There’s a contradiction at the heart of music: no matter what label gets slapped on it, we want something that speaks to our own shared experiences, that echoes something deep within our intangible soul and speaks to personal experience, to feel we are not alone and that someone, somewhere understands; a general feeling that hits the primal pleasure centre of our brains. And then there’s the other side, where we want to glimpse something bigger and more grandiose than ourselves, to marvel at a work that’s grand in scope and execution, almost too much to take in at one listen, something that we need to come back to reassess and review, and still have something to unearth on each listen. While most bands usually lean one way or the other, there’s very few bands that can combine both to maximum effect. And one of those bands is The Ocean, who for nigh on two decades have combined both those elements into an all-encompassing aural experience. Listening back to The Ocean’s latest album suggests that, even with scientific rigour, there is no real way to measure guitarist and main songwriter Robin Staps’ ambitions. Just feeding all the various track titles into an encyclopaedic medium of your choice could lead you to losing days or even weeks, reading about extinctions, evolution and more extinctions on a time scale which is unimaginable to a species that is still a speck of near-insignificance on a geographical timescale. What better material to draw on for a progressive metal album?
Picking up from where predecessor ‘Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic’ left off, its follow-up is a tight, taut breed of post-metal that draws you in and never lets you go. Comparisons to other bands can fly around like dust dancing in the wind; this is The Ocean after all, and now others trail in their wake. There’s the atmospheric churn of Katatonia, the progressive ambition of Opeth filtered through a post-hardcore intensity. Opener ‘Triassic’ is a multi-faceted opener, layering key changes, rhythmic running vocal lines and swooping waves of guitar building intensity into a several breaks before a thrilling finale. And that’s just one track. With nary a crack to be seen in the follow-on to the staccato palm-muted ‘Jurassic | Cretaceous’, sounding like it came from the same grungy material that Porcupine Tree grew on, but with a layer of triumphal brass mixed in with a full-throated roar and a grunge-twisted-by-Tool finale that pushes the climatic event as far as it can before, and then some more.
Such is the magnificence of The Ocean, pulling together elements into a seamless record without sounding disjointed or gimmicky; a jazz bass interlude on ‘Palaocene’, the chiming lock-step vocal lines of ‘Eocene’ easing into the synth-rock of ‘Oligocene’ and building into the incredible precession of finely controlled throat abuse that is ‘Miocene | Pliocene’, that echoes Neurosis and Katatonia’s brooding intensity. With this level of intensity there must be contrast, and the second half is carried on a bed of melancholic strings and warming synths, as ‘Holocene’ closes out the album perfectly with musical motifs that echo the opening ‘Triassic’. Visceral and cerebral have never combined to such effect that ‘Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic’ might possibly be The Ocean’s best album yet.
‘Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic’ is out now via Metal Blade