How exactly does one describe a band like Oceansize? Like all cult favourites, so disproportionate is their effect on fans to commercial success that it can be difficult to know who to listen to. Are they merely an obscure and over-complicated ‘post-rock’ combo, appealing only to the type of music fan willing to scream ‘sell-out’ at the smallest sign of popular recognition? Or are they gifted songwriters, conjuring epic and essential slabs of melodic rock, and only kept off major-label success by bands more easily marketed in today’s aesthetically pleasing popular music scene? Throw in the token comparisons—Mogwai, Tool, Porcupine Tree—and the token descriptions—prog-rock, space-rock, post-rock—and the argument widens. So, baffled and more than a little tentative, you delve into Frames, Oceansize’s third full-length in a so-far flawless catalogue, and attempt to make some sense of all this confusion.
On first glance, admittedly, things don’t look too good. Two in this collection of eight songs are over ten minutes long, and none are under six. It’s the kind of tracklisting that makes the little cynic inside you, the one that gives a Yes- or Rush-shaped laugh at the words ‘progressive rock’, crop up and set alarm bells ringing and your bowels aquiver. But for your own sake, tie that troublemaker up, gag him, and throw him in the attic for the next hour or so. Look past the cynicism, and this, you’ll soon discover, is good stuff.
It begins with deceptive quiet—some noise, and a tense, sharp guitar riff, repeated over and over, hypnotising and mesmerising and opening up into something spectacular. This is “Commemorative 9/11 T-Shirt”, the album’s brutal opener, and a track seemingly designed to suck doubters in and dare them to turn it off. So confident is the approach that when frontman Mike Vennart snarls his way onto the track, a good three minutes in, you can almost hear him swagger: “Try to keep your composure / I’m only having a laugh”. It’s as telling an opening gambit as you’re likely to come across, by a man so self-aware he can swerve around expectations like nobody’s business. This is Oceansize with nothing to prove, and only too happy to let the music speak for itself.
Thankfully, Frames does, being an opus of both great depth and staggering precision. From the glorious sing-along and lavish noise of “Unfamiliar”, to the jaw-dropping three-guitar duel at the end of “Trail of Fire”, this is musicianship and passion of the highest order. Despite Oceansize’s trademark awkward time-signatures being on display as always, particularly on angst-ridden “Only Twin”, the effect is tight and natural, and that cynic you locked up earlier will have little on Frames to support the notion that prog is odd musicianship for the sake of it.
Mike Vennart’s dark melodies are a particular standout, catchy and diamond-hard as they are, and even when it tests your patience—screaming match “Sleeping Dogs and Dead Lions” springs to mind, with a deafening decibel level and a synthesized vocal passage that is just mystifying—Frames always has a calling card hidden somewhere in these lengthy songs.
Okay, so it has its flaws—the strings at the end of “Savant” just don’t work, for example. And it could be argued that “An Old Friend of the Christies” has too little in the way of a payoff to justify its ten-minute duration, particularly for an instrumental. But in the end, nit-picking isn’t the point when it comes to Oceansize. This is very much an album, after all, rather than a collection of songs, and the important thing about albums is the journey taken in listening to them. Frames is a vast, rewarding journey, with enough twists and turns to keep you interested, and a great sense that something important has occurred at its fade. So get rid of that cynic, turn Oceansize’s latest masterpiece right up, and enjoy.
Just don’t expect to hear it on the radio, however much you love it.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.