I’ve been on a car trip across the country, so I’ve been catching up on some back stuff. I think I’ll do a few double reviews to get through the ones I don’t have much to say about. I looked at a few half-way lists and picked some top choices to figure out what to listen to. One of the main ones that kept coming up was The Ocean’s Pelagial.
I have to say, something like the first five times through this thing I just didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I really couldn’t get into it. I actually found it really boring. The sixth and seventh time through really changed my perspective (Google tells me I’m over 15 times now). Once I knew what to listen for it was actually a really exciting listen.
At first I thought maybe there was just too much going on. I couldn’t latch onto what I should have been paying attention to due to the density of sounds. Now I don’t really think this could be the case, because it really isn’t overly dense. Now I think the problem was just that there isn’t a lot of repetition. It is almost one long constantly changing thing. There isn’t really any traditional song structure going on or anything.
Usually this wouldn’t trip me up, but I think the fact that there were definite motifs and parts that sounded like “choruses,” I expected more traditional structure or something. In any case, maybe I was being dense, because I don’t expect all these people who love this album to have given it as many chances as I did before proclaiming its greatness.
The album’s concept is probably well-known at this point. It steadily progresses through the layers of the ocean in descending order. It starts pretty upbeat and proggy and slows down into some heavy sludge style metal by the end as you get deeper. I love this concept even if I don’t really buy it (although I’ve seen much worse concepts from highly trained composers that have gotten praise in the academic music world). Rather than having lots of schizophrenic rapid stylistic changes (like Unexpect or something) there is an order to the style changes. It makes the album feel extremely coherent even though the style changes drastically.
They are also quite careful to not make the slowing down a constant thing. This would make the end feel like it is just a really dragging prolonged thing. Instead they mostly follow this trend, but carefully insert variety throughout to make sure it never gets boring. This was quite a mature compositional thing to do which a younger band might have overlooked to keep strictly to the concept.
We open with what must be a reference to Debussy’s La Mer (“The Ocean” for those French neophytes). The fact that it sounds so much like the ideas from that work, and that work is a concept piece about the ocean really makes me think it was an intentional reference. Although I haven’t seen a single person bring this up yet, so maybe not. This piano whole-tone motif comes back up throughout acting as a glue tying the parts together.
The first major long section is the Bathyalpelagic sequence of three parts. This might be my favorite of the sections. It uses some cool mixed meter stuff, but not overly so. They insert some mixed meter in between some non-mixed stuff. One of the highlights of the album for me is the guitar solo near the end of part III. It reminds me of some of the solo work in the new Black Dahlia Murder (the only good parts in my opinion) and part III in general turns from the proggy earlier sections to a much more death metal feel with some djenty overtones. The solo is really funky in a strange mode. I wish it went on longer.
The lyrics in this section are the best in my opinion as well. The problem of free will is probably the most important and most argued concept in current modern philosophy. The reason it has come to the forefront is because we are getting such a better understanding of neuroscience and cognitive biases. It seems as if science is forcing us to come down on the side of determinism and that free will is just an illusion due to cognitive trickery. The argument is beautifully summed up in the lyrics (that shows an interesting amount of attention to these current trends):
How much control do we have over what we wish for?
How many decisions we take are rational?
How much is intentional?
The next section starts to have a noticeable slowdown with some more atmospheric effects and maybe could be considered a bit more on the side of post-rock. About halfway through the second part of Abyssopelagic is another gem. We get our first intentionally built melodic climax. This whole part has the most melodic development of the album and the song has a classic build. I think parts like these were too refrained for me at first and that caused some of my initial boredom.
I’m not sure how to categorize the next section, and this is going on quite long now, so I’ll just point that I love the violin stuff, keyboard ambiance, interesting snare drum work, and those beautiful dissonances that keep popping up. This whole section reminds me of some stuff that Godspeed You Black Emperor has done.
Although the last two tracks are probably my least favorite, I’ve definitely come a long way on them. Originally I didn’t think they quite pulled off the sludginess properly (I’m thinking of Eagle Twin which somehow is downtempo, dark, and deep but still manages to lose control with some wild riffing). I’ve come to think of these songs as working in their own way now. It should be thought of as some weird prog-sludge hybrid. It makes more sense and reminds me that a lot of the interesting parts of these tracks come from the awkward time things going on (which have been somewhat absent from the more straightforward previous few) and the harmonic progression.
That’s my summary. As you might be able to tell, I’ve come to really love this album. I’ve tried to hear it the way I was originally listening to it, but I just can’t make that work. It baffles my mind that I found this difficult to listen to and boring at first. But if you feel this way, then I totally understand where you’re coming from. Overall I’ll give it a 9.5/10. There is almost no way this is going to fall out of my top 10 of the year, but I hope so because that would mean some truly great stuff is yet to come out!
Here’s a sample: