Review Summary: Though its depths vary, The Ocean is largely consistent from one end to another.
In the increasingly niche musical filing of progressive metal, The Ocean has managed to establish themselves as a group that excels at balancing the heavier elements of sludge, groove, attack, and post-metal with lighter, more progressive aspects of leads, keys, and strings. Not only have they managed to properly proportion the yin and yang of progressive metal throughout their catalog, but they've also proved their ability to match and evolve a certain tone to a process or period of time, particularly on 2007's Precambrian
. While the collective (now more of a traditional band than they had been prior to the release of 2010's Heliocentric
) were somewhat criticized for inconsistency and the philosophical posturing on Heliocentric
and (to a lesser extent) on follow-up Anthropocentric
, the root of their sound remained largely unchanged throughout. Really, six years after Precambrian
, The Ocean continue to remain one of the more consistent groups in progressive metal with their most recent release, Pelagial
, doing little to detract from that title.
If the fluid, large sound of Pelagial
seems like a return to form after two scrutinized albums, the reasons should be rather apparent. At the basest level, Pelagial
is simply tighter, better organized, and a little more interesting than its last two predecessors. But even this can be attributed to differences in subject matter. While Heliocentric
were both accused of pretentiousness that bloated things to the point of bust, pretense has always been at least somewhat applicable to The Ocean's subject matter.
The primary difference is that albums like Heliocentric
attempted to steer the musical engine towards describing more abstract evolutions of human thought while earlier albums, like the heralded Precambrian
, played closer to describing natural processes that have a formed, logical flow to them that's similarly reflected in the music. Pelagial
, in its concept of delving into the ocean's depths, plays to the strengths of the latter and projects the image of a spike in performance when the real issue on the past two albums seems to have stemmed more from a weaker pairing of songwriting and concept than anything else.
And just as The Ocean managed to turn the evolution of a landscape and its population over eras into a musical mural, the group does the same with the descent from the surface to the trenches of the ocean. Beginning with tracks that lean more towards a light, piano-heavy sound indicative of the waters' lightest and most welcoming levels, Pelagial
turns darker at the "Bathyalpelagic" level of the album - by no coincidence the same level in the ocean where things become pitch black. From that point on, while melodic leads, the occasional keys, and strings sound out from time to time in a recreation of the wonder an explorer might feel tingle in his veins at such a depth, the primary force becomes the deep, heavy groove belying the tides and thickening along with the increasing pressure surrounding whatever tin can an explorer might descend in.
seems to accomplish exactly what The Ocean set out to achieve in properly balancing progressive and metal aspects to create a sonic representation of the world's big, blue depths, but it's not an album without fault. While vocalist Loic Rossetti's lows and growls do a great job of adding punch and character to the waters that could be seen as emblematic of its inhabitants, early missteps in his forced and accented mid-range cleans can be cringe-worthy. As the plunge progresses, most this problem works itself away by phasing out his higher range, but even then, knowledge that the album was originally intended to be an instrumental piece can make certain vocal passages feel forced and unnecessary.
That, and while the group's consistency largely plays to their benefit, the album's vastness can become somewhat boring. Without much of a large shift in tone or dynamic as the depth increases, things start to blend together. That shouldn't be surprising, mind - this is an album about exploring the ocean's depths. While there's certainly some interesting things to be found on the voyage, once you get past a certain level, it's just dark and wet. As musically interesting and artistically representative as Pelagial
is, it's not an album with massive replay value and that's not shocking.
It's okay, even. Pelagial
is strong enough as a progressive metal release and as an artistic representation that it gets its point across with proper force, elegance, and assertiveness without forcing you to analyze it up and down for months. With so few contemporary acts balancing progressive and metal elements in the way that The Ocean do, I think it can be easy to overestimate the lasting impact of an album like Pelagial
due to a lack of competition. Like a B-talent in a talent-light NFL draft, it can be easy for us to over-appraise Pelagial
as a return to greatness for the band when, in fact, they've really never strayed from the course they set out on. If anything, Pelagial
simply proves that when The Ocean focus on structured topics they can easily make great albums without really pushing the envelope one way or another. Whether or not they'll put the extra oomph into the next one and try to recapture the success they found on Precambrian: Proterozoic
remains to be seen.