a majority of the bands in the "San Francisco scene." However, even without these obvious connections, the music of The Kaleidoscope easily stands on its own as some of the most uniquely brilliant in the entire history of music, and there are few groups that can even remotely compare to the sound of their music. The way that the band combined sounds from all over the world and different parts of history is truly uncanny, and there is simply no other song in history that sounds or feels quite like The Kaleidoscope's 1967 track, "Oh Death."