Postmodern Surge: The Ocean, Robin Staps, and Two Decades of Titanship (New Single + Interview)
The Ocean, founded by guitarist Robin Staps two decades ago now, can only be described as a collective of mastery, delicacy, and primacy in the post-metal realm. Throughout their run, the band has remained equal parts progressive and abstract; even still, no two The Ocean albums represent exactly the same ethos or disposition vis-a-vis heavy metal, and no two The Ocean albums can really provide the same angle on the band's signature postmodern oomph or impact.
Above all else, The Ocean has never been unessential listening. Not only does each release command and demand reams of artistic merit -- from music to lyrics to aesthetics to live performances, this band has never half-assed anything -- but each album also gives itself to the almighty tenet of making a shitton of noise, the good kind, the very good kind, all pretense be damned.
And here we are now, in the midst of a year most trying and foul, at the cusp of The Ocean's latest release called Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic. It follows 2018's Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic and promises the heaviest The Ocean to date (and yes, there is even a blast beat part in the single below that Staps mentions in the interview), but also the cleanest, most distilled, and resolutely most powerful.
The single release of the album's second song, the 13+ minute behemoth "Jurassic | Cretaceous," has already laid the foundation for how the album will settle in the ears of fans and newcomers alike. As one gel, Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic offers the silkiest possible blend of vocal delivery, balanced and groovy musicianship, postmodern atmospherics, and badass riffing -- and we're now stoked beyond reason to offer up yet another taste, this time in music video form, with the album's seventh song "Pleistocene."
The story is coming together, slowly, and in pieces, but when the whole is revealed later this month, we'll have perhaps the strongest The Ocean album ever at our feet. Not bad for a band two decades in the run.
What's more, we spoke at length with Staps regarding the new release, where The Ocean has been, and where this new album will take the band into an uncertain (but artistically promising) future. Check out the new music video and then dive into the details and nuances that Staps paints around this extremely reaffirming The Ocean moment.
Damn, I just downright love this band. Now, to get to rocking and reading...
Thinking back to Pelagial, which was about descending into the depths of the ocean, as the even the album gets heavier and heavier as it goes on -- is there a same sort of structure or format to the Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic? Does it follow some kind of logical or story flow, or is it more kind of assembled or arranged more spontaneously?
Well, ironically, it's both: it's an assembled record which came together quite late, actually, like the song order at all -- these things were decided later than usual in our case. But it became that journey quite similar to Pelagial, in a way, as I was thinking about that the other day. It's also starting in one place and concluding in a very different place, but it is really going there in a progression somehow, like gradually going where to toward where it ends.
With Pelagial, I did that intentionally, I wrote that record with the conceptual frame already set before I started writing: I wanted to make [Pelagial] become this journey from the surface to the bottom of the sea, getting progressively slower and lower in tuning and heavier and more claustrophobic toward the second half of the record. And I set out to write [Pelagial] like that, and here [with Phanerozoic II], something kind of similar happened, but that wasn't really planned from the beginning. It's just something that happened when we put the tracks together.
We realized, "oh, this, it makes sense this way," and then it became that journey.
So it's interesting how that happened, and there are quite a lot of comparable elements -- the beginning of Pelagial was really full, like, lots of information, playful songs, intricate arrangements, then on the second half it thinned out, the songs becoming longer -- it's kind of a similar thing happening with Phanerozoic II. The first part of the record is, I really I don't want to say overloaded, but there's a lot happening, yeah, and then it thins out to become spacious, more cold, like the feel or vibe of it.
The instrumentation, the song arrangements, they become a lot more minimal in the second half, and to get there, there's also certain tracks that have this transitional function: like "Oligocene" in the middle of the record is a track that inaugurates the second half of the record, that more spacious and cold vibe. That second half of the record compares again to certain tracks on Pelagial, like "Boundless Vasts" or "Signals of Anxiety." In the middle of the record, they fulfill the same or similar kind of function.
I don't know why that always happens to me when I make records. I guess I just get bored of a certain thing and then, you know, just want to end somewhere else. Here, it really fell into place.
And I was a bit afraid when I started. We recorded drums for both albums together, but then we finished the first part first, and then when I kind of picked up the second part again, I was a bit afraid that the material was too diverse or eclectic [such] that it would be difficult for it to become an album, so to speak. And, at one point, I just decided to not become too attached to my pre-productions and certain ideas and to leave things to leave space for things happening, basically, and that's why even things like the song order was basically decided relatively close before the mix, and all the transitions between tracks.
It worked out really well. Things did fall into place. And, it did become a record that is quite a journey, and I'm very happy about that because it was a much more intuitive approach compared to Pelagial or even the first part of Phanerozoic where everything was set up before we entered the studio and we had a perfectly clear idea which track would end up where and everything.
Here was more like a totally free experience.
Do you think maybe that that experience you had, or that direction with the album as it came came together, had anything to do with it turning out being more minimal? Like, some of the more minimalistic parts of the album coming from this wellspring of ingenuity as opposed to trying to engineer it all?
It probably has something to do with that, but then again, it is only the second half of the record, right? The first half is far from minimalist, so it's spanning the full territory, you know, from very crowded, very proggy tracks to very minimalist, really stripped-down tracks. I think the only way to make that work is to try to create that progression -- it wouldn't work to have a track like "Jurassic | Cretaceous" and then a track like "Holocene" afterward and then going back to a track like "Triassic." You have set sections of the record and then you make them gradually grow into one another, and that's what we did here.
But it was clear from the beginning that those minimalist tracks would play a significant role, and I wanted that "Cenozoic" half of the record to be like that: more electronic, but at the same time, you know, like a more modern feeling in a way? But at the same time, also quite stripped down and really focusing on selecting musical ideas and really developing them rather than throwing too many ideas into the same track.
On that note, what are the reasonings and thoughts behind releasing instrumental versions?
We actually started doing that with the "-centric" records Heliocentric and Anthropocentric -- the CD box sets we release of those records came with instrumental versions. Personally, I listen to a lot of instrumental music, and I think it offers you a really interesting perspective on what is essentially the same song if you take the vocals away. Even with a lot of bands where I really liked the vocalist, I would love them to release parallel instrumental versions, because as soon as you take the vocals away, you stop paying attention to a lot of things in the music that you otherwise just wouldn't notice. That is true for musicians as well as for people who don't have a musician's perspective.
We're also conditioned to pay attention to the lead vocals -- as soon as you take that away, our mind doesn't know what to look for. I really like listening to instrumental versions, even of bands where I really like the vocalists, and at one point, [The Ocean] decided to always offer that. It became a bit of a thing for us because of Pelagial, which was initially written to be instrumental, then we started adding vocals only fairly late in the process to that album.
We also played a bunch of instrumental shows with that record, and it's a totally different experience compared to the shows with Loïc, which are very energetic because he is a very active frontman, you know, who really interacts with the crowd. That gives it more of that hardcore energy, if he's there, and if we play instrumental, it's more of the intimate type of like post-rock experience.
Personally, I'm sitting in between. I love playing with Loïc, and I love the energy that he brings to the table -- but I also like the cinematic kind of more distant music with no human interaction coming from the singers. I like both realms, and I think both fit with the vibe that this band is trying to create when we play live. It was only natural to start doing that on records, as well, to give people the choice of what they prefer to listen to. And that choice can be the vocal album one day at the instrumental album the other day.
It does change kind of the paradigm of listening, so to speak, or the way of interacting with the album, because your mind obviously with conditioning puts focus on the vocals, but without, the music itself just sparkles and shines just that much more so.
Exactly, and I also have to say that our instrumental versions are not just versions where we mute the vocals. They are actually different mixes, so for example, on the new record, the opening track "Triassic," on the instrumental version, we used a lot more of the flute tracks for that song than on the vocal version because they were colliding or clashing with the vocals in certain parts -- both would work on their own, but not together. So, we had to make a sacrifice of certain of these parts for the vocal version, which we then brought back in the instrumentals.
So you hear, first of all, different takes of certain instruments. You also have different levels on the instrumental versions. We brought up a lot of instruments that we had to put down on the vocal versions in order to leave enough space for the vocals. So it is an altogether different experience -- on certain tracks, it's more obvious than others, and even on the vocal version there's a couple of instrumental tracks and a lot of instrumental passages
I love it when bands like The Ocean do multimedia, to show that there's more to the band as an artistic unit than the music -- there's a visual aspect, there's an emotive aspect, and they all kind combine in this video for "Pleistocene" that we're premiering. Do you have any background on the song itself, or background on producing the video, or the story that it tells in relation to the album?
Basically, the idea is you know how an animal is finding itself a place to die when they know that their time has come in the face of a catastrophe -- that was basically what we wanted to take to the human level here. So the film shows this old man, being that animal, and he leaves his home, goes out to the streets, encounters this girl at the train station, and then takes a train out to the countryside and finds himself at an abandoned dwelling where he lays down in the ground, finding himself a place to die when the asteroid strikes.
Then that story, from that moment on, is being told backward. So, from the perspective of the girl, the girl emerges from this abandoned dwelling in the countryside, takes a train back into the city where she encounters the man at the train station where she views the meteor approaching, and then there is the impact moment where the black metal part comes in.
It's a cyclical story. Two perspectives of an encounter, told from two different angles, and it's making reference to the whole eternal recurrence theme, which is kind of like the direct thread that goes through the record -- the idea that things happen over and over again in infinite time and space, it's kind of a cyclical concept of time as opposed to the typical linear concept of time. This is what we have woven into this whole geological-era fabric in a way, all the other songs are kind of orbiting around these questions about time itself.
[This is] what we've done with a lot of songs on the record as well: there are lots of cross-references on the second part of Phanerozoic -- so for example, you have this guitar part of "Jurassic | Cretaceous," which then appears later in "Eocene," and you have the closing track "Holocene" which takes lyrics from "Triassic," the opening track, and reuses them again in a different context.
Craig Murray filmed [the video for "Pleistocene"] in Budapest, in isolation, where he got stuck in March, and, well, he had to improvise a lot because initially he wanted to film it in the UK or in Thailand where he currently lives. But then he was stuck there in a city that he doesn't really know and had to start casting actors there -- we had to find very specific actors for this clip, but it worked out really, really well actually, and I think Budapest was the perfect setting for it. We also really wanted to avoid any scenes that let you pin down the time when this is taking place, so we wanted to avoid cars and the modern age as much as possible, you know.
Musically, the Pleistocene is mostly known for its ice ages, so "Pleistocene" is a very cold track that we felt adequate to represent I think what is the first proper black metal part in the history of this band... but it's something that just happened, the track evolved, it was written very quickly and everything just fell into place and then made sense.
It starts with this quite catchy beginning and vocal line and then just goes into this really intense ending... and uh, when I started writing that and programming drums, at first I was laughing, but somehow it just felt right, and it made sense.
We're at this point now in our career where everything is allowed for us; or, we allow everything to ourselves, and people are used to not exactly knowing what they will get with our next record. This is something that I'm very thankful for: that we have built up following that is really supportive in that regard because we are challenging them quite a lot [laughs].
It's always been like that: when we released FluXion, our second record, people were complaining about the vocals being super heavy when Fogdiver was instrumental, you know. And then when people got used to the heavy vocals, Loïc came into the bed with the "-centrics" and people were like, "what's this, this is not metal anymore!" There's always been a history of complaint with this band and what we do, but right now, I think we really are in a place where we can almost do anything and get away with it, and that is great and beautiful to be in that position.
So, "Pleistocene" might not be a typical The Ocean track, if there is any such thing, but I think it represents the wide stylistic range of the whole album pretty well. If I had to pick one track from the record, one that kind of displays what Phanerozoic II is all about, it would probably be this one.
This plays into, of course, releasing a music video, releasing a new album, all during a very, very abruptly changed landscape for the music industry. What's the band doing to kind of stay agile and adept and mobile in the coronavirus age -- how do you predict future The Ocean events, or what's the goal or outlook as we move into uncertain times?
Well, we have a full European tour booked for January 2021, which is very ambitious at this time. It was already booked long ago, but basically we decided to announce it now and put tickets on sale and hope for the best. You know, also as a signal of like, positive mental attitudes. If it doesn't happen, we're prepared with a backup routing in place for later in the year. So we will play this record life sooner or later, and this is what keeps us happy and positive, it's just a matter of time.
I think we have all shifted focus for this year. At one point, we've all realized that things are not going to go according to plans. We have this South America tour that got canceled in May. We controversially discussed whether we should release this record as initially planned at the end of September, but in the end, we decided to do it because I think it's a good time to release music now. People are mostly bored at home, and they're keen on new music. So you will get more attention than in September 2020 than in any other regular month of September, which is always a super-busy release month.
It's weird that you release the record without touring instantly. But, it is what it is, and you know, we had the record ready anyway, and it's also always the case as a musician or artist: you have a product finished, so you want it out there. In the end, we decided to do it, to release it, and we're very excited to see the reactions so far have been really good.
We can't wait to play it live, and if it's going to still take longer, if this January tour falls through, then we will eventually probably do what everyone else is doing: we will do a thorough livestream or at least the second part. I've seen so many livestreams, you know, it's the obvious thing to do, but on the other hand, what else do we really have, you know? You could do it in a cool way, find a good location for filming it properly and recording it properly so it's something that people can also go back to later when all this bullshit is over. Hopefully we will find something meaningful in it. So, I think we will do that, and then see if this January tour happens. We're itching to play.