Ocean Roar pretty much is a paean to existentialism. This is a lonely, harrowing, often scary album that belies the emotional state of its creator.
If you listened to the new album from the Washington state mastermind of Mount Eerie, Phil Elverum, and felt as though you were walking into the middle of something, you wouldn’t be wrong. Ocean Roar is the sequel of sorts to this year’s earlier release Clear Moon, and picks up pretty much exactly where that record left off with a peal of synthesized noise. However, it isn’t a total continuation of the sound of Clear Moon. Whereas Clear Moon was generally, but not always, peaceful, majestic and quiet, Ocean Roar is, most often, like looking into a churning maelstrom. As Elverum put it himself in an interview with Pitchfork earlier this year, the albums “sound different, but they're part of the same group of songs. It's like the dark side and the light side of the same idea. Clear Moon is more ... clear I guess! It's more round-sounding and it's slightly gentler. Ocean Roar is more challenging and weird and darker and heavier – the idea was for it to feel like a thick fog laying on your head, versus a clear sky with the moon in it.”
Elverum isn’t of course the only artist who has made conceptually linked albums released singly, meaning to almost stand alone: on the East Coast, the Phantom Family Halo is doing more or less the exact same thing this year by releasing a “light” album and a “darker” themed one that link together, purportedly within the same calendar year (we’ve still waiting on the “light” record, though). However, what sets Clear Moon and Ocean Roar apart is that, though they may come from somewhat different sonic avenues, they are part of Elverum’s overarching plan – first with the Microphones, and now with Mount Eerie – to paint something on a humungous canvas that feels like each record is a tiny jigsaw puzzle piece inserting into a whole. And while Ocean Roar is the much more instrumental version of the two records – indeed, there are even two songs here simply titled “instrumental” (yes, in lower case, as though this underscores their relative lack of importance overall somehow) – the album is a continuation of the themes set forth on Clear Moon of the artist and his place in his hometown, mostly, but also state, country, world and universe. And it turns out that Ocean Roar pretty much is a paean to existentialism: this is a lonely, harrowing, often scary album that belies the emotional state of its creator. And it is a wonderful, torturous thing to behold, one that effectively bookends Clear Moon as part of a duology.
“Pale Lights” is the 10-minute continuation of the mostly keyboard wash of Clear Moon’s “(Synthesizer)”, but takes that sound and transfigures it into a shoegazery full band piece, making it sound almost metallic and evil sounding. The basic melody holds intact for about three minutes, before the sounds recede into the background and Elverum offers up a brief prose poem underscoring the feeling of loneliness embodying him after seeing some lights on the ocean: “‘Who is there?’, I call. A small yelp on the wind, and then more roaring,” he muses. And then the band kicks up again and, for the remainder of the song, an organ cuts in and out of the music, giving it a regal and otherworldly and even Catholic feel. (The album, along with Clear Moon, was actually recorded in a desanctified church that was converted into a studio.) But it also seems very uninviting and scary even – the overall effect may leave the listener with the hairs standing on the back of his or her neck, not out of pleasure, but at the overall bleakness and helplessness that the piece conjures up as a mood. It is pure Sturm und Drang, and it’s overall feel makes you feel truly alone with its assault of multi-tracked melody, a real wall of sound, that Elverum crafts.
Thankfully, Elverum eases off the effects pedal to craft a pure indie pop blissful anthem in the title track, which even comes with the sound of schoolkids cheering. It is the album’s eye of the storm, the one place where the weird definitely doesn’t get very weird, and one can get carried away with the sheer sun-kissed nature of the song. Thing do take a turn for the somewhat experimental afterwards, though, with a short minute-long interstitial track that uses the sound of children playing as a backdrop, overlaid by a simple piano part and Elverum’s further naval gazing musings: “Deep in dream, on the ground, ancient times, digress.” What does it mean? The answer isn’t quite clear, at least not immediately, for, after an instrumental interlude that seems as though it were transported across the ocean, if not time and space, with its Oriental-sounding wind instruments, things quickly take a turn into the sort of black metal territory that Elverum last explored fully on 2009’s Wind’s Poem. Both “Waves” and “Engel Der Luft (Popol Vuh)” are monumental slabs of heavy noise that drone on like a tsunami reeling in and out of its shoreline target over and over again. When “Engel Der Luft (Popol Vuh)” ends, it immediately gives way seamlessly into “I Walked Home Beholding” where Elverum further wonders about his place in the grand scheme of things: “The world is frozen / I left the studio / Night had fallen / The storm had cleared / The whole town had been abandoned / Except for me / I walked home beholding.” Here, finally, Elverunm feels almost at one with the universe, and the album ends with the realization that he is “totally at peace with the meaningless of living.”
Ultimately, Ocean Roar works as a continuation of the feelings that were so deeply and richly explored/mined on Clear Moon. It is a profound statement of an artist trying to find a sense of belonging, and it is rather sublime to wander along with this album’s creator and get a sense of one’s own mortality. In that sense, Ocean Roar is but another piece of the enigma that surrounds Elverum and his musical sculptures, but one that is compelling to listen to and engage with. As a record that explores a variety of styles from dream pop to nightmarish metal, Ocean Roar has a very somnambulistic quality to it. Elverum doesn’t have as much to say here as he did on Clear Moon, but that may be because he has chosen to work out his feelings of despair through his instruments, as opposed to his actual voice. There’s a very stream-of-consciousness quality to this disc, and it is a very emotional piece of music – one that moves you through the sheer weight of its songcraft. Ocean Roar is a record that doesn’t have complete answers to the meaning of life, but it’s one that is a fantastic journey to take to reach that realization. With two albums that are so profoundly personal, you have to wonder what trip Elverum will take listeners on next, but one hopes that it is as exceptionally moving and conceptual as Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, taken together as a divergent whole, are.