Release Date: 2nd November 2018
Label: Metal Blade Records
Progressive metal bands sure do love natural history, don’t they? Whether it be Gojira devoting an album to sea life, or Mastodon tackling a different element with each album, it’s commonplace for the subject matter of modern progressive bands to explore ‘the bigger picture’. Throughout their career, German metallers The Ocean have focussed (and by focussed, I mean cover extensively) the history of the earth, and this continues on their latest release, Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic.
A quick google reveals that the Phanerozoic eon is the time period in which plants and animals coexisted (the time period we are in now and have been for the last 541 million years), and that Palaeozoic is the earliest of three sub-eras of said eon, when the first complex life forms began to develop and inhabit the surface. Seeing as The Ocean have a penchant for creating two-parter albums, it’s a safe bet that Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic is the first in a trilogy of releases (fingers crossed, as the next sub-era is about dinosaurs).
The song titles are named after the six time periods in the Palaeozoic era, and accordingly the album opens with the short intro track, ‘The Cambrian Explosion’. Consisting of spacey textures and pulses of keyboards, the ‘explosion’ doesn’t occur until the following track when the full band enter (distorted guitars and all), but motifs are established in a ‘less metal’ fashion, providing the listener with some calm before the ensuing metal attack. Equally, intro tracks can serve as a warning – you’re about to listen to a prog album; be careful!
With second track (‘Cambrian II: Eternal Recurrence’, of course) in full swing, the band have crafted a massive post-metal sound. Solid production with expansive guitar chords and a focus on textures rather than catchy riffs create a powerful and imposing sound one might associate with genre pioneers Isis or Cult Of Luna. Seeing as it has been five years since their last release due to line-up adjustments (the band operate with songwriter/guitarist/producer Robin Staps as the brains of the operation and a revolving door of musicians), it has been easy to overlook the German collective’s contribution to the subgenre. But seven albums in, with another two presumably soon to follow, The Ocean deserve to be mentioned alongside Isis, Cult Of Luna and Neurosis as the greats of post-metal.
As with most bands of this style, the vocals form another layer of the music, rather than the hook that attracts an audience. In fact, the band’s previous album was almost instrumental, and instrumental versions of the record were released. This approach to songwriting continues on Phanerozoic, with extended instrumental passages enabling the listener to take in all the layers presented. Four out of seven tracks exceed the seven minute mark, with the instrumentation ranging from weighty low end riffing to piano driven interludes. When the vocals are present, they’ll often consist of sustained growls forming a basic rhythm, in an effort to not steal the limelight. Vocalist Loïc Rossetti, who has been with the band for the last three releases, is convincing in his delivery of post-metal roars and clean singing during the quieter passages, but occasionally the instrumentalists are not as successful. ‘Silurian: Age of Sea Scorpions’ (they’re not making it easy for themselves with these song names, are they?) transitions from a Deftones-esque pattern into a piano led mid-section, with some cello thrown in for good measure, but the drums persist with an almost heavy-handed rock approach to playing. A valiant effort at genre bending no doubt, but it does lead to a missed opportunity in displaying a greater range of dynamics across the album.
As the album draws to an end, penultimate track ‘The Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse’ demonstrates how instrumental tracks can succeed without relying on technical wizardry or, *shudder*, clean guitars and mucking around with a delay pedal. The album finale ‘Permian: The Great Dying’ may not be the strongest track on this record, seeing as no new ground is covered by the end, but provides a solid conclusion to this musical suite. Driven by a sludgy bass sound, the track ventures through a plethora of varied instrumentation, leaving the listener ready for the next Phanerozoic instalment.
Throughout their career, The Ocean have failed to reach the heights the genre’s forerunners achieved. With the likes of Conjurer, Black Peaks and other new bands focussing on developing dynamics and crafting whole albums rather than a collection of songs, the post-metal posse may have a new audience waiting for them. Yes this may not be the strongest album the Ocean have released, and judging the first part of the Phanerozoic saga on its own it isn’t the most ambitious, but with such a solid back catalogue, they’ll be in for a treat with their new discovery.
Recommended Track: Ordovicium: The Glaciation Of Gondwana