Review Summary: The Ocean Collective's Precambrian is as primal as its title suggests. Yet it is as sophisticated as the Earth it represents...
Sophistication and rawness seem to be diametrically opposite styles in music. On one hand you have the lo-fi black metal productions, which garner praise and scorn for their elitist nature. On the other hand you have glossy pop records, which garner praise and scorn for their elitist nature. However, they seem to never feature in the same sentence; in a way, something that is slickly produced can never seem to become too overbearing (Porcupine Tree's tendency to use distortion is a good example), nor do the ambient moments on black metal records (think Burzum's Filosofem) seem to ever achieve any form of glossiness, even though they are not chaotically recorded.
The Ocean Collective seem to understand what is up with this dichotomy and seem to blend these fundamentally differing elements into a coherent, united whole. Part of this is the fact that they seem to veer between musical extremes like kids on a see-saw. The album is actually a double disc, with the first disc being their more hardcore-influenced side, and the second veering more towards what Opeth would sound like if they enjoyed copious amounts of Neurosis. Particularly the second disc makes use of a lot of contrasts, switching styles at the drop of a hat to veer from what sounds like light jazz or ambient mellow interludes to crushing riffs that recall the glory of sludge metal greats like Isis or Cult of Luna. The vocals seem to be strictly in line with this dichotomy too; many times the vocalist seems to channel Jacob Bannon, but there are exquisite moments where he utilises clean vocals to accentuate softer passages. And the production seems to suit it; the softer moments are full of clarity, pristine like ice-cold water from a mountain spring, but the harsh movements that are included are like that same mountain actually being a volcano and spewing voluminous amounts of lava.
There is a point to that naturalistic comparison and that is that the album invokes prehistoric times. All the songs are titled geologically, drawing on ancient names for ancient eras in the timeline of the Earth; all eras of the Precambrian are included. (I wonder if their next CD will chronicle dinosaurs? The geek in me says they will). The lyrics do not actually describe the lava flows, but merely use this paleontological setting as a metaphor for current issues; however the unifying theme of natural history just enhances the idea that there is something exquisitely primal going on. It even translates to the fact that the first cd chronicles the birth of the Earth; hence, in accordance with the tumultuous physical processes that occurred concomitantly with its formation, this is the hardcore-influenced disc of the album. As the earth started to cool down and solidify, so does the music; occasionally rupturing into bursts of violence like the Earth would, and still does, but also rumbling gently beneath the surface or pristinely wavering along. The album seems to be a reflection of the ever-changing entity that is the globe we stand on. Expressing it musically as a series of ebbing and flowing progressions makes the album not only a lyrical but a musical metaphor for nature; as pretentious as that seems, the music still doesn't sound like the band disappeared up its collective behind.
In fact, it is a frighteningly unified whole. The band itself a rotating cast of members around mastermind Robin Staps, his streamlined vision turning the cornucopia of styles into something that sticks. The riffs are compelling and the disparate styles make heavier moments sound like the ground is being sucked away underneath, and the melodic moments seem that bit more pristine when they are viewed within the scope of the songs. It is not so much verse-chorus song structure that ties the songs together as it is again duality: the sophistication is enhanced by juxtaposition and not diminished by it. The knowledge of how to segue these segmented bits that Robin has, and the pristine production (sometimes layered as much as 80 times, making live performances entirely difficult), draw an even sharper spotlight to these differences. It also helps that the riffs actually seem to thunder instead of plod, and that the piano tinkering and cello continuously evokes a naturalistic sense of dread throughout.
And it's in that sophistication that the album's final selling point lies. As sophisticated as the music is, the core is still formed by one of the most raw and primal types of music on the album: hardcore punk. The hardcore and metal elements that are the centre of the album, as were they lynchpins around which the album was formed, still embody something raw and pure, something like a rough diamond being formed under the pressure of a colliding earth. And it is in fact remarkable that something as complex was formed from something considered so simplistic, which again, seems to parallel the real world: just consider the forming of fully-formed organisms from the amino acid blocks that constitute our DNA. If this album is anything, it is a reflection of who we are, and a frighteningly accurate reflection of where we started out on this planet, as well as a mirror of where we are now; as far as artistic success goes, this is like taking the exam and scoring 100% while getting the bonus questions right. This is how to take a pretentious concept, throw it upside-down, and still have the metaphor being applicable to every part of the world we can imagine. And that, for a band as primal as this, to conjure something this complex, is an achievement that should be lauded.