Graded on a Curve: University Challenged,
Oh Temple!

Based in the North Holland province of the Netherlands, the trio University Challenged tap into a rich instrumental vein on Oh Temple!, a double set available January 29 through the record label Hive Mind. Blending the expansiveness of kosmische with passages of almost post-rock psychedelia, the guitar’s shimmer and bass’ fuzz mingles with the electronics’ unfurling vines, pulsing patterns, and staticky bursts throughout, as the set’s eight selections bring familiar environments a consistent aura of the unexpected. It’s a delightful ride that’s additionally striking in its assuredness as a debut recording.

University Challenged deliver compositions that tend to stretch out for a while, but the outfit’s bio is a rather tidy affair. The members are multi-instrumentalist Ajay Saggar (credited with guitar, bass, piano, electronica and field recordings), bassist Oli Heffernan (who also plays synth), and guitarist Kohhei Matsuda.

They came together in 2019 with performances following soon thereafter, events notable for including the group’s self-made films as a visual backdrop, with a different video accompanying every track from the album via Bandcamp. The studio recording of Oh Temple! came to fruition last summer in Holland, with Saggar producing and mixing as Heffernan mastered it in England.

Some readers may have noticed the lack of drums in the band’s instrumental scheme, an absence that is undeniably felt through the progression of these pieces, though as repetitive motifs are a frequent element in the equation, University Challenged can still sometimes suggest a foray into expansionist rock that nicely offsets their kosmische ambiance.

But it’s a thread of the neo-classical that’s heard straight away in opener “Serenus” through Saggar’s piano, initially crisp and bright in the foreground only to be gradually submerged (but not completely overtaken) by the guitar patterns, the layers of electronic haze and a repeated wordless vocal sample. After roughly seven minutes, the piano begins to reassert itself in the mix and ends the journey alone, as pretty and vivid as at the start if a shade more tranquil.

“On the Banks of the River Swale” incorporates the sound of flowing water. Like the piano in “Serenus,” this field recording is prominent in the beginning, but in short order gives way to a methodic swirl of synth pulses, electronic distortion and cyclical, increasingly druggy guitar. Again, akin to the piano in the prior track, the water’s movement never totally subsides and indeed returns to the fore at the finale, which sets up a recurring structural tactic on the record’s first side.

However, “On the Banks of the River Swale” does build up a stronger sense of tension, and does so cinematically, as it travels to the border of foreboding. I’ll add here that I’ve not yet viewed those Bandcamp videos, feeling it appropriate to wait until after this review is finished, with the desire for an assessment that’s based purely upon the sounds University Challenged have created.

In “Reverse Swing,” they conjure up an agitated kosmische of sorts, as the slow, indisputably spacy drifting gets augmented with a cranky, tinny electronic residue. But the guitar presence is a little reminiscent of a Duane Eddy disciple caught halfway between shoegaze and a lithium haze. There’s also a touch of what sounds like electronically treated mallet vibes, which is greatly appreciated.

Recordings of spoken dialogue and chanting swaddled in electronics with traces of manipulation serve as the initially dominant characteristic in “Choppers Over Negril,” though these voices do momentarily give way to ample guitar cascades, pulsations of static and Heffernan’s thickly distorted bass throb. When the spoken words reemerge a little over mid-way through, they deepen the ominousness of the track’s title.

After an opening stretch of retro-futuristic synth, “Shibboleth” utilizes another extended vocal sample, this time an interview with Malcolm X. The conversation seems somewhat contentious at first, but as it moves along, the articulateness of the slain US civil rights leader flourishes as he corrects misinformation and emphasizes the realities of the time.

“Shibboleth” briefly reminded me of The Books, but with far less manipulation, which registers as thoughtfully deliberate in this instance. Between “Shibboleth” and “Choppers of Negril” is the tangibly post-rocky “How I Swam Across the Pond,” while “Black Smoke” gets the penultimate spot in the order, inching into the ballpark of unhyphenated rock heaviness.

The lack of any drum thunder does place the focus on the textural as the bass is firmly in fuzz-grind mode and the guitars and electronics both glisten until they sting. Closer “Inside Segovia’s Dream” delivers more bass reverberations and concluding guitar flurries into a decidedly electronica-inclined scenario. It ends Oh Temple! not with a predictable bang but with outward-bound promise for University Challenged moving forward.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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