The Ocean’s new album Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic is out now via Pelagic Records.
Evolution and change are a process that many bands must encounter during their lifetime. Responding to factors both internally and externally will often shape how they go forward. Whether they are anticipated or unexpected. How many would have anticipated the circumstances in which we find ourselves in this year for instance? They may be serious to cause them to break up and go their own way. Others can see veritable calm within the camp despite all that rages around them. Band members may come and go but the ship remains afloat amidst stormy waters. It was a template which was used by many of the original jazz and blues bands for instance. An ever-revolving cast with a bandleader steering events onwards. Most of our favourite metal and rock bands contained line-ups considered to ‘the classic version’. Many others have seen band members come and go on a regular basis. Not many can make it work though.
One who has is German post-metallers, The Ocean. Or The Ocean Collective as they became to be known to describe their almost constant turn-over in members since their formation almost twenty years ago. To go through their various past members would be an exhaustive process. The sole person to continue during it all has been guitarist Robin Staps. Blending instrumental releases on some, atmospheric approaches on others and harsh brutality with more, they soon began to make a name for themselves. ‘Fluxion’ and ‘Aeolian’ marked them as one of the more cerebral outfits on the scene at the time. ‘Precambrian’ was another step forward and their tour with Opeth and Cynic helped them a wider audience. Two releases in 2010, Heliocentric and Anthropocentric, saw them switch gears to a critique of man’s place in the universe and the idea that the earth revolved around sun in contrast to perceived standards at the time. Phanerozoic I: Paleozoic focused on the period of time in which lifeforms began to develop in the ancient seas and oceans prior to their arrival on land. It saw the origin of many mammals, fish, and amphibians in history. It was noted by some of the band’s more streamlined offerings and more cohesive between the individual tracks.
But of course, following up on that is not going to be an easy prospect. The album is essentially a concept album based upon the two periods in the world’s history. It lies between the timescale after ‘Precambrian’ and before that of ‘Heliocentric/Antropocentric’. The first being the era in which the earth was populated by the dinosaurs and the second being the epochs after the massive extinction event which occurred in the aftermath of the meteor hitting the planet. Mammals began to evolve and grow as the earth shifted along its tectonic plates. This caused various other extinctions as volcanic activity resulted and temperatures became increasingly warmer and colder. It eventually came to the period in history in which we as a species begun to spread out amongst the various continents that had emerged and became the predominant governors. Unfortunately, throughout this time we have been directly and indirectly responsible for the mass extinctions of many other species. And we have now arrived at a critical point in history where unless we heed the warnings, we could bring about our own demise. This is only if we are willing to listen and not be arrogant enough to believe in our own immortality.
But as shown in the opening pair of lengthy offerings, ‘Triassic’ and ‘Jurassic-Cretaceous’ (over 8 and 13 minutes) resistance against it still remains. Vocalist Loïc Rossetti proclaims: “You feel so disconnected and yes I get it/But there is no point in further confrontation dysfunctional communication” and “With your patronising condescending brand of self-modesty”. In allusions towards the climactic final days of the reign of the dinosaurs “Truth long known for/The World we know will go down in flames/Lie Awake/It won’t be long”. It seemed inconceivable for their reign to come to an end, but they were unable to adapt and change in time in response to a crisis. The apocalyptical refrain of “With the blink of an eye/Wiped off the face of the earth” says it all. His preference towards clean vocals have been criticised by some despite his tenure in the band. However, his display demonstrates how far he has developed being able to switch to from clean to harsh effortlessly. In ‘Jurassic-Cretaceous’, he is assisted by Jonas Renske of Katatonia who provides a capable backdrop to the dramatic conclusion. Despite the length of both pieces, enough variety and shade exist to keep the interest up. The weight on his vocals is shown for all to hear on ‘Palaeocene’. It is in keeping with the overall mood of the song as emphasis is placed more on the heavier side of affairs. Certainly, having a nod towards the sludge/hardcore aspect. The anger is displayed with “Walk away from the path that was never there”.
But for all the passion and fury on show, there is also moments of beauty, lament, and weariness. ‘Eocene’ contains some lovely melodic guitar lines and meticulous drumming. The mood exemplified by “And this is how it ends/Everything’s been said/Purified and calm/Look at me before you turn around”. The period in question being regarded as having one of the largest mass extinction events involving marine and aquatic life. It was attributed to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The sombre mood also flows into ‘Oligocene’. A mainly instrumental piece orchestrated well with the synths, keys and drums meshing well together. Its sparse atmosphere perhaps summing up the isolation and emptiness of the time. As apes first evolved during the ‘Miocene/Pliocene’ era in the expanding grasslands in Africa, it is reflected in the ‘The World around you/Got more complete’ lyrics. The turbulence during this is demonstrated as a slow and careful drum beat suddenly leads into an explosion of power and tempo.
As the familiar refrains of synth opening up on ‘Pleistocene’ with the sounds of warning signals, combined with a dependable drumbeat, a new aspect makes its presence felt. Strings begin to emerge with their low, deep and sorrowful nature. It adds a different depth to the track which perhaps had been absent on some of the others. While they play away in the background, the keys, guitar and bass combine well at the same time. The mournful sense is also expressed in the lyrics “You got yourself too close to the abyss/And no-one of the closed ones around/How the flickering faded from your eyes”. A guitar lick pre-empts a full-blown eruption with all involved. Some of the time signatures and riffing are most impressive. This era was more commonly known as the ice age and the dark, bleak terrain is mirrored in the playing. It eventually led to a massive extinction event as the larger mammals found their food sources increasingly difficult to thrive on. Our distant relatives, the Neanderthals, also found it increasingly difficult. And finally, we arrive at the most recent era. ‘Holocene’ has been a relative moment in time compared to the extent of some of the others. In around 12,000 years we have spread throughout the entire world, built up civilisations, set out frameworks for law and order, the development of religious beliefs, created many different ground-breaking tools and inventions, engaged in wars of trade and colonialisation and much more. The air of uncertainty still prevails. An oppressive sounding synth opens up affairs with mainly clean vocals. “You fear nothing/But see the leaves are black and frozen”. Keys appear into the mix prior to more gorgeous strings arriving. In a link back to the beginning, the “You feel so disconnected” line reappears. In a sense to demonstrate the precarious nature we find ourselves in. How our future ends are left in doubt as it fades away to the end with the synths, drums and bass.
Definitely an ambitious and bold album to set out to make and to conclude the second part of this planned opus. And contains enough moments to satisfy the listener. But does it fulfil what they set out to do? Well yes and no. Much praise has to be given for the pivotal role of producing and mixed by Jens Bogren who has made the album sound wonderfully. The unique little moments throughout are given enough space to shine through and be heard. Peter Voightmann on the keys and Seidel on drums are both integral to the overall sound. The former afforded particular importance in the orchestration of many of the individual tracks whilst the latter proves to be the catalyst for many of the direction changes. Rossetti’s vocals are blended to be almost an instrument in themselves. He proves to be shining star But, frustratingly, it slightly falls short of achieving what they had set out for it. As good as the synth work is, is it to the detriment of the guitars and bass at times. They blend well with the rest of the instruments but seldom get their own breakout moments. It creates plenty of very enjoyable passages but lacks those truly mind-blowing pieces to make it ground-breaking. They have shown their ability to take on massive concepts in the past. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.