For the past few years, the sound of British rock has been accurately described by adjectives such as fey or twee—the kind of words that conjure images of pasty-skinned choir boys who read Jane Austen novels, then get all flummoxed and sensitive when they can’t score a date. This isn’t a dig; most of this music is indeed moving and… well… pretty, but it has become somewhat formulaic. Ever since Coldplay took the slow verse/soaring chorus template of Radiohead and added overtly-sappy lyrics, the list of bands offering variations of this schema continues to grow: Travis, Keane, Snow Patrol, Starsailor, Embrace… Even the names are a bit too delicate to handle. Britain has become the land of sensitive stadium rock, leaving many to crave something with more edge—or even just something different.
With their second LP, Everyone into Position, Oceansize offer both—something different with loads of edge. Like their name, Oceansize’s sound is vast and powerful, encompassing and devouring numerous genres. They’ve been described as prog-rock and space rock, but these categories are too narrow to accurately convey the band’s sound. Their songs do possess the epic, grandiose ambitions of prog-rock, but lack the geeky, pseudo-mystical pretension the label implies. Likewise, Oceansize know how to explore the drone, but never play without focus. These inept labels, perhaps, come from the band’s tendency to write long, sprawling songs; only one song here clocks in under five minutes. Similarly, comparisons to groups also fail to encapsulate the band. Yes, some of their songs are reminiscent of the precise propulsion of Tool—ominous drums thump and roll, while guitars stand up and fight—and other songs evoke the beautifully nauseous soundscapes of Mogwai. Single notes chime and then fade, while slow-motion chaos swells in the background. But such parallels are just coincidence. You could easily compare Oceansize to Radiohead, Yes, Sigur Ros, Pink Floyd, the Mars Volta, and several dozen other bands who also like to tinker and defy convention.
So perhaps it’s most apt to simply say that Oceansize couldn’t give a damn about rules. Though rumor had it that Oceansize would deliver an album more radio-friendly and digestible, they offer an album defiantly artistic. Album opener “Charm Offensive” alternates between a slow simmer and aural anarchy, the first few minutes rolling under like a wave that finally crashes onto shore at the end. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the album—using the first half of a song to explore a theme, then annihilating that theme at the end. “No Tomorrow”, while featuring a traditional verse/chorus structure, breaks free from all formulas, ending with a three-guitar attack that sounds like machine guns firing into the sky. Indeed, many of the songs are taut and foreboding, the lyrics reinforcing the dark tone. In “A Homage to Shame”, for example, singer Mike Vennart proclaims, “Say one thing for sorrow / Say nothing for shame / It’s a piss over our parade.” Nope, Coldplay this ain’t.
This isn’t to suggest that Oceansize are one-dimensional, specializing in aggression and frenetic riffing. Several of the tracks on Everyone into Position reveal additional depth, such as the entrancing, poetic “Music for a Nurse”. Beginning with the occasional guitar note and spare drums, the song slowly add layers until toppling over into an ethereal rush of guitars. Likewise, the haunting “Mine Host” is more nuance and texture than momentum, the airy coats of instrumentation mingling within one another like vapor. Songs such as these are undoubtedly responsible for the Mogwai comparisons, as Oceansize are adept at the slow, stately crescendo.
Overall, Everyone into Position is a challenging listen, and not the kind of album that will stake territory on the pop charts. But good music is often difficult because it forces the listener to make connections rather than just giving everything away on the first listen. Such is the case with this release, and repeated listens yield rewards. What, on first listen, sound like sprawling and unwieldy compositions coalesce into beautifully-orchestrated chaos. Still, Oceansize probably won’t trigger any radio revolutions; “challenging”—as opposed to “twee” or “fey”—just isn’t an adjective used to describe pop radio. Still, simply giving the latte-sipping set a ferocious shake is progress in an era of pretentious, precious ballads.
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