Review Summary: "Where others float..."
It’s a difficult time for progressive rock bands. Leave it to the critics to decide that a music genre, which admittedly hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years, has become too stale and boring to leave a lasting mark with any new material. It’s a fair point too; standing up to the sheer songwriting prowess of a Pink Floyd or Yes isn’t an even fight for any up-and-comer, even while forgetting the rose-colored tint of it all, and the task is much too steep and unreasonable to be taken seriously. To be honest it’s largely due to the unwavering devotion to the basic nature of the progressive soundscape with its adherence to sprawling epics and experimental diddles that can lose their impact and individuality once you move past your second or third contender within the sound. But to blanket these newfound ‘false’ progressive bands under a pretense that nothing they make can rival their predecessors isn’t remotely pertinent in the argument over whether or not these bands are actually presenting us with strong rock albums.
Because they are. And, to pile on, these albums can be an entirely different experience than their forefathers ever brought forth. Whether you look at the standard song structured leans of Fair to Midland or early Karnivool, or towards the simplistic and grandiose expanses of what Oceansize orchestrates here, you can’t look down on these presentations for borrowing the essential ideas from what has come before them. In fact, it’s a challenge to look deeper, to look past the bare bones of the commonplace qualities present and see what these guys are actually working to establish as their own. Oceansize is the prime example, creating such a minimalistic, repetitive sound with Frames that without delving deeper can come across as a bit of a bore.
Coincidentally boredom is the largest complaint you see with modern prog, and is a result of the unwillingness to let an album ‘do work’ on our brains. We live in an instant gratification culture, and our music has become no different. To let an album absorb and simmer onto your consciousness is an absurd notion; especially when that album comes across as straightforward and obvious from the get go. We were willing to do it for Pink Floyd because our parents or our elders told us that those albums were unrivaled in their excellence. Why can’t we do it with the new attempts at capturing the similar ideals?
As with most progressive rock, Frames isn’t about its sophistication within technicality and attention grabbing qualities, but rather about its emotional moment-shaping and tension building. ‘Commemorative T-Shirt’ consists of a single guitar riff that is molded and transformed repeatedly before erupting forth into a distorted finale that brings us away from the mundane repetition of the early minutes of the track, before slinking away into the same off-kilter noodling we had experienced previous. It shouldn’t work, an eight minute exercise in “how many ways can we mess with this sound”, but through innovative thinking and needle-fine precision we are left to experience an emotional launching and lulling that would be overlooked without allowing the sound sink in. It leads seamlessly into the extroverted ‘Unfamiliar’ which brings us one of the few vocal hooks of the album, lending it in stark contrast to the previous track and the upbeat and quirky follow up “Trail of Fire”. But underneath both is an uncomplicated melody that carries the track forward.
The simplicity of the proceedings is a common theme throughout, with most tracks steering away from overtly complicated or layered arrangements, but instead letting the empty space surrounding the music do the heavy lifting for them. On ‘An Old Friend of the Christy’s’, haunting organ leads into a hollow, echoing drum beat, before a small guitar lick emerges and eats away at the emptiness. It’s welcome at first, but proves to only heighten the darkness and despair of the track as it develops. It builds tension as it grows and amalgamates into a new pattern, before exploding into a noisy, dissonant squeal of its previous incarnation. The first lick returns in the end identical to its beginning, but somehow manages to be robbed of the gloomy qualities of before, instead becoming much more downtrodden and lonely, a shell of its former self. Then on “Savant” and the superb “The Frame”, the centric harmonies are accompanied by strings that give heft to the messages the music brings, but keep the songs on an even keel, not overstepping the bounds of accompaniment towards a cheesy or over-the-top sound.
Oceansize do more with single notes than most could ever hope to accomplish with complete works. Each second of a track is calculated to depict precise emotions and tensions that would make the best post rock bands blush with envy. It’s a painting of a picture, and without each speck coming together and understood for its worth, you lose the overarching effect of the piece. Frames is a masterful expression of tension building and release, an entirely different venture than that of the progressive rock albums that many try to compare it to, it being criminal to even attempt it. If you strive to separate what the past has conditioned us to expect from what we are currently witnessing from modern progressive rock, you can see the distinct and brilliant works that have been accomplished by the genres current residents. Where the others in the genre would float, Oceansize was perfectly willing to crash land.