(On Friday of last week Pelagic Records released a new album by The Ocean. DGR has thoughts about it. Many thoughts about it. Most of them are included in the review below, which unfolds as a journey through more than a decade of time.)
May 10th, 2010 – Walking through the park nearby my house, attempting to distract myself from an ongoing period where the only thing in life that isn’t going sideways is work. In an attempt to expand my musical horizons and thanks to MetalSucks posting about them consistently, I have picked up on The Ocean and their album Heliocentric. It has been the soundtrack to multiple walks like this in an attempt to understand why it seems to appeal to so many people, which is difficult to explain to a guy whose previous musical experience has been either in the -core scene or very Euro-centric melodeath until one day “Swallowed By The Earth” hits just right and we’re off to the races.
November 9th, 2010 – Anthropocentric has been released as part of the group’s continual pattern of pairing albums together. In the six-month gap the band have become an obsession and I wind up reviewing the album for The Number Of The Blog – the first website I’ve written for and at this point was basically co-editor. I enjoy it and its more up-front aggression and metallic atmospheres than Heliocentric, but the pairing etches itself into my brain.
May 3rd, 2011 – I am supposed to see The Ocean live for the first time as part of a bill that includes Between The Buried And Me, Job For A Cowboy, and Cephalic Carnage. The Ocean get a flat tire and have van trouble in Lake Tahoe and have to – oh no! not in Lake Tahoe – spend the day up there, missing the show. Cephalic Carnage get to play an extended set because of this – one of two times in my life I will see Cephalic Carnage play an extended set. It will take me eleven years before I actually manage to see The Ocean play live.
April 30th, 2013 – The lead up to Pelagial is interesting because it seems as if during this period The Ocean aren’t sure what being The Ocean is any more, having revealed that Pelagial was initially recorded to be an instrumental release. This shocks quite a few people who’ve gotten used to the idea of The Ocean as a conventional band and vocalist Loic Rossetti as this incredibly distinct character up front.
November 2nd, 2018 and September 25th, 2020 – I actually review both Phanerozoic releases in one form or another on this very website. Again, I feel that both releases are incredible and make time fly like it’s nothing.
November 29th,2022 – I actually manage to see The Ocean live, alongside Katatonia and Cellar Darling. All three for the first time.
May 19th, 2023 – The Ocean have released Holocene, an album that is their most minimalistic and spare release to date and one that surprisingly enough is far more vocal-centric that one might’ve initially expected. It had only been eight years prior that the band weren’t sure they were still going to have a vocalist. How things have changed.
Photo Credit: Geoffrey Wallang
Holocene is a different beast of an album; built around a backbone of electronics and sparse instrumentation. Holocene is moody and obsessed with looping back around on itself. The band haven’t been shy about how much of Holocene was born out of keyboardist/sampler/drummer Peter Voigtmann‘s work, and it shows. Holocene is The Ocean at its most stripped-back in some time, with a lot of different non-standard instrumentation filling the gaps.
It should also be pointed out that at the same time Peter – under the name Shrvl – has released an album named Limbus whose artwork shares striking similarities to what The Ocean have chosen for Holocene, creating something of an artistic companion piece to the other. The Ocean have always been full of surprises, and though the core of the band has been fairly heavy over the years, just about the only guarantee you could have with a release from The Ocean was the presence of sludge-metal inspiration and a lot of background horn work. Holocene maintains much of that, but as a result of its quieter experimentation, it is a much more relaxed album than previous releases and one whose constant looping may have created the most vocals-focused album the band have made to date.
Given Holocene‘s writing style it should come as no surprise that songs on this album tie into each other far more than those on previous releases have, also pairing many of them together and making it so that the whole album feels like an extended forty-minute movement. Lead off single “Preboreal” and its ever-increasing tension – and amazing ‘we are no longer critical’ sentiment – gives way to the actual “Boreal” song, which is more or less one massive build into one of the heavier moments on Holocene.
Songs grow into and out of each other on this album, and much like how “Boreal” ties into “Preboreal”, follower “Sea Of Reeds” is the signal of a new section of the album. The Ocean have not been beyond doing a quiet and meditative song before and “Sea Of Reeds” is far more indicative of how those moments will appear across all of Holocene than you might think. “Sea Of Reeds” and its follower “Atlantic” – which is a centerpiece of Holocene at nearly nine minutes in length – feel like the natural progression of “Eocene” and “Oligocene” from their immediate forebears in the Phanerozoic series. “Atlantic” takes on a dreamlike quality as it drifts throughout its extended run time so that when the hammer finally drops within its last two minutes you can tell that the band are serious about where they’re about to take the next few steps of Holocene.
Photo Credit: Jaqueline Vanek
If, however, you’re the type to dig into The Ocean when they’re at their most traditionally heavy and digestible, then “Subboreal” will have you covered. Neatly packaged in about four minutes forty seconds, the song has a hefty chug that, again, contrasts quite well with the longer drift of “Unconformities” and its guest vocal work from Årabrot live singer/Mt Six vocalist Karin Park. It’s at this point that it seems like Holocene takes on a ‘heavy song/light song’ approach for its last few trips with listeners.
“Parabiosis” works very hard to feel like a compact journey of its own – though it even reaches back all the way to “Preboreal” for a few melodic lines – and “Subatlantic”, being the ultimate closer, ties everything together that “Parabiosis” didn’t address musically while still pulling instrumentation and melodies out of the left field. Holocene insists on doing everything it can to not be just another The Ocean release and you really start to feel it on “Subatlantic”.
It’s also where – if it hasn’t sunk in before – that you’ll really note just how much focus was put on the lyrics this time around. Holocene has multiple songs that are lyrically dense and make Loic stretch just how many words he can fit into any particular verse, but many of the sentiments expressed are very straightforward and tackle a suprising amount of the human condition – less buried in geological metaphor than they had been before.
Divorced from an immediate predecessor, Holocene feels like an album where The Ocean were free to experiment, and realized it. Much like how the album itself loops around itself constantly, so too does it seem like The Ocean‘s career has done the same over the past decade-plus. They’ll release a duology-style album and the one standalone and then do it again later. With the Heliocentric/Anthropocentric pairing to Pelagial and then the Phanerozoic pairing to Holocene, you could say they’ve done it twice already.
Holocene doesn’t play it safe with the group’s sound either, continuing their streak of always having something to surprise listeners even deep into a ten-album career. While the straightforward hard-rocking and sludge influences may be on the backburner this time, Holocene as an auditory journey is still a trip worth undertaking as it takes on a hazy and dreamlike state while still delivering some hefty-subject matter that hits just as hard as any breakdown or hammering rhythm section ever could.