Artist: The Ocean
Album Title: Holocene
Label: Pelagic Records
Date of Release: 19th May 2023
I’m nothing if not stubborn. Despite never really clicking with Berlin’s The Ocean – or The Ocean Collective to give them their full name – I always show up when a new album is released, in the hope rather than expectation that maybe, just maybe, I’ll click with them and enjoy their music like so many others do. After all, a band that has been in existence since the turn of the millennium and released ten albums in that time, can’t be bad, can they? Yet, despite many plaudits over the years, both in the form of critical acclaim and positive noises from a devoted fanbase, I have struggled.
I enjoy plenty of progressive music, I enjoy strong atmospheres, and I also like some post-rock and metal sounds. The latter is not a personal favourite admittedly, but the other two descriptions are right up my alley. I therefore scratch my head and wonder why The Ocean’s music remains just a little out of my grasp. Album number eleven is now here, so what better opportunity to have yet another try?
Unfortunately, it’s the same old story. After a cursory listen or two, I could only conclude that ‘Holocene’ was, frankly, dull. I made this comment on social media, but was strongly persuaded by those that I trust, to give it more time. Since then, ‘Holocene’ has been floating around my ears on and off for a while now, as I searched for that elusive spark, the moment of clarity, or something of that ilk.
Had it not been for the fact that I have invested so much time and attention into it, I’d not be writing this review. That spark has not ignited, and ultimately, I’m not a newly won-over fan of ‘Holocene’ or The Ocean, but not for the want of trying, I can assure you. But the big question is this: why? Never one to just say ‘this is rubbish’ and move on, instead, I have explored my reasoning and have concluded that there is no one element that prevents my full enjoyment, but rather, it’s a combination of things.
Funnily enough, though, it’s not because of the frequent and liberal use of brass within the album’s songs. The way that the brass is used isn’t ostentatious or overbearing, and it doesn’t get in the way of where the guitars should necessarily be. Instead, it is used to heighten the sense of pensiveness, introspection, and often bleakness of the music and the subject matter. I’d be happier if it was used less, but it is not a dealbreaker here.
The individual and collective performances of the musicians is without question, as is the strong production, which makes the album sound powerful and fragile at the same time. And I will admit that, over time, there are parts of the album that have begun to make a little more sense to me, as well as offering a little more enjoyment along the way.
However, the overriding reason why I’ve not connected so strongly with ‘Holocene’ as others may have, becomes apparent with the introduction of the penultimate song, ‘Parabiosis’. In keeping with much of the material on the album, it is a song that uses a great deal of electronic sounds and textures, whilst taking its sweet time to build and increase in strength. When it finally does blossom out of its shy, introspective cocoon, I hear it. Finally. Finally, there’s a melody to make me sit up and listen. It’s catchy, engaging, and wraps my ears in a warmth that really hasn’t been in evidence anywhere else on the record. And it transforms the whole music, elevating it to a whole new level as far as I’m concerned. The brass doesn’t matter, the overt socio-political lyrical content doesn’t matter, and suddenly, the pronounced ebb and flow from gentle minimalism to explosions of grinding, lurching walls of sound really work together. The only problem is that ‘Parabiosis’ makes me frustrated, because this could have been how the album as a whole could have sounded. But it doesn’t and that’s annoying to me.
Instead, none of the other seven tracks speak to me in a similar way. I have grown to like the opening track, ‘Preboreal’ thanks to some incessant listening in an attempt to unlock the ‘Holocene’ code. The bold use of modern-sounding electronics feels like a new weapon for The Ocean, or at least a more generously used weapon. As it grows, the song becomes quite hypnotic and engrossing, especially when the inevitable explosion of aggression arrives after the halfway mark. It’s worth saying that I do like the tones and the sounds of the guitars, as they are properly beefy, with real purpose and intensity.
Try as I might, though, tracks like ‘Sea Of Reeds’ and ‘Unconformities’ do very little for me. The Former is a deliberately sombre affair, inspired by the bible, that looks at the way we view our loved ones and the way in which it can have a positive and negative impact depending on many factors. It’s an interesting concept, but the song itself is a bit of a ‘nothing’ song for me. It doesn’t offer me a killer melody, or something within it that turns it into an essential song. It just feels a bit inoffensive and grey to my ears.
‘Unconformities’ offers something different in that it features a guest vocalist in the form of Karin Park. However, once again, it does more to put me off that pull me in. The voice of Park is great, but I’m just not a fan of the chosen melodies, despite a wistful atmosphere that enshrouds the song. The use of brass is more pronounced in places, and this puts me off slightly, but I just don’t warm to the song at all. I don’t even like the all-out aggressive attack towards the end, when we’re hit with a barely contained blast of naked rage from the band, including anguished, spiteful screams.
What I hope is that this review has at least tried to explain why I, personally, have not taken ‘Holocene’ to my heart like others. You’ll hear no argument from me if you have an entirely different opinion of the music on this record, because it’s a well-conceived, well performed, and excellent sounding record. It is just that I haven’t discovered that spark to propel it into an album that I really like and revere. It’s good – of that there is no doubt, but I guess at the end of the day, it’s just not quite my thing.
The Score of Much Metal: 71%