Artist: Oceans Of Slumber
Album Title: Starlight And Ash
Label: Century Media Records
Date of Release: 22 July 2022
“’Starlight and Ash’ isn’t Metal, but its edges are.” This is the proud proclamation within the press release which accompanies the fifth album from US band Oceans Of Slumber, a band that I can honestly say that I have closely followed since the very beginning. And if you are a long-time fan too, this opening quote will either have you recoiling in fear or will pique your interest to see what they have created this time around. For me personally, it was the latter, because I have always enjoyed the band’s output, with each and every album sounding slightly different to the last, as the musicians sought to explore their sound, and hone their craft.
It remains to be seen as to whether future albums will follow a similar path, but I can categorically say that ‘Starlight And Ash’, dubbed ‘Southern Gothic’ by the band themselves in recent social media posts, demonstrates the biggest single change in Oceans Of Slumber’s sound. Using well-placed references like Nick Cave, Type O Negative, and latter-day Katatonia within press releases help to also give you a deeper insight into the record that deals with poignant subject matter including childhood memories and life on the streets. It is less heavy in the sense that the instrumentation is less overtly ‘metal’, but it remains devastatingly heavy in other ways. And, it has to be said, the final product is both excellent, and immediately recognisable as Oceans Of Slumber. ‘Lighter’ or less ‘metal’ it might be, but ‘Starlight And Ash’ has not abandoned the band’s identity in any shape or form.
It seems absolutely fitting that I started writing this review whilst melting on a train in some of the hottest temperatures the UK has ever recorded a week or two back. Hailing from Texas, the music of Oceans Of Slumber has always had a touch of sultriness about it, but ‘Starlight And Ash’ goes one further as the band embrace much more of the local musical styles. The ‘southern’ influences have never been more pronounced, but it definitely adds something very intriguing to the mix, one that I have somewhat unexpectedly taken to.
Oceans Of Slumber is once again comprised of guitarists Xan Fernandez and Jessie Santos, bassist Semir Ozerkan and Mathew Aleman who plays the keys and synths, alongside drummer and pianist Dobber Beverly, and vocalist Cammie Beverly. And, as has been the case for previous albums, I don’t think the gentlemen would mind too much if I was to suggest that Cammie is the band’s not-so-secret weapon on ‘Starlight And Ash’.
The fact that the music is generally a little more stripped back and nuanced, it means that more than ever, the spotlight is trained on the vocals. And when I say that the vocals are simply breath taking, I wholeheartedly mean it. It wouldn’t be hyperbole at this point to suggest that Cammie Beverley might just be my favourite female singer of them all. Not only is her voice mellifluous, sonorous, and beguiling, it is made even more captivating through the range of human emotion that she conveys in her performance. Not afraid to use her own personal vulnerabilities and flaws, she instead channels them into her delivery, using them to her advantage. The net result is a captivating display that’s as powerful as it is fragile, and as commanding as it is vulnerable. You feel every word, every emotion, and it adds a palpable honesty to the music overall.
On to the music itself, and there are so many places that I could begin this portion of the review. I have agonised for the longest time over how I could possibly do the near-flawless 50 minutes of music justice, but I am at the point where I just need to get on with it.
More than a nod has to go to those responsible for the production because, as far as I’m concerned, it is this that helps to elevate the music to the heights that it hits on ‘Starlight And Ash’. And the quality of the sound can be heard within seconds of the opening track, ‘The Waters Rising’. It’s a brooding, dark affair, with pronounced electronic accents to accompany a commanding drumbeat, rich piano notes, and Cammie’s even richer, full-bodied vocals. And when the guitars and bass enter for the chorus, the warmth envelops the listener, and gives me shivers. Acoustic guitar strings play an important part as the intensity of the song gently, gradually builds within a deft ebb and flow that oozes emotion at every turn. When the heavier distorted guitars emerge, they crack the damn walls, but it’s not until the final stages when, together with stronger drumming, the damn breaks, flooding us before easing us to a serene, almost ambient conclusion.
The electronic influence is even more pronounced at the outset of ‘Hearts Of Stone’, an equally raw and emotional song, albeit with greater light and shade within it. The quiet parts are minimalist, whilst the heavier bursts contain real muscle. The key ingredient, aside from the vocals and gritty, honest lyrics, is the melodic aspect which may not get you on a first listen, but by the third and beyond, it becomes irresistible.
The Southern influence can be heard loud and proud within the sublime ‘The Lighthouse’. If you’ve seen the accompanying video, you’ll be aware of the hard-hitting lyrical content, brought beautifully to life thanks to a mesmerising performance from Cammie Beverley. The country-edged acoustic guitar notes and soulful electric solo are surprisingly compelling too, forcing me to re-evaluate some previously hard-wired opinions in the process. Similar could be said for ‘Red Forest Roads’ as well, as it injects yet more Southern influence. But the slam-dunk moment arrives in the latter stages when there’s an explosion of sound in a much more metallic direction, complete with stunning blast beats from Dobber Beverley. Put headphones on and I guarantee you’ll experience the goosebumps and chills that I do every time I listen.
I’m reminded of White Moth Black Butterfly in the opening to ‘The Hanging Tree’; the blend of delicate melodies, beguiling vocals, and pronounced pop/electronic sheen, with orchestral strings for added gravitas. Make no mistake, I wasn’t expecting this from Oceans Of Slumber, and I get why there might be a few dissenting voices. But, when all is said and done, it’s a fantastically evocative piece of music and should be enjoyed as such, regardless of the name on the cover of the record.
The aforementioned Katatonia vibe perhaps looms largest within songs like ‘Salvation’, which is of classic construction in that it starts quietly and delicately, hinting at each stage as if there is more to come, lurking in the darkness, ready to pounce. Instincts are proven correct, but the eventual explosion is controlled, led by some muscular guitar notes and brooding choral vocals, over which Cammie lets loose to amazing effect. ‘Star Altar’ and ‘Just A Day’, by contrast, are arguably the heaviest and most recognisable as Oceans Of Slumber songs from earlier in their discography. But even then, the doom-laden accents are juxtaposed by scintillating fragility and a vulnerability that was always there, but never so daringly exposed. The violin-laced, crushing doom of the latter though…oh my goodness, it’s just about perfect, conjuring their inner My Dying Bride so eloquently and magnificently.
Speaking of vulnerability, ‘The Spring Of 21’ is a three-minute piano piece performed by the multi-talented Dobber Beverley, and it is achingly beautiful, conveying more in his precise finger movements over two hundred seconds than I could ever achieve in this 1500-word review.
The only slight misstep in my opinion, is the cover of The Animals’ ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, which I don’t think is needed; their original material is powerful and entertaining enough without covering a song that has been covered to death over the years. But this is just me, and I am certain many will disagree.
Closing with the darkly dramatic ‘The Shipbuilder’s Son’, I have almost run out of ways to convey my enjoyment of ‘Starlight And Ash’ without repeating myself. I fully understand why some people will dislike this album – hell, I have felt that way about some of my favourite bands who have taken a turn with which I have disagreed. However, on this occasion, I have nothing but good things to say about Oceans Of Slumber and their musical shift. It isn’t anywhere near as musically ‘heavy’ or ‘metal’ as previous endeavours, but what it is, is raw, emotional, honest, and 100% genuine – these qualities shine through the material like golden threads, meaning that the end result is simply irresistible. It has taken me a long time to review this record, but for good reason. I didn’t want to respond in knee-jerk fashion, and I wanted the music to seep into me. Now that it has, I can honestly say that this is quite possibly the purest enjoyment I have experienced from an Oceans Of Slumber album. Clear enough for you?
The Score of Much Metal: 97%