This is one of those releases you could write a treatise about (not that such releases are abundant). Its scope is so ambitious, it borders on megalomania. But that’s fine with me. Who has ever achieved anything significant by setting themselves small goals? Maybe someday someone will write a book or a PhD thesis on The Ocean’s opus. They sure would deserve it.
Named after the cradle of all life on earth, The Ocean are a progressive metal band originally from Berlin, Germany. Formed in 2000, their line-up has changed quite a bit over the years. The band’s only constant member, its mastermind and chief megalomaniac is guitarist Robin Staps who is also the founder of the German indie label Pelagic Records (Does he ever sleep?). So far, the band has released six full-length albums, all to critical acclaim. Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic is their seventh full length. Its second part is to follow in 2019. According to the band, Phanerozoic is conceptually and musically the missing link between the albums Precambrian and Heliocentric/Anthropocentric.
If you haven’t realised it yet, then let me tell you now: The Ocean are fond of geology. Geology, the science of rocks, how they came to be, the processes that shape them, that shape the surface of our planet. The science of the history of Earth. Why geology? Well, there is something very philosophical to be acquired from the study of geology, and that is probably why it was chosen as basis for the band’s musical concept and as a way to visualize their philosophical believes. It is a brilliant choice, because with the help of geology you can demonstrate one of the most profound truths there are: For life on Earth, change is a constant. In fact, it is the only constant apart from the laws of physics. Geology will teach you that change is eternally recurring (track 2: Cambrian II Eternal Recurrence) and also neutral. It has no inherent value, it is neither good nor bad. Nothing in nature stays the way it is at a given moment in time. Time and environmental conditions will tear the most solid rocks down, little by little, or in large-scale events, and turn them into something else. In addition, there is nothing to be found in these processes that would indicate that nature or the universe have an interest in preserving life. It’s all pretty random. What’s true in the context of geology is true in general: Time and circumstances work on everything and everybody. You can try to influence these two factors, but essentially all of your effort will be in vain, because you can’t manipulate time and you can never control all circumstances. In their entirety, time and circumstances will always remain beyond your control. On a long enough timescale, anything that can happen, will happen.
The geological eon The Ocean have chosen to concentrate on for their current and their next album is the Phanerozoic. It lasts until today and began 541 million years ago with the first abundant appearance of complex animal life forms, an event, or rather a series of events, known as the Cambrian Explosion (track 1). The Phanerozoic is divided into three eras, the first of which, the Palaeozoic, is the focus of the album at hand. The other two eras will probably be dealt with on the next album. The Palaeozoic and its six periods are so remarkable, because during that time three mass extinction events occurred, among them the largest of such events in the history of Earth, The Great Dying (track 7, the album’s final track), wiping out 95% of all life on Earth.
While it might appear eccentric and quirky, the album’s subject is much more than just an oddity. In the age of global warming it has real contemporary relevance and can even serve as a warning about what lies ahead. Like other life forms in the past, humanity might get wiped out. While nature and the universe have enough deadly force to do that, mankind is the first life form that has the potential and the ability to accomplish the job all by themselves and take other current life forms with them.
Written in seclusion in a house by the ocean and partly recorded during winter in Iceland, the music on Phanerozoic I is like the processes and the subject it seeks to portray. The album sounds first and foremost monumental and heavy, then multifaceted, layered and complex. Sometimes the music is massive and incredibly forceful, like tectonic plates colliding, other times it is light, like trickling water or slightly blowing wind. It is beautiful too, but this is not the kind of beauty that seeks to please someone. It’s awe-inspiring, terrifying and cold.
The album starts with The Cambrian Explosion. This short instrumental serves as an intro and has a light, hesitant and inert character, portraying an initializing event. There are recurring trilling sounds, but also darker and deeper notes. The track speeds up towards the end and almost seamlessly leads into Cambrian II Eternal Recurrence. From there on, Phanerozoic I has an audible progression, from cruder, earthier and heavier sounds, to more intricate and more refined tunes, from mostly screamed and throaty vocals, to mostly clear ones. The album’s middle segment even has a classical feel with prominent piano and cello parts. My favourite tracks are Ordovicium The Glaciation of Gondwana (track 3) and Permian The Great Dying (track 7). The drumming on Ordovicium is absolutely mind-blowing, just like the vocals. You can literally hear the ice building up in episodes, the forcefulness of these events and species dying off as a result of it. Nothing less impressive is the guitar and bass work on track 7, and again the drumming, especially in the track’s finale. The cymbals sound like the sword swooshes of nature, cutting down everything in front of them. The album’s prog metal, post metal and post rock end appropriately abrupt and a with a prolonged silence.
About the lyrics I can’t say a lot, because they haven’t been included in the press material (Why not?), and you can only understand bits and pieces, but it seems that they add an individual, personal dimension to the story, and I like that.
Delving into this album, its music, its subject, the philosophical implications at its heart and its contemporary relevance will be rewarding and pay off in many ways. If you haven’t yet, you might realize that humanity is doomed and that nature and the universe couldn’t care less. But tragic as that might be, and whatever might happen to us, it will just be another incident, another phase in the eon’s old history of Earth. Life will probably survive in one way or another.
Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic is perfect, rounded and coherent, all in itself and in the context of the band’s previous albums. There’s only one thing I’m wishing for, and that’s a stronger experimental streak, but that’s just a result of my interpretation of the events and processes portrayed. I would wish for more chaos, and less control. After all, evolution is chaotic. It takes place in a certain framework, yes, but it is not a linear equation. Evolution is entropy, it has a tendency towards disorder. I would like to see The Ocean venture into more experimental waters, I would like to see and hear the chaos and the disorder.
We’ll see, what the next album will bring. I’m looking very much forward to it.