For twenty-three years, Germany’s progressive and post-metal act The Ocean, aka The Ocean Collective, under the steely guidance of guitarist and songwriter Robin Staps, has waded in murky waters mixing intelligence, beauty and brutality using a revolving cast of members in the search to refine sonic perfection.
Third album Precambrian, based on the early period in the earth’s formation, kick-started a fine run of geological inspiration that culminated in Phanerozoic I & II that they also released as the jaw-dropping live collection on the back of Pandemic Era crowd-less shows. Those unfamiliar should immerse themselves in that project before starting on Holocene, the closing chapter of their palaeontology-inspired album series.
Over the course of the previous releases, starting with the ambitious Pelagial, the band introduced more electronic and expansive techniques that, by the time Phanzerozoic II comes to a close, had seen a deliberate and precise shifting of their sound, seeing them experiment with light and shade, melody and philosophical constructs to balance the savage bludgeon of old. The softer, muted, downbeat end to the second album, itself called Holocene, leaves the listener with a sombre, unease at the passing of the geological age.
The opening track Preboreal begins with the exact light and dancing electronica that concluded the previous release, joining the two thematically as they continue their journey. When the live instruments kick in to back Loïc Rossetti’s plaintive searching vocals, this is no heavy crash, but a poised and delicate melody that meanders in thoughtfulness with mixes of brass as the sound swells and grows in restrained power rather than smash and strain against the concept to give the sense of growing power.
Boreal begins in very much the same way (in fact, fans of the bands snarling, seismic roar will have to be patient and wait until the fourth track before they let off the handbrake) as the synth and beats of Peter Voigtmann which formed part of the initial inspiration for the music, underpin Staps guitar accents.
As the mid-paced stomp begins to open up for the impassioned Rossetti to plead over multi-layered harmonies, The Ocean are creating a different kind of heavy with Holocene. In the past, they have channelled anger like a charging rhino, but here they are dense and suffocating and when Loïc soars with his unique vocal inflexions to give life to the words, it feels like they stick the knife in deep and twist it.
This warmth of sound on Seed Of Reeds feels like it belongs in the back catalogue of Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails as the stripped-down, mournful lullabies are led by the vocals into a hazy, music box-like track. Members of their audience may pine for the massive walls of riffs of old, but the band have been shrewd in their ability to grow and articulate concepts such as the rise of conspiracy theories and deconstruction of modern values as well as raging against angst and loss. These ideas hit harder when given the space to breathe amidst the chaos.
Holocene is an ambitious piece of work earning its rightful place in a back catalogue that has become a far-reaching exploration of a deeper narrative…
Atlantic starts with dub beats and slow electronics, building in urgency with flourishes and a stop-start rhythm that rises and pulls back, delaying that moment of gratification as they play around the hook of ‘How can you say that you love me when all that you seek is retaliation’. Then they finally let go as Paul Seidel’s drums smash, bassist Mattias Hägerstrand hammers the strings whilst Stap and Åhfeldt glance off each other and the real first sound of the crushing menace comes into sight, just stopping short of ultimate catharsis and teasing the guttural roar in the tracks dying moment.
The hypnotic beats return, with the vocals whispering in shamanic fashion on Subboreal, until the main body clashes with the guitars and drums trading back and forth against the trip-hop verses. Not to be outdone, those pining for the guttural drama and savagery of past releases get the payoff here as finally, against crashing double bass and walls of harsh riffing, Rossetti screams with anger and frustration and you can almost hear the veins standing out on his neck.
Featuring industrial pop motifs, angling riffs and shuffling drums, Unconformities showcases the rich voice of Norwegian singer Karin Park. The deep pulsing rhythm conjures an urgent, aching sense of loss that sees the band at its most accessible as they tug at the heartstrings, immersing you completely in the performance. The longest track on the album utilises reoccurring themes and explodes into frantic churning and feral barking from the frontman. Despite starting as light as anything they have ever done, it ends with full force, recalling the split personality that seemed to conclude Phanerozoic II and ties this as an appendix to the preceding epoch-based three.
Mezzanine era Massive Attack sounds remerge on Parabiosis and the lyrics return to the contemplative, resurrecting themes from previous dalliances, the band draw comparisons to Tool on the changing patterns, chords and vocal techniques as the momentum rises and falls with long ringing moments of lush tones or heavy chugging. Despite this heady concoction of instrumentation, the mix is perfectly delivered by none other than Karl Daniel Lidén who handles the dense and complex sound perfectly allowing each tiny nuance to counterbalance the contrasting elements.
Concluding with the delicate to heavy atmospherics of Subatlanic, the final entry is moody and slower paced, littered with edgy electronics and uneasy melody. Very much a striking attempt to dissect the real-life human experiences of the past few years, The Ocean round off their tenth album in twenty years in suitably dramatic style.
Holocene is an ambitious piece of work earning its rightful place in a back catalogue that has become a far-reaching exploration of a deeper narrative, seeking to examine the human psyche, the evolution of creation and how the changes of time erode us as a species, backdropped by musical invention that seeks to challenge and redefine our experiences.
Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden