Monday, May 6, 2013

The Ocean - Pelagial (2013)

I confess, German five piece The Ocean had always been a mystery to me. I'd heard their albums, seen videos of their detailed live performances. But for one reason or another, it had never truly clicked for me. It wasn't that I didn't "get it;" I saw the appeal, and why people had been singing their praises for years around me. But the music hadn't ever struck me in that profound way that it had everyone else. It hadn't. But time goes by, and things change. Sometime in 2010, a disc titled "Anthropocentric" found its way onto my desk. And suddenly, it all made sense. Their crushing distortion, burgeoning melodies and incredibly detailed production work hit me like a Buick, leaving dents in my skull, and a craving for more. Their back catalog became part of my rotation, their discs part of my collection. And just like that, I was initiated into those who knew. The stories were rich, as they are on "Pelagial," and the music echoed that. With this new album, you go deeper; literally following the band deeper into the waters. Each level has a new sound, and  a new tone. Until you reach the black.

The bubbling waters and serene piano keys that welcome you to "Epipelagic" are enchanting, to say the least. You would be well within your rights to expect Jacques Cousteau to emerge for his trademark narration. And yet, somehow, you won't be disappointed when it never happens. The smallest of ideas laid out there begin to bubble forth on "Mesopelagic: Into the Uncanny," with the first spacial melodies coming through the use of guitars and strings. The heart of the track is a finely crafted piece of melodic post metal, driven by guitar but rooted in an expansive set of percussion. It isn't until the vocals enter, however, that you witness the full scope of things to come. Vocalist Loic Rossetti lays down his trembling melodic inflections, each note carrying over the top of it all, sometimes growing into a thunderous roar. It is the way the band handles the transitions from melodic and solemn into full on thrashing that are the most intriguing, and also the most imperative. Even the seamless flow from the previous track into "Bathyalpelagic I: Impasses" boasts of intense forethought. As you move from loud to sweeping segments and back again, it is like a calculated attack on your sense of hearing, keeping you constantly off balance but oddly comfortable. Even as the full on screams of "Bathyalpelagic II: The Wish in Dreams" come through, there is still more than meets the ear. The instrumental beneath says as much as the lyrics do, with massive drum rolls locking together with a set of crushing guitar riffs. The bass work, as smooth as any I've heard, becomes the glue to holds it all together.

There are distinct mood changes throughout the album, easily dissected and studied. Even the short bursts on "Bathyalpelagic III: Disequillibrated" further that thought, changing both the tone and tempo with a barrage of blast beats and high speed riffing. This is a band at their heavy best, without losing sight of songwriting dynamics. The portion that runs from breakdown to outro speaks volumes, ending in a flurry of effects. As the next movement begins, the broad, sweeping melodies return once again with a vengeance, bending and swaying on command. "Abyssopelagic I: Boundless Vasts" might have the most fitting of the track titles, with the instrumental throwing off the shackles of boundaries and space. In the growing expanse, drummer Luc Hesstakes a step back to a more restrained place, allowing for the subtleties to poke through, including a dazzling set of strings. When all fades, the sadly romantic outro takes hold of you fading away only to rise again in "Abyssopelagic II: Signals of Anxiety." The use of sound effects amongst the quiet, ambient passage does wonders for the mood again. Things build from a place of emptiness back into a melodic one, constructed and perfected as delicately as anything else on the album. The gritty vocal track provides the perfect contrast to the strings and keys that appear. And while it stands as only a minute, " Hadopelagic I: Omen of the Deep" delivers the punch of a ten minute epic, leading the way into the final trio of songs. The ominous guitar work sets a tone that must be expanded.

Things step back, however, as "Hadopelagic II: Let Them Believe" takes a far more reserved stance in the opening phases. But this is an evolution unfolding before your eyes, growing, living and breathing along with you. Dense, distorted guitar chords form the backbone for the soundscape, allowed to bend and change with the help of a rhythm section that does more than keep time and provide structure. Hess, alongside bassist Louis Jucker do far more than the mix lets on, with their work sometimes obscured by the overflowing elements. But what you get in the even parts is a brand of post metal that transcends the genre into something all its own. The much darker "Demersal: Cognitive Dissonance" could be described as the evil twin of "Let Them Believe," finding itself rooted in a much more shadow covered place. The vocals illustrate the difference, relying on a scream that carries for miles, rather than the softer crooning you've heard before. With both tracks topping the nine minute mark, they both fill the role as album epic, but with two very different end points. The former, a melodic affair while the latter, a sludge covered bruiser. What makes the entire album so profound is the structure within each track, as well as between each track. The slow, plodding finish, the nearly six minute "Benthic: The Origin of Our Wishes," becomes all the more enjoyable when you've conquered the first ten parts of the journey. This isn't so much a summary as it is a punctuation. You've reached the deepest depths of the ocean, and it can be felt in each crushing note.

A concept album only works if your ideal is clear, and your listener can see it presented in each song. The Ocean seem to have mastered the art of the concept album through their career, and the eleven songs pressed here are all the evidence you'd need. There is little, or no, doubt about where the journey began, where it took you, and where it left you; in fact, it would be easy to say that the songs themselves were more emphatic than the idea itself. But more than that, more than the crafting of the story and subsequent ending, the band has given you something to experience along the way. You don't just look at each one of the tracks as a piece of music, but more as a stop on your path from start to finish. You begin to identify then with the depths you've reached, and the sudden pressure you feel coming down on you. And that is, surely, no accident. Warm and cold, light and dark, loud and quiet; those are not just happy coincidences scattered through an hour of music. They were planned, constructed, torn down, rebuilt, sculpted and perfected. And that is what makes "Pelagial" even more appealing.


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