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Treasures in the Depths of The Ocean’s “Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic”


It’s been five long years since Germany’s revolving ensemble of post/prog virtuosos The Ocean released their seventh full-length Pelagial and embarked on its extensive worldwide touring cycle, bringing their impressive live show to every corner of the globe. While each of the group’s records to date has been crafted around a central unifying concept, Pelagial pushed their modus operandi one step further with a dual thematic approach: while its musical content portrays an atmospheric odyssey from the surface of Earth’s oceans to their deepest and most claustrophobic depths, its lyrics create an allegory with this inward aquatic progression serving as an extended metaphor for a journey into the human psyche.

Now, The Ocean has returned once again to present another offering of profoundly interwoven conceptual material with Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic, their latest cerebral communion of environmental science and deeply personal, humanistic ideas.

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Palaeozoic is the first installment of a sprawling double album announced earlier this year – the second half of which will not be released until 2020 – as well as the chronological successor to the band’s third full-length, 2007’s Precambrian. Where the latter tells the story of the Hadean, Archaean, and Proterozoic eras, Phanerozoic as a whole will chronicle Earth’s eons stretching from the Cambrian explosion to the beginning of human history in the Quaternary period. Both feature album covers created by Norwegian artist Martin Kvamme that contrast accordingly: Precambrian’s artwork consists of boiling, volcanic bubbles of magma on a jet-black canvas, while Palaeozoic exhibits aqueous, amorphous green shapes upon a grey background.

Main composer and guitarist Robin Staps wrote the music of Palaeozoic in the same setting as he did its predecessors, in seclusion in a house by the sea. However, the remainder of the record’s creation differed vastly from the progress of previous efforts. Firstly, the group took a newfound approach to manifesting Staps’s material by testing each song in the rehearsal room, working out the details and nuances of every song with the entire collective present before ever entering the studio, which is apparent in the sleek, consummate nature of Palaeozoic‘s songs. Secondly, the record features the introduction of Peter Voigtmann’s wide array of analog synthesizers, which serve to further enrich the record’s already expansive sonic landscapes.

Staps has stated that Palaeozoic‘s lyrical narrative centers largely around the idea of “eternal recurrence, Nietzsche’s concept that everything happens over and over again, an infinite amount of times throughout infinite time and space.” He continues: “This album is essentially about time, perception of time, and repetition. It is about coming to terms with the fact that there are things in life which will recur and which we cannot change and finding ways of dealing with that.”

This philosophical theme certainly runs deep within the album’s seven tracks: largely abandoning the nimble melodies and lithe transitions of Pelagial for hefty and plodding mid-tempo compositions, Palaeozoic exhibits bleak, emotionally heavy pieces boiled down to their essential core musical ideas. By stripping away excess ornaments and shaving off grizzled edges, The Ocean’s sound has evolved to offer elegiac songs with powerful yet somber walls of tone, with each focusing in on a singular motif that is developed progressively over the course of the entire track.

With minimalist, postmodernist stylizations, the album’s overall aesthetic leans much more toward post-metal than it does sludge, presenting a brand of groovier, more pensive prog that rarely displays the band’s familiar moments of scorching brutality. With vocalist Loïc Rossetti’s rasping melodic timbre and uniquely ferocious roar emoting waves of pain and strife over towering columns of instrumental harmony, Palaeozoic instead achieves a sort of existential violence that draws parallels between the macrocosmic turmoil of planet Earth and microcosmic human angst.

The result of this tonal shift is a record containing lengthy songs that do not lend themselves readily to independent listening; without catchy hooks and vibrant solos, Palaeozoic‘s tracks are much less accessible as standalone singles. But what the album lacks in agility and structural variety it makes up for with its vast range of atmospheric diversity. Thanks to Jens Bogren’s masterful production abilities, the record expertly combines orchestral arrangements with crunchy electric fuzz, soaring vocals, and electronic elements. Paul Seidel’s percussion, tracked at Sigur Ros’s cavernous, echoing studio in Iceland, provides an ethereal dripping reverberation that places the record’s sound within a vibrational space suggestive of an immense stone chasm. Voigtmann’s analog synths are a welcome addition to The Ocean’s broad and contemplative quality, blending superbly with the album’s strings and acoustic piano tones and providing passages of sinister rippling effervescence.

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“The Cambrian Explosion” sees the album nearly venturing into synthwave territory, but melancholic bass piano tones keep the track anchored in the realm of the organic before it transitions into the explosive “Cambrian II: Eternal Recurrence.” Despite the seemingly contradictory nature of synthesizers playing together with violins, cellos, and grand piano, tracks such as “Devonian: Nascent” combine the ensemble’s various tones into a monolithic unified assault that transitions from moments of acoustic tenderness to savage, crushing walls of distortion. Thus, Palaeozoic is an achievement of lush and fascinating soundscapes moreso than a demonstration of virtuosic exhibitionism — while its compositional strategy may at first seem straightforward, upon multiple listens it can yield remarkable artistic depth.

True to The Ocean’s signature multi-faceted thematic approach, Palaeozoic‘s atmospherics achieve an uncanny similitude with its scientific subject matter. Presenting songs that consistently proceed, for the most part, at the same tempo, the record’s gradual pace can be interpreted as a metaphor for the steady and evenly meted rotation of the Earth itself — in a way, it is chronologically built to scale. “Ordovician: The Glaciation of Gondwana” drags frigid, colossal tones across its five-minute length with the weight and force of megalithic ice floes, diving straight into a bleak heaviness from the tumultuous magma of “Cambrian II.” “Silurian: Age of Sea Scorpions” alternates between major and minor chords with an arthropod-esque crawl, its final movement piercing the listener with a venomous sting of increased intensity.

The album’s major transitional point occurs on “Devonian: Nascent,” Palaeozoic‘s most musically diverse track. Named for the era that saw the world’s first amphibious species, the late Devonian period also suffered a massive extinction of invertebrate aquatic species. The track parallels this progression, opening with an acoustic passage steeped in stoic beauty, featuring a haunting melody provided by guest vocalist Jonas Renske of Sweden’s Katatonia. The song then crests into more foreboding terrain as Rossetti lends an anguished wail to the mixture, and by its final movement the piece has shifted into an undeniably sludgy assault that cascades down upon the listener like cosmic radiation.

Although Palaeozoic represents a considerable maturation of The Ocean’s aesthetic, its songs often feel too reserved and simplistic for their lengthy run times. Concerning his technique in balancing these compositions, Staps claimed that his goal was “to always avoid going the obvious route,” but in his efforts to be unconventional, he perhaps failed to recreate the dynamic and memorable qualities that made Pelagial so fantastic. Palaeozoic occasionally showcases moments of quick freneticism, but the majority of its material relies heavily on repetition and tediously slow development; even though one of the album’s intentional themes is eternal recurrence, it often overemphasizes this concept. Furthermore, Earth’s history was rarely a smooth, uniform process, but rather an imperfect, chaotic experience. One might expect an honest interpretation of this epic journey across time to seem more rough and uneven than the streamlined album The Ocean has delivered.

Ultimately, Palaeozoic is a highly artistic work that reveals increasing layers of depth with each successive listen; those not attracted to this brand of heady, pensive prog metal will likely find no immediate interest here, but dedicated, longtime fans of the project will discover that careful attention to its details and nuances will pay countless dividends. There is great potential for Phanerozoic’s second installment to offer an entirely different atmosphere and provide a marked shift away from Palaeozoic‘s bleak attitude, but with a cliffhanger ending, the album stops abruptly on a note of mysterious uncertainty. Perhaps this will be a double album that must be experienced in its entirety to truly understand and absorb, but it seems we will have to wait until 2020 to know for sure.

— Thomas Hinds

Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic releases Friday via Metal Blade (CD/digital) and Pelagic Records (vinyl).

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