Review: The Ocean Lands Their Journey Through Natural History with Holocene
As The Ocean has expanded on their combination of prog, sludge and post-metal, the German collective has revealed a sonic odyssey of unmatched size. Unmatched, at least, in the geological timescale covered by Precambrian (2007), Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic (2018), and Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic / Cenozoi (2020) — all named after, well, very long periods of earth’s history. Precambrian covers the four billion years before complex life crawled out of primordial soup, where the Phanerozoic albums pick up to traverse the Cambrian Explosion and the dinosaurs, all the way up to right now. Actually, that’s where Holocene lands the quadrilogy… the part where we come in!
11,700 years seems like a blink of an eye when compared to billions, but this focus on a relatively short part of history lies at the heart of Holocene. By hitting less hard than before, The Ocean can embellish the human drama at its most macro level without getting lost in the sauce. Granted, “Preboreal” isn’t out of the ordinary for The Ocean, coming as a synth-heavy continuation of the buoyant melodicism of the past two albums. Rather than compromise complexity during these more ethereal passages, the song comes embellished with eerie horn arrangements and mature vocal melodies to carry some weighty lyrical concepts. Songwriter Robin Staps frames the human monolith through the lens of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Essentially, using painting pictures with words to encapsulate society at large: “A type of never-ending presence lost inside/ We have all lost our way out long ago.”
The weight of these themes hardly diminishes because there’s less double kick and harsh vocals in Holocene. By all accounts, “Boreal” plays like the down sections of many a BTBAM album, but that doesn’t mean there’s nowhere for the song to go. In fact, the space left by the hypnotic vocal syncopation s and synthetic tapestries allows the crescendos to flow more fluidly into a stomping stoner riff, and give more credence to Staps’ robust singing voice. But the intricate arrangements shine through in this gentler backdrop, like the collage of vibraphone and horns on “Sea Of Reeds.” Dreary, yet elegant, The Ocean’s attention to detail lets their post-rock element stand on its own, with some tricky rhythmic interplay to boot.
Of course, the really cool stuff manifests during “Atlantic” and “Subboreal.” Both of these cuts center on electronic beats suited for classic UK trip-hop. The minimalist production and sensual piano chords of the former cut seem straight out of the Massive Attack playbook, but it’s much more than a muse for Staps’ programming alongside synth man Peter Voigtmann. Bassist Mattias Hägerstrand and drummer Paul Seidel flesh out a swaying half-time swing feel, as guitarists Staps and David Åhfeldt fluctuate between agile, smokey riffs and lightweight embellishments. The latter cut offers a clearer verse-chorus distinction between trip-hop and prog-sludge, displaying how comfortable The Ocean remains in both extremes — marinating in transient electro-acoustics while bringing the evolving riffage fans have come to love.
It’s immensely satisfying to hear these riffs once they gain momentum. Nowhere is this more clear than “Unconformities,” as the midsection’s blast of whiplash drum hits and harrowing guitar strains stacks against plenty of The Ocean’s most aggressive moments. And yet, the lead-up has just as much to offer, like The Ocean’s take on Muse with support from the syrupy, resonant singing voice of Swedish export Karin Park. Having cataclysmic so well balanced with beautiful crescendos isn’t exactly new, but Holocene consistently provides many ways for The Ocean to expand on this dichotomy. As shown by the immersive developments of “Parabiosis,” this never really equates to being different for the sake of being different. When things strip back, minute layers and dynamic swells keep things interesting. When songs reach their apex, their riff-writing has hardly lost its gusto.
It’s also telling that the most consistently heavy song of the album comes at the close, as “Subatlantic” also contains the perfect admonishment for an album about, well, us… “Don‘t act as if you were unawarе of what lies ahead.” It’s hard to think of better music to accompany the recurring calamities of human history, as Loïc Rossetti’s emotive screams cut through the sludge riffs as easily as his singing glids through foreboding ritualism. It’s frankly astounding that a band could end an album so casually with Middle Eastern melodic motifs and trip-hop beats while leaving room for low-end crunch.
Considering there isn’t any more natural history for The Ocean to cover, it’s fair to call Holoscene a solid end to an era for The Ocean. It might be quieter in comparison, but it never compromises the creative drive that has kept this band on the vanguard of forward-thinking metal.
The Ocean’s Holoscene is out May 19, and physical copies are currently available for preorder via Pelagic Records.