Review: The Ocean – Pelagial

CoverPrior to last week I hadn’t heard of The Ocean or their hotly anticipated latest endeavor Pelagial. Regardless, I figured I’d give it a whirl.

The term ‘concept album’ is tossed around pretty liberally these days. Bands that don’t really understand what it involves but want to appear more artsy than their peers often use it (Muse’s The Resistance, anyone?). What we get is a pile of pointlessly complex track names and disappointment.

This is not one of those albums. I so badly wanted to peg it as faux-concept crap, but after seven hours of listening I just couldn’t.

Pelagial (which comes from “Pelagic”, referring to anything of or relating to the open sea) is made up of six movements: the six stages of depth in an ocean respectively. They occur in descending order, essentially pulling the listener further into the proverbial depths. The opening instrumental, “Epipelagic”, feels like that first moment when you dive beneath the water’s surface: peaceful, refreshing and strangely familiar. The delicate piano paints this picture, and they drive the point home with fitting if not subtle sounds of bubbles in the water (we get it guys, you like oceans). However, the serenity doesn’t last, as the sparse guitar begins on “Mesopelagic: Into the Uncanny”Suddenly it feels like something has grabbed you and is pulling you deeper, deeper than you feel comfortable going. I won’t go through the rest of the tracks in detail, so as to avoid giving everything awesome about this album away.

The transitions between movements are masterfully executed. Where many bands treat their music like a sprint and fire on all cylinders right from the get go, The Ocean treats this album like a marathon and pace themselves. Musically, they use lighter, more upbeat rhythms in the earlier movements and build towards slower, heavier, more ominous instrumentation as we go deeper. With vocals, this same restraint is used to great effect. Instead of a traditionally consistent variance between singing and screaming throughout, they begin the Mesopelagic movement with primarily clean vocals and move towards nothing but growling in the final Benthic movement. This band knows what it’s capable of, and don’t feel the need to flaunt all its power at once. This makes Pelagial all so much more interesting and rewarding to listen to. The “Mesopelagic”, “Hadopelagic” and “Benthic” movements are my favourite.

Lyrics with this kind of music can sometimes be a write-off, as bands like these often focus on the instruments and see the vocals as an add-on. This seems even more apparent when an instrumental version of the album is also released. Thus, I was ready for disappointing lyrical content – but I was pleasantly surprised. At first I thought it was just the band narrating a descent to the bottom of the sea, which would still be pretty sweet. Instead, they forgo the ocean concept and actually follow the plot of a Russian film from 1979: Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Stalker. Admittedly, I had to do a bit of digging online to discover that, as I don’t usually watch vintage Russian avant-garde films. Either way, the concept is badass. Really, any branching out from the lukewarm anti-establishment chants and life-sucks melodrama of this genre is refreshing.

If I listened to this album for much longer, it’d be hard to find anything wrong with it, so while I’m not completely biased I’ll make two points: The work is not easily accessible. For me, who listens to a lot of this stuff, it required a dictionary and two solid hours online to really get the gist of what was going on. Undoubtedly the band understood this, but for this reason I can’t see Pelagial roping in as many new fans. But for existing fans it is all the more satisfying. Secondly, this album lacks some passion. Despite the serious tone, it feels less like an expression of the soul and more of a complicated equation from the brain. Not to say that this music isn’t sincere, it’s just difficult as a listener to feel a connection with what is happening on account of its musical complexity and conceptual obscurity. As a result, I’ve become partial to the instrumental version, as it leaves more to interpretation while still having enough substance to stand on its own.

The verdict: this seven-piece from Berlin has earned its reputation. Pelagial is an ambitious, vicious, borderline rock-opera of an album that satisfies more with every listen. The Ocean demonstrates all that this genre is capable of but often is not.

Moral of the story: don’t judge a German prog-metal band by its cover.

 

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