Nature is not only an archetype; it is the mother of all archetypes, a kind of overarching category for ideas that run the gamut from frightening, soothing, parental, scathing, looming, and infinitesimal. Among these can be counted such mainstays as homeostasis, the kind of effortless and delicate balance a lot of us seem to strive for and be denied of again and again, the fate of humanity in the face of the massiveness of the natural world and, perhaps more so then anything, the eternal return. At the root of most of the ideas we have about nature, and the ways in which we use them to tell stories, there is this para-temporal concept of the recurring, endless, eternal, and timeless stoicism of nature, whether it be cliffs looking down on crashing waves, forests breathing in eons in a valley or the earth’s very rotation, apathetic to our plights on top of its thin skin.
What band better wields these ideas than The Ocean (Collective)? Through song titles, album names, and lyrics, The Ocean have been weaving the magic of the constantly rotating, forever return nature of, well, nature itself into their metal, creating some of the most emotional, accomplished, and innovative post metal out there. More than that, the band have infused their very discography with the idea of circles within circles, dividing their music into cycles which go and then come back again, defying the narrative of chronological, linear progression. This is important to understand when approaching Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic (hence referred to as Phanerozoic in this review) in order to avoid a pitfall that comes before we’ve either written one word or listened to one note. This pitfall comes to us in the form of a question: is this album a continuation of Pelagial?
This question is a pitfall because it has no right answers; the question itself is a mistake since it posits a “yes” or “no” reply. The reality is that Phanerozoic, much like a lot of the rest of The Ocean’s discography, defies such a simple chart of progression. In many ways, it is very much an album which succeeds Pelagial; you’ll find the kind of monolithic chord/piano combinations that you did on that album, setting off that atmosphere of oceanic depth and brutally cold waters. You’ll also recognize much in the way of drum tone and composition, deep, resounding hits and feather-light cymbal touches creating the kind of dynamic, agile fills and lines that made Pelagial so good. Likewise the harsh vocals, which have the same depth and strength of delivery that have always characterized The Ocean’s approach to them.
But in other ways, Phanerozoic (which is, remember, a part of a double album, with the second installment to be released in 2020) draws its inspirations and thematics from Precambrian and especially from the moody, second part of that album, Proterozoic (note the similarity in the names and the album covers). Back are the myriad electronic sounds and symphonic elements, baked right into the composition, like on the spectacular “Silurian: Age of Sea Scorpions”, one of the best tracks on the album. The atmosphere they create is often a less aggressive one than Pelagial (and certainly less aggressive than Aeolian for example) but also one that is much more emotionally devastating for all of that since it hits on multiple emotional fronts. Make no mistake; the huge chords are still here but they are backed up by more sleek, dark, and electronic influences that do much to set the contrast between the two elements alight, setting the stage impeccably for the vocal delivery.
Let’s talk about this vocal delivery; much more than on Pelagial and again paying tribute to Proterozoic, the clean vocals play a major role in this release. Working mostly in tandem with the more somber, melancholic passages, they sing a kind of desperate, emotional vibe into the music which facilitates much of what The Ocean has always been about, namely moving their lyrics and themes from the natural world and into the personal. They are perhaps the single largest appeal which Phanerozoic brings to the table; they’re not necessarily better in and of themselves than in the past, but their role in the composition is way deeper than relief from heavier passages or large, out of this world choruses. When brought together with the strings, synths, and more umbral passages, they create their own, magically enticing role which siren-songs you into the emotional abysses of the album. This kind of vibe is the sense in which this album is the “missing link”, the gap between Phanerozoic and Heliocentric / Anthropocentric, the albums which started them on their “modern” phase. The link is in the mood, in the vocal delivery, in the possibility of what lies between light and heavy.
Speaking of clean vocals, we would be incredibly remiss if we didn’t mention the brilliant Jonas Renkse (Katatonia) and his guest spot on “Devonian: Nascent” (a guest spot which, famously, was always meant for Precambrian alongside the other many illustrious guest spots on that album). His work on the opening and middle passages is simply brilliant, his unique timbre perfectly melding with the other clean vocals on the album. Which is, perhaps, the best indicator of what Phanerozoic is going for, the type of mood it tries to cast; it’s The Ocean by way of Katatonia, aggressive and progressive post-metal blending with the eerie vibes of those masters of darkness, of the bleak lyric and emotional catharsis. The result might not be what a lot of us expected The Ocean to do next after Pelagial but it reminds us that thinking that we know what this band is up to next is probably a mistake; their rhythm is deep and natural but, like nature itself, contains an element of mystery, of the unexpected. Whatever it goes next, it’s sure to be excellent; Phanerozoic further proves that The Ocean are pretty much unparalleled in what they do, however they do it.
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The Ocean Collective’s Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic will see release on the 2nd of November 2018 via the prestigious Metal Blade and Pelagic Records. Head on over to the Bandcamp link above to pre-order it. See you at the bottom.