The phrase “prog rock” always tends to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Whenever a band is labeled “prog”, I always imagine a group of long haired gentlemen, eyes ringed in black mascara, doting over stacks of vintage synthesizes and arrays of multi-track recording devices while examining the liner notes of bargain bin copies of Wagner’s greatest hits, attempting to discover new diminished chords to tune their guitars to. These so-called “artists” who have tried to bring something like respect to the apparently derisible consortium of rock musicians, typically by alluding to classical music’s greats through the use of symphonic form and leitmotif, and occasionally by incorporating ancient mythology as well as the more modern legends of robots and the Ice-Capades.
Prog compositions seem to better reflect the spirit of competition than an aesthetic ideal, as they often sound like attempts to gain admittance into the Guinness book of World Records for the most instrumental and vocal tracks to ever occur in one song during the longest possible duration of time. Their pretensions and self-imposed grandeur inevitably appear deluded at best and ridiculous at worst, even if they did leave us the legacy of actually referring to rock musicians as artists. That said, why would anyone want to revive prog? Perhaps due to an overwhelming sense of nostalgia or perhaps because of the natural tendency of trends to recycle themselves every 30, give or take, the music world has given us Oceansize, the so-called front-runners of the “new-prog” movement. Wielding mammoth guitars and unflinching bravado, even in the face of insipid lyrics, they do indeed live up to their title. But, is it too soon to crown the new “geniuses” of prog?
Geniuses or not, the members of Oceansize have been doing their homework, which is to say they follow a careful progressive-rock formula which they use on almost every track. Each track opens with a deceptively simple riff, often percussion and bass. Not only does this have the affect of shocking the listener when the power-house fuzz guitars flood the aural canals with the force of a two ton multi-track sequencer in free-fall, an affect that thankfully for listeners with heart-conditions diminishes with each passing track, it also has the consequence of lulling the listener into what I like to call a false sense of quality. A catchy drum and bass riff matched with the delicate strains of a carefully executed guitar etude actually tends to sound quite lovely, until it is all drowned in a full battery of every instrument known to the staff at Guitar Center. After the initial development section, the track’s descent into madness, also known as the Wagnerian development section, begins whereby the group repeats the same short riffs or lyrical phrases ad nauseum, refusing to be constrained by the plebian use of refrains or anything that might add structure or coherence to each ten-minute track. At some random juncture eight to twelve minutes down the road, the musicians decide to cap off the song by playing every note on every instrument all at the same time, a truly momentous and brilliant display of dexterity.
While most of the album is a disappointing and mediocre homage to prog, the group’s modern influences offer occasionally interesting interpretations of the old clichés. The group often incorporates contemporary rhythms borrowed from modern techno beats, such as on “Unravel”, where the drums adopt a decidedly trip-hop stance that plays off the warm sounds of a simple piano ostinato. At similar moments when the group seems to establish a groove and the complex elements momentarily align in something not so closely resembling gratuitous mania, the music actually sounds beautiful. The overall album has a sort of ethereal quality with timbres and motifs weaving a startling tapestry of aggressive guitars and bittersweet vocals. Their crowning achievement is “Saturday Morning Breakfast Show” as drums and bass beat out a steady rhythm that forms the backbone over which the flesh and blood of guitars and vocals engage in a sort of twisted tango of overlapping dissonance, occasionally letting the rhythmic foundation drop out completely, eliciting a queasy free-fall sensation. Until the melee of gratuitous guitar power rips the harmonic fabric to shreds.
Ultimately what is terrible about the album is that it’s not really terrible at all, but it isn’t terrific either. The album has the sort of awful mediocre quality, like the intense boredom of Chinese water torture, those incessant drops of lukewarm water against the skin that slowly drives a man insane. Given something else to distract you, the album might not seem so painful, but as each repetitive track drags on and on, one can’t help but feel a little stir-crazy. Worse, the qualities that occasionally make prog rock bearable, those of virtuoso quality or, at the very least, a sense of humor are conspicuously absent. The musicianship is good, but with little more than stacks and stacks of distorted rhythmic guitar strumming and the occasional one string solo, its hardly impressive. Worse yet, when the lyrics are discernable, and this is rare, it becomes clear just how seriously these artists take their genius. In the midst of one particularly impassioned moment of the song “Remember Where You Are”, all the instrumentation falls away, and the listener glimpses the depth of the Oceansize’s soul with these words repeated over and over like a mythical incantation: “A single bite of cherry for you.”
Doesn’t that just say it all?