Review Summary: A strange, rewarding journey with a little bit too much filler.
In 2007, after two decent but somewhat inconsistent full-lengths, Oceansize finally fully reached their potential with their third full-length, 'Frames'. 'Frames' was an utterly magnificent album, and is my idea of a perfect modern prog album. The textures and structures hit me on a gut level, and many of the songs affected me very deeply. How do they choose to follow up such a work? Enter 'Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up', a work which is extremely bizarre in very subtle ways.
A few things are immediately apparent. The short, simple title of their previous record is replaced by a rather long, slightly clunky title. But the length of the title is not reflected in the song length - while the songs on Frames were all between 6 and 11 minutes long, most of the songs on their fourth LP are around four minutes, with only two songs exceeding 5 minutes. And what does this mean for the individual songs? Gone are the buildups and climaxes of much of their older material - only a few of these songs work outside of their context in the album. This makes the whole thing much stranger, since they chose to structure the album in a very idiosyncratic manner.
The album begins with the three loudest, busiest songs on the entire album. Each one is faster than its predecessor, and only one works on its own. The album begins with 'Part Cardiac' - a loud, slow, and sludgy song which will be quite a shocking opener for fans familiar with the band. This song is quite heavy, and contains little textural variation outside of the vocal line increasing in intensity and aggression throughout the piece (and it doesn't exactly start at a whisper). Instead, the interest here is created through constant rhythmic and harmonic changes, including a rather cool use of the whole tone scale which sounds like a descent into hell. The song isn't very repetitive at all, despite the static texture - its structure is rather difficult to follow, yet consistently exciting. It ends very abruptly, leaving the listener completely scratching their head. The song only works because it jumps right into 'Superimposer', which continues the rhythmic energy and ups the speed and melody.
'Superimposer' is a strange song on its own, too - despite having something you could call a climax, just like the preceding song, it doesn't actually do much of anything without the tracks surrounding it. There are more parts crammed into this song's 4-minute duration than either of the 8-minute songs on this album, and it is suitably filled with constant rhythmic and harmonic changes - yet, its subdued vocal line over this active music gives the song a rather strange quality, which isn't helped by its weak production (oddly (and thankfully) not shared by the rest of the record).
This song jumps right into 'Build Us a Rocket The... You Rocket-Building Cunt', which is the fastest, most exciting song yet, and the only song in the opening trio that works on its own. This one should please fans of older Oceansize heavy songs like 'A Homage to a Shame', but I would argue that this song is much better and much more exciting despite being shorter. Just listen to that drum work!
When 'Build Us a Rocket' ends and goes into 'Oscar Acceptance Speech', the first of the two 8+ minute songs on the record, things suddenly mellow out. We are treated to a yearning falsetto melody (with a vocal effect that conjures up the effect in 'Part Cardiac') over an unpredictable chord progression on the piano - but this is deceptive. 'Build Us a Rocket' may have seemed like the climax of the beginning of the album, but 'Oscar Acceptance Speech' is the emotional climax of the entire album. Despite being mellower, this song has just as much rhythmic drive and moment-to-moment excitement as any of the first three songs, with much more feeling behind it. Unlike the constantly shifting time signatures of the first three songs, this song is mostly in 4/4 - yet, it may be the biggest rhythmic head-twister of them all, due to weird syncopations and accents which give it an extremely strange rhythmic feel.
The body of this song ends at the six minute mark, and the remaining three minutes are devoted to a beautiful piano-and-strings outro. This is the first time the album relaxes, and this is where things start getting structurally strange. What does the band do after placing the best song on the album (and its climax) at only track four, with seven songs left to go? The band decides to prolong that relaxing feel for quite a while, creating a continuation of their last release, the all-mellow 'Home & MInor' EP. 'Ransoms' is a shockingly simple song for the band - a soft song entirely in 4/4 which goes nowhere. It simply prolongs the relaxing feel of the outro of the previous song, minus that song's beauty. This song wouldn't work at all outside of its context on the record, but it prolongs the mood of the ending of the previous song so nicely that it's hard to argue with, despite steering suspiciously close to 'boring' territory. 'A Penny's Weight' continues this vibe even further, only with a female voice and some fun rhythmic and harmonic play. This song borders on being cheesy, but has so many things going for it that it's also hard to argue with.
The album gets a bit of rhythmic energy back with 'Silent/Transparent', which has a similar double-drum-track to their earlier song 'Massive Bereavement' (only this time, they use two snares to differentiate the drums more), but this song is still quite mellow. It is the only other song on the record beside 'Oscar Acceptance Speech' which builds to a real climax, and it's an easy highlight. This time around, it uses its entire 8-minute runtime to build to its climax - only, it does so in a much more straightforward way than any of the material on 'Frames'. The loud ending is a relief following all of that soft material - but it is brief.
The next song, 'It's My Tail And I'll Chase It If I Want To', continues the loudness of the previous song's ending after a short and strange soft intro, but this song is an enigma - it is a three minute song which barely develops its one idea - a song that chases its own tail. This soft intro is another one of the album's enigmas - instead of just continuing the momentum of the previous song's ending, they softly noodly around for thirty seconds before scaring you with the song's opening. This five-minute stretch is the only burst of energy we get following the six-minute mark of the fourth song, and it is followed by three more soft songs, making the overall structure of the record very strange and topheavy. People have been proposing different tracklists which work 'better', but I would argue that this is foolish - this record is a beautifully flowing suite, and to rearrange it would break it. It's strange structure is a large part of its appeal.
As for those three songs - Pine is another shocking simple, 4/4 soft song which is sentimental enough to border on being cheesy. 'Superimposter' has excellent verses and a cool ending but a rather strange chorus with a difficult to follow melody. I'm not sure how I feel about it, but it does end the album with a creepy mood. 'Cloak' is an uneventful throwaway bonus track which may be the softest of them all, but it does continue the mood quite nicely. It has the vibe of a hidden track, and I'm surprised they made it a special edition bonus track instead of a hidden track.
Mike Vennart proclaimed that this was the best record the band has ever recorded, whether the fans think so or not. I can't agree with this statement - this record doesn't have any of the emotional punch that Frames had for me, and it has too much filler to really reach the heights of any of their previous records. Lyrically, it is truly their best work - the lyrics here are consistently excellent - they are abstract yet engaging, filled with clever word play and a lot of meaning at the same time. But the music here falls a bit short, and because of this I actually think it's their worst album yet. At the same time, it doesn't feel disappointing at all - it is such a strange, thought-provoking and mind-boggling record that it is consistently engaging, and thus is a worthy addition to their catalogue.