Ambition is very much the norm for the progressive metal genre. Long elaborate songs, lengthy concept albums, all are commonplace. But even within the genre Berlin’s The Ocean Collective stand out as exceptionally ambitious. Throughout their career, they have routinely put out lengthy albums, often named for and dealing with the fairly obscure (by music standards) topic of prehistoric time, geology and our planet long before people walked it. And their new album ‘Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic’ continues in that vein. The first of a two part album (the second coming in 2020) and dealing with an eon of multiple extinction events, this was meant to be an album with some weight behind it, and a frequently crushing weight it is.
Having long been on the leading edge of more extreme prog, The Ocean continue to push themselves forward. After a brief, rather soothing, instrumental the listener is greeted by the crushing roar of “Cambrian II: Eternal Recurrence.” With a wall of guitars and fierce screams of vocalist Loic Rossetti the band pummels the listener before lulling them into false security with quieter passages and melodic vocals. Comparisons between the band and the literal ocean have long been a clique at this point in their career, but they ARE very apt, waves of sound, and the deeper one goes beneath the top layer of music the heavier it becomes.
Lyrically, besides such lighthearted topics as mass extinction, the songs throughout often deal with, or are philosophically based around, Nietzsche’s concept that everything happens over and over again, an infinite number of times throughout space and time. An interesting notion to be sure, and as the world seems to be doomed to repeat its often violent, fruitless actions, one that may be closer to the truth than we’d like to admit. Lead songwriter/guitarist Robin Staps handles these in an exceptional manner, and adds emotional weight as well.
My favorite track on the album is “Devonian: Nascent,” the longest track on the album at over 11 minutes, and prominently features guest vocalist Jonas Renske of Katatonia. I’ve long loved Jonas’s vocals, so anytime he does a guest spot I’m sure to be pleased. His calm, soothing delivery is juxtaposed with the heavy music underneath, and the whispered screams floating in the background. The song contains a lengthy and slow middle section where the bass and drum perform what sounds like a march of many heavy feet, and the song builds with volume and intensity as the screams return and fade towards the inevitable thunderous climax.
In an album that constantly does everything right, it is no surprise that the final track “Permian: The Great Dying” rounds things off nicely though a bit on the abrupt side. It is also the first single released for the album in the form of a lyric video. It is lengthy at over 9 minutes, and all the elements of The Ocean’s sound can be found; the melodic and proggy side with clean vocals, and of course the slow, steady crushing weight of their heaviness with screamed vocals telling of Earth killing off all but 5% of the life on the planet. It serves as a very good representation of the rest of the album, although I do think the song cuts off rather abruptly at the end.
This leads me to my only real criticism of the album; its brevity. It clocks in at only around 47 minutes, and as it is meant to be the first part of an album it comes off ultimately feeling not only incomplete, but awkwardly so. I don’t know if the choice to delay the rest of the album by more than a year was the choice of the band or the label, but it was not a good choice for the feel of the album. Separating albums in this way is sadly getting more common, why, I don’t know, probably because too many people have the attention span of a gnat. Typically the first part is ended at a point that feels like a natural ending point. This disk, however, is building as it ends, and is more abrupt than natural.
It almost feels like watching a film that has an intermission, only to have it cut off a few minutes before the intermission, and then knowing that the rest of the movie won’t be available till the year after next. The result is taking something that could easily have vied for album of the year, and leaves it feeling deflated and unsatisfied.
With ‘Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic’ The Ocean Collective have delivered the first half of what could be the best album of their career. It is a melodic, intelligent, beautiful, yet crushingly heavy work of progressive metal, which will please their fans and undoubtedly make new ones. The excellence of the music and production more than make up for its untimely end. The ultimate story and how the album stacks up won’t be told for another year and more, but I’ll certainly be one of those waiting when it drops.