Oceansize: Effloresce

Katie Zerwas



Label: Beggar's Banquet
US Release Date: 2004-05-18
UK Release Date: 2003-09-29

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?

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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