2018’s Phanezoic I: Palaeozoic from The Ocean was a challenging album that gradually gleaned my affections over time becoming more and more infectious. Perhaps I should first provide a disclaimer: I am extremely discerning when it comes to Prog-centered material. While I won’t go into the full specifics about the tragic, lingering childhood accident whilst listening to Marillion that contributed to this affliction, suffice to say, I’ve taken the joke far enough. For those unfamiliar, The Ocean is a German band whose debut album was back in 2004 with Fluxion. Since then, the band have released seven full-length follow-ups including their latest, Phanezoic II: Mesozoic/Cenozoic. 2009 was the turning point in the band’s career as they replaced former lead singer Mike Pilat with current front man Loïc Rossetti. The following year saw the band debut two full lengths with Rossetti and they have been on a roll ever since. For those with trepidation over the Prog label know that this is a band that leans more to the experimental in songwriting and instrumentation to fully explore their creativity to the benefit of the song rather than endlessly trading off solos and making the music complex for the sake of showing off. No, The Ocean are progressive in that their ideas are far ahead of the rest of the pack and in their ability to create a gripping experience for the listener.
The most fitting word to describe the experience of listening to The Ocean is immersion. This is on full display with this lead track. Beginning with an ethereal, heady mellow stance decorated by those kinds of crystal clean guitar chords that seem to hang indefinitely suspended in the air, there is a palpable sense of mystery. The interplay of unique guitar chords, atmospheric keyboards, and vanguard bass lines develops the ideas with plodding efficacy. When things get heavy, the band switch to a very abrasive, engaging distortion and the music swings with a heavy groove. This is but a taste of the engaging immersion conjured forth here, an epic, auspicious start to what has turned out to be an album that captures the sound of this moment in time, that feeling underpinning our culture, a demon to be exorcised and an enchantress to succumb to.
Rossetti performs his role as master of ceremonies to perfection. His is a voice that ranges from soft introspection to melodic boldness to growling tenacity. Dynamics are so very vital to writing songs that make lasting impressions. While I love the extremes of Metal, The Ocean are a band that cannot afford to be limited. With such a prescient, liberating position, the band leaves the potential scope of their work to be unbound by predetermined dimensions. Thus, The Ocean is indeed very much a Prog band, just more in the tradition of a band like Isis or Intronaut than a Dream Theater or Symphony X. That is just a nudge in their general direction, though, because The Ocean do not sound like anyone else.
As the album plays on, I cannot help but ponder the potential success of this band. Theirs is a sound that they have refined meticulously over the years. The success of other bands with a similar ethos is encouraging as well. A great example is the second track, “Jurassic/Cretaceoux,” over thirteen-minutes long, yet one becomes so engaged whilst listening that it does not seem anywhere near that long. The vibe is truly heavy with this track decorated by sci-fi enthused synths and driven by a powerful rhythmic sensibility. The vocals were what truly sell the song, as Rossetti cold seriously be all over the radio with his infectious croon. Add the courage to resist limitations and restrictions, a willingness to experiment with instrumentation such as brass, and the sensational haunting ending and after all that, if Tool is still your favorite band, then you are just missing out.
The ambition that drives the songwriting is added to the production as well. “Palaeocene,” the third track, is a fitting illustration of the true expanse of the sound. The first half of the track is a more triggered, aggressive approach. The guitar sound is monolithic as the interweaving of the tracks gives an almost orchestral vibe. There is abundant experimentation vocally as well with layered screams delivering a feral brutality. Throughout this track and indeed the entirety of the album, the percussion is clean and crisp able to fittingly move the music forward. The Ocean do not diminish the importance of the bass either affording it a prominent role in the mix as well as a chance to distinguish itself by exploring myriad tones from tight, punchy mids to big, booming clank. Impressive synth work proves the final glaze to this sound adding a fuller atmosphere from neon cyberpunk vibes to enthralling, lush moods.
With this latest album, The Ocean have created something to truly blow away anyone’s preconceptions. One cannot help but feel the pulsing heart that beats through this music. Even tracks like the instrumental fifth song, “Oligocene,” make a lasting impression with an absorbing enchantment. There is a soundtrack quality to that track that reveals that dimension of their sound to those previously unaware. Moments remind me of experiences as disparate as the rainy noir of Ulver, the experimentation combined with blatant Pop sensibility of Faith No More, and the spirit of exploration that drove the best moments of Pink Floyd. Metal Blade have a huge roster that includes a wealth of talent, but this album has a scope to transcend being easily classified. Beyond that, the success of bands like Periphery, Opeth, and Devin Townsend shows there is a huge audience for this genre. Ultimately, the point is that The Ocean exhibit a tempered yet revolutionary approach to heavy music, one which could reach a massive audience and simply deserves to be heard. The songs on their own are all the highest quality but in total, they comprise a hallucinating elixir of vitality and discovery.