Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Album Review: The Ocean - Pelagial

Album Rating: A
In the wake of The Ocean’s polarizing duo Heliocentric and Anthropocentric, its next album was bound to be a make-or-break affair. Pelagial arrives on the heels of two and half years of hand-wringing, lukewarm positivity, and general bewilderment over its immediate predecessors. After Precambrian (2007) capitalized on The Ocean’s ability to meld atmospheric and brutal songwriting to critical acclaim, bandleader Robin Staps broke up the Collective in favor of a stable lineup. It turned out some growing pains were in order: 2010’s Heliocentric showcased new singer Loic Rossetti’s dynamic voice, but often subjected its audience to awkward lyrical concepts and ballads that hung their new singer out to dry. Seven months later, Anthropocentric showcased a tighter and heavier sound , but otherwise did little to dissuade the trepidation of many fans. With Pelagial, those fears about the Ocean’s future can finally be laid to rest.

Based around the very cool concept of descending through the ocean, Pelagial feels more natural than anything else by the new lineup. Staps’ original idea was to start with a clean, ambient “surface” feel and move steadily towards a “distorted and abrasive sound for the doomy depth-passages at the end of the album”. Indeed, the serene major-chord piano of “Epipelagic” sets a tone unlike anything in The Ocean’s catalogue, despite seascape sounds that otherwise whisper of Fluxion’s opener, “Nazca”. The early song arrangements are much more open than Anthropocentric’s, as heavily-panned strings and splashing cymbals give a backdrop to Luc Hess’ clean rim-tapping and fleet double-bass work. The first proper song, “Mesopelagic: The Uncanny,” writhes and shimmers with Cloudkicker-esque rhythmic precision, creating some of the band’s most intriguing instrumental work since Precambrian. Speaking of Precambrian, fans of that album will notice the similar naming formula here: each song is titled according to an ocean layer, followed by an epithet addressing the lyrics. Further Precambrian comparisons surface as Pelagial passes through the Hadean-rooted “Hadopelagic”, gaining visceral momentum even as it grinds to an abyssal crawl.

It would be somewhat misleading to call Pelagial a smooth journey downward. Fifteen minutes in, “Bathyalpelagic III: Disequillibrated” hits like a tidal wave of blast beats and harsh vocals, and wouldn’t sound out of place on Aeolian. On the other hand, “Hadopelagic II: Let Them Believe”, appearing near the end of the album, spans a huge dynamic spectrum over its nine minutes. Wavering between gentle, jazzy instrumental work and layered choruses, the song is based on syncopated 6/8 time (often accented by Hess as 2/4) interspersed with Rossetti’s gritty singing, before changing key and bursting into a climax of harsh vocals and heavy tom rolls. The slow-burning guitar chords of “Demersal: Cognitive Dissonance” are straight out of Precambrian’s “Mount Sorrow”, backed by gurgling organ and throaty bass lines, something sorely lacking on the last two albums. The expedition wraps up as promised, pounding the listener with doom-metal riffing as “Benthic: The Origin of Our Wishes” impersonates an enormous beast taking its last steps. It’s certainly the most suffocating sound The Ocean has yet conjured up, and feels at least seven bleak miles of ocean away from “Epipelagic”.

Of course, the most contentious part of The Ocean’s makeover has been its new singer. Pelagial features Rossetti’s strongest vocal performances yet, as he easily intertwines singing with mid-range screams to give songs added punch and, ahem, depth. Perhaps hardcore Meta fans who wrote The Ocean off upon hearing “Ptolemy Was Wrong” will give Rossetti his due after a strong showing here; he may not have the most earth-shaking screams, but there’s something to be said for his particularly intelligible harsh delivery. With that being said, Pelagial was conceived as an instrumental album, and has moments where the vocals sound added-on -- the rhythms are often so dense that there just isn’t room in the mix for them. Somewhere in the songwriting process, however, the band had change of heart; in an otherwise pro-instrumental interview, Staps opined that, “Vocalists are easier to idolize than drummers, and as absurd as this may seem with growls, they do conjure the individuals in the crowd in an emotional way and establish a deeper connection with them.” So there’s a case to be made both ways, and If you do prefer the instrumental version, Pelagial’s unpredictable and dynamic songwriting allows it to more than stand on its own.

Pelagial is intended to be a journey experienced in a complete listen, and as far as concept albums go, The Ocean has largely hit the nail on the head. Fans who are new to the band will find the album’s creative breadth intriguing, while long-time followers should be satisfied by the return of Staps’ ace songwriting chops and Rossetti’s continued improvement as the band’s vocalist. After years of reassuring ourselves that Staps is still the guy who wrote Fluxion and Precambrian, The Ocean’s overhaul is finally paying major dividends. Pelagial has the reconfigured band firing on all cylinders for the first time, and if it’s any indicator of future releases, then The Ocean still have a lot to say about the future of progressive metal.

The Ocean Official Website

The Ocean on Facebook

Track Listing:

1. Epipelagic

2. Mesopelagic: The Uncanny
3. Bathyalpelagic I: Impasses
4. Bathyalpelagic II: The Wish in Dreams
5. Bathyalpelagic III: Disequillibrated
6. Abyssopelagic I: Boundless Vasts
7. Abyssopelagic II: Signals of Anxiety
8. Hadopelagic I: Omen of the Deep
9. Hadopelagic II: Let Them Believe
10. Demersal: Cognitive Dissonance
11. Benthic: The Origin of Our Wishes

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