For a collective, these German metal musicians stay remarkably focused on their fourth album.
It was only a matter of time before someone in the metal world caught on to the trend of the musical collective. But instead of coming from Canada, where having a dozen people onstage has become commonplace at indie rock shows, The Ocean hail from Germany, where they've taken some decidedly American sounds and melded a sound distinct enough to distinguish themselves from their peers, and trendy enough to deserve some attention from non-metal circles.
Centering around the core band of guitarist Robin Staps, bassist Jonathan Heine, drummer Torge Ließmann, and percussionist Gerd Kornmann, The Ocean bring in a wide array of lead vocalists, including Breach's Tomas Hallbom, Converge screamer Nate Newton, and Sean Ingram, formerly of Coalesce, and while it may seem to the untrained ear that it's nothing more than a whole lotta yelling, the seven guest vocalists add a considerable amount of variety, from (facetiously described in the liner notes) "meaty howls", to "sappy squalling", to "raucous vociferation" (exactly who is singing what is never specified, but if you can guess correctly, the band will send you a t-shirt. Really). Still, for all the attention the multiple vocalists might attract, it all boils down to the music itself, and for the most part, this new disc delivers.
The second half of a two-CD project that began with the more orchestral, atmospheric Fluxion, Aeolian finds the group focusing more on pure brutality, emphasizing the same metal / hardcore hybrid perfected by Neurosis, Converge, and The Dillinger Escape Plan, with small touches of Meshuggah-style muscle making an appearance every so often, all presented in a warm, cozy mix by producer Magnus Lindberg. With a total of 15 musicians contributing to an album, it can often lead to a gigantic sonic mess (just ask Broken Social Scene), but every song on this album is surprisingly grounded, willing to veer off into unpredictable math metal tangents -- yet never too far away to completely lose focus.
The album gets off to a very bold start with the decidedly Meshuggah-esque "The City in the Sea", the guitars, bass, and drums churning away mechanically, the tempo alternating from lurching syncopation to a more straightforward double-time rhythm, before downshifting into a drawn-out sludgefest, Staps's long, sustained chords sounding gargantuan. All the while, central lead vocalist Meta lets loose one of the more authoritative death growls we'll hear this year; possessing lungs with the power of a blast furnace, he infuses the track with even more power than it had already, and, dare I say, helps the song top much of Meshuggah's 2005 album Catch Thirty-Three.
Conversely, the insane nine-minute epic, "Austerity", sets its sights on hardcore and highly intricate mathcore, the band showcasing their dexterity. The guitars skronk and screech with atonal bursts before concluding with a keyboard-laden climax. The vocals alternate from Meta's huge roars to more shrill hardcore screams by the other vocalists.
The labyrinthine "Killing of the Flies" has Staps sneaking in sly dual guitar harmonies amidst all the prog metal chaos, while "Queen of the Food-Chain" is highlighted by a commanding vocal performance by Ingram, nicely offset by Staps's sinewy guitar melodies.
If anything, The Ocean tends to put too much emphasis on the long, progressive-leaning opuses, its 55-minute running time coming close to being too much to bear, but three tracks, all in the two-minute range, give Aeolian a much needed kick in the pants: the graphic, tongue-in-cheek "Necrobabes.com" lightens the mood, "One With the Ocean" features a terrific drumming performance by Ließmann, and "Dead Serious & Highly Professional" is 87 thrilling seconds of Locust-inspired energy.
In the end, the Neurosis element of The Ocean's sound (it seems every band is copping Neurosis's sound these days) creates enough of a formidable gravitational pull to keep the songs from flying way off target. If The Ocean was of the "less is more" school of thought, the artfully designed and conceived Aeolian might have been an astonishing piece of work, but despite its meandering moments, it's nevertheless an accomplished blend of modern post-metal and classic hardcore, and deserves to find an audience in North America.