By now, The Ocean occupy one of the most illustrious points in a contemporary metal band’s career. They took part in the birth of their genre, namely post metal, rose with its exploding and wide spread appeal, and then survived its inevitable decline in popularity. Throughout it all, The Ocean were one of the more interesting bands to occupy the niche; never quite resting, the band continued to push the boundaries of their music. From the controversial, but ultimately prescient, sea-change (get it) on Heliocentric and Anthropocentric (both from 2010) through the culmination of their new style on Pelagial (2013) and all the way to Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic (2018), The Ocean have successfully morphed into a whole new band, brooding, heavy, and contemplative.
But, the question begs itself: what next? While Phanerozoic II : Mesozoic | Cenozoic (henceforth referred to as Phanerozoic II in this review) is obviously a conceptual sequel to 2018’s release, will the musical direction be kept? Namely, will we once again face The Ocean in a heavier, slower, and more mellow mood than Pelagial, discarding that album’s frenetic progressive edge for something even more cavernous and atmospheric? The answer is both yes and no and therein the problems of the album being. You see, Phanerozoic II is an album made of two different sounds. One can already be described as tried and true, since it continues the direction that we heard on Phanerozoic I. But the other is far more electronic, reminding us of the cleaner sections on Gojira‘s latest releases or VOLA‘s use of vocal effects and synths.
The thing is that (much like Gojira, by the by) this more brooding and electronic sound is not really The Ocean’s forte, and it shows. It shows the worse for being so prominent on the album; Phanerozoic II‘s opener, “Triassic”, has this sound all over it. It begins with a Nordic progressive metal influenced passage, reminding us of something from Pain of Salvation‘s Road Salt perhaps or Remedy Lane, a drawn out ambient passages nonetheless revolving around prominent drums. But this passage is not really interesting and, what’s more, it abruptly ends when the track proper begins. Then the vocals come in, with their vocoder like effect. It’s not just that the effect is tacky (it is) but also that the lyrics and the overall atmosphere of the track just doesn’t use it well. It ends up sounding gimmicky instead of convincing.
Of course, things quickly explode into The Ocean’s heaviness and, when they do, they improve remarkably. But then the clean vocals and their accompanying instruments return and, plodding along, rob the track of any energy that was being built by the heavier passages. It takes the next track, “Jurassic | Cretaceous” to dispel this haphazard beginning. It’s first riff is a monster, here backed by a properly used electronic backing line. The synths and pianos are perfectly tailored to augment its heaviness, creating one of the most convincing The Ocean tracks we’ve heard in a long while. The Nordic prog influences continue; this would not be out of place on Leprous‘s Coal. The cleaner vocals are also used much better here, blending in with the heavier instruments to create a brooding and sinister vibe that works perfectly with the rest of the track, exploding on the chorus with a very satisfying and emotive crunch to them. Continuing along these lines for around thirteen minutes, “Jurassic | Cretaceous” is a massively excellent track that speaks to The Ocean’s song-writing ability and the potential hidden in this new sound of theirs.
But that’s the thing: it’s hidden. There are more tracks like “Triassic” on this album than there are “Jurassic | Cretaceous”. “Eocene” for example is once again meandering and lackluster. We can see what the band were trying to achieve here but there are just bands that are way more equipped to carry this more ambient and electronic vibe to fruition. The Ocean’s goal is clear: we can close our eyes and charitably imagine their destination but they don’t reach out on this album and that’s a shame. Naturally, the band trying new sounds is a good thing; we’re not opposed to the move in itself. But it feels like this album would have benefited from more work, work which would have elevated the basically good ideas in these new sounds into something more fully realized and executed.
All of that being said, Phanerozoic II is not a bad album exactly and, as we just said, the band are to be lauded for exploring new ideas, moods, and themes in their music. But where The Ocean use their foundational sound to channel these new ideas, the difference in quality is marked. Basically, listening to “Jurassic | Cretaceous” puts the rest of the album to shame. Here, you can hear how the new ideas are melded with the old, the band working on past strengths and success to reach further into new territories. Elsewhere, these explorations feel abruptly shunted, closed off and shipped before they could really come to fruition. Perhaps in the future, with more time and articulation of what they’re going for, The Ocean can pull this style off; the potential and talent are certainly all there. They just need to better understand how this next protean move plays out, introducing the shift in a more holistic and fully realized way.
The Ocean’s Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic sees release on September 25th. You can head on over to the Bandcamp page above to pre-order it.