Review: The Ocean - Pelagial

There can never be too many superlatives for The Ocean. In the past 10 years, they have taken Post-Metal by the scruff of its neck and imbued in it a richness analogous to Neurosis in the '90s. Yes, the influence of Neurosis in the '90s and Isis in the '00s is unparalleled, but The Ocean have been doing something different. They weren't in any sense the leaders in all things Post-Metal, despite their earlier albums seeing acclaim, but the records themselves were gigantic, staunch masterpieces. 2004's Fluxion was a heavy, angry record with bouts of harmonic beauty, conjuring a fluctuating mood of melancholic proportions. In 2005, Aoelian did away with the orchestral aspect and positioned itself in steadfast ferocity, mixing the collective's Post-Metal roots with raw hardcore. Precambrian, their collective swansong, was their most ambitious effort to date; fusing symphonious drones with unyielding barbarity, it was not only musically ambitious, but also thematically, taking its concept from the literal Precambrian era of the Earth's history.

The Ocean, however, were never a band in the conventional sense. A total of twenty-six musicians contributed to Precambrian, their only coherence coming in the form of founder, guitarist and songwriter Robin Staps. It wasn't until 2009 that Staps decided enough was enough and formed a stable lineup of musicians. Then, in 2010, Heliocentric and Anthropocentric saw the light of day - the two albums were a critique of Christianity, a conceptually and holistically ballsy philosophical tour de force. They marked a progression in The Ocean's musical endeavours as well, bringing about a more traditionally Progressive style comparable to Opeth and the like, but they were both easily the most impressive works in their library. Staps cited Darwin, Dostoevsky and Dawkins as well as Abrahamic scripture to write a mature and unwavering double blow to religion in the guise of Metal.

The concept of 'concept' is clearly important to The Ocean, then. Once again their latest album, Pelagial, follows a clear musical and lyrical structure - this time the descent down the oceanic layers. Robin Staps is a master at creating moods, a brilliant skill which Metal musicians should be envious of, and it's essential here as the ocean's deep, dark depths have to be handled delicately. Vocalist Loïc Rossetti isn't screaming about seamonsters and mermaids - instead, the lyrics are almost wholly Freudian explorations of mind and soul emboddied by the pelagic veil. Take track two, Mesopelagic: Into the Uncanny - it's one of the few instances where you'll hear the sounds of the ocean, but the way it sets the mood is expert. The instrumentation alternates between tranquil and boisterous, as do the vocals. Rossetti's cleans are swooning and his screams unrelenting.

The drums are intricate and often incredibly brutal, but never feel out of place. The vocals, lyricism and sharp guitar playing are clear beacons to the rest of the band and they come together like they did on Heliocentric and Anthropocentric: naturally and fittingly. This sense wasn't as present on Fluxion and Aeolian and certainly not on Precambrian, which felt disjointed thanks to the heaps of ideas thrown around and the many, many musicians that contributed. But despite its grand concept and scale, Pelagial feels like a very personal album. Helio/Anthropocentric's philosophical themes were ones that Robin Staps clearly cared about but it was very adoptive in terms of its lyricism and Rossetti's vocals certainly weren't as brilliant as they are on Pelagial. They peak on Abyssopelagic II: Signals of Anxiety, whose pounding drums lead brilliantly into Rossetti's buried groans and subsequent clean and heartfelt singing. The lyrics also reiterate that personal and intimate sense: "She was standing close to the shore. She watched the waves erode. And she said: 'You'll understand later'". 

Where things get mightily interesting is on the last three tracks: orchestras are thrown into the mix and the whole thing becomes incredibly progressive and transcendent. Hadopelagic II: Let Them Believe is like Tool without the guilt and abstraction while Demersal: Cognitive Dissonance feels like a lost track from Side A of Precambrian, with Tomas Hallbom of Breach taking the reins for the vocals. His ruthless delivery blends brilliantly with the Biblical lyrics and leads well into closer Benthic - the sludgiest, slowest, yet heaviest song on the record.

Ultimately, it's a wonder why the band chose to pack an entirely instrumental version of the album in with the CD. Pelagial is a brilliant exhibition in instrumentation, but it becomes an interesting album thanks to the concept, lyricism and most importantly, vocals. Loïc Rossetti's health problems were a concern during recording of the album, but his recovery and the band's decision to include vocals in the final product may be one of the luckiest turns of fate and one of the best decisions this band has ever made. It's one of the finest Metal albums released in recent memory - we've been short of them lately - and a frontrunner for album of the year. The Ocean are masters of their craft and Pelagial reiterates that.


Thursday, 18 July 2013

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