Continuing in the adventurous post metal vein of their sublime previous release Pelagial, as well as continuing their patented trend for scientific and hard to pronounce song/album titles (we’d be interested to see what proportion of the band’s fanbase actually understand all of the oceanic references), The Ocean collective are making an overdue return. This is far from a rehash of past glories, though.
For a start, Phanerozoic I: Paleozoic injects a far more generous dose of the sludgy heaviness from The Ocean’s earlier career into its sound than did the odyssey of the previous effort. Right from the start of opening duo ‘The Cambrian Explosion/Cambrian II: Eternal Recurrence’, there is a definite Cult of Luna vibe, with a distinctly aquatic synth motif that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on that band’s 2016 effort with Julie Christmas, Mariner – though, of course, The Ocean were plumbing these nautical depths first.
The musical textures vary throughout the album, but much of the decorative musical ornamentation has been stripped away, whilst still retaining an overall depth of sound. This feels like a more focused Ocean outing, with some of the purely clean guitar melodic noodling of old replaced by more of a keyboard presence, reinforcing a record with more focus on timbre. ‘Cambrian II…’ even includes a blastbeat-led section, as if to hammer home the idea of the band returning to their more bludgeoning past, a notion that carries over into the ‘Ordovicium: The Glaciation of Gondwana’s surprisingly simplistic and rhythmic heavy groove of a main riff.
Loïc Rossetti’s subtly layered clean vocals still remain a distinctive part of the Ocean sound that sets them apart from their more monolithic peers, in a way that this time around calls to mind the melodies of Mastodon or even the beguiling tones of Cynic at times, as well as the more typical post-hardcore touchstones. The hooks across Phanerozoic… are strong and often very much the centre of attention, and when screams and cleans combine, the effect is potent. Whilst verse/chorus structures are prevalent here, they are woven into a widescreen cinematic backdrop and are certainly not without their structural additions and embellishments.
‘Silurian: Age of Sea Scorpions’ takes an interesting turn, dialling back almost all of the intensity to a very sparse arrangement, focused on vocals to an almost ballad-like extent, before building to a final, orchestral climax, the whole experience calling to mind softer prog metal acts like Iceland’s Agent Fresco. The expanded instrumentation then continues into ‘Devonian: Nascent’, whose opening is also restrained, though this time things feel tense rather than plaintive. Despite the return of heavier tones later on, this is perhaps the weakest track in terms of musical ideas, but is followed by the excellent instrumental link track ‘The Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse’, which is a shuddering, seafaring adventure.
Closer ‘Permian: The Great Dying’ returns to the winning marriage of melody, heaviness and dynamics: the patented The Ocean progressive post metal formula. Bookending this album with more typical Ocean-like cuts and experimenting with their template towards the middle makes for an overall satisfying listen for fans, whilst allowing the band room to grow. Phanerozoic… may not be as unilaterally engaging as some of its older siblings, but there are lots of stellar moments to be found. As a whole experience, this album is also relatively easy to digest, which is sometimes a welcome change amongst this more exploratory end of the metal spectrum.