The Ocean have been around for a while now (their first EP Fogdiver was released in 2003), and with that time has come slow but steady musical growth. They’ve improved over the course of each album, and their latest release Pelagial is certainly their most accomplished record. Those who have followed them through the career up to now are sure to enjoy what they have to offer here. That being said, this wasn’t the easiest album for me to enjoy, and I tried REAL hard to like this one. I swayed between hating it and loving it for a while, and I eventually ended up feeling something in between.
It wasn’t a simple conclusion for me to come to. After my first listen I was prepared to write a much more scathing review: the music is too dense, the drums are too forward in the mix, the repeated musical themes don’t work, are they really gonna play huge ringing chords for another minute? A while later, I went the other way: That density can be damn powerful; Loic Rossetti sounds great on “Impasse;” That groove at the end of “Disequilibrated?” DUDE. That chorus in “Into the Uncanny?” DUDE. It was only after more thought and many more listens that I ended up somewhere in the middle. Yes, they’re still pretty blunt about their lyrical material, but this is the best marriage of lofty themes and something genuinely heartfelt that they’ve written yet. I’m not saying it’s great (or even good; where it’s not blunt it’s just amateur poetics), but it’s a marked improvement over Heliocentric’s pushy, pretentious religious themes, and using the ocean depths as a metaphor for the depths of our nature was an inspired choice. Sure, that density can be powerful and cathartic at times, but it can also be suffocating. There’s definitely no breathing room here, and while that seems to be the point, the music as a whole suffers because of it. There’s just so much playing going on during any given instant that you eventually become numb to it. The places where the band actually does open up, like the aforementioned chorus in “Into the Uncanny," are rare, but are completely successful and exciting.
A related hit or miss issue is the overall sound of the album. I’m usually the first to ask for higher fidelity and clarity (why some bands choose lo-fi recording is beyond me), but here it seems that everything is mixed so evenly that no one player ever gets the focus. It’s all in focus all the time, and when the parts are as a complex and full as the ones here, parsing out the compositions can be tedious. Again, this isn’t an all-the-time throughout the album issue, but there are definitely moments where I wish Luc Hess’s measure long drum fills weren’t competing against Robin Stap’s guitar lines. Also, if I could vent for a moment: I don’t care how well it fits with the idea of being at the bottom of the ocean: “The Origin of Our Wishes” six minutes of heavy, heavy chords is boring, exhausting, and a terrible way to end an album filled with far worthier songs. I get it, the pressure is killer down there, it’s dark and it’s bleak, but just because you can sound like the bottom of the ocean doesn’t mean it’s actually a good idea to do so.
If you bought this album, you will notice that included with the main album is a fully instrumental version of it as well. At first, I thought removing Loic Rossetti from the mix would solve all the problems I had with how packed everything sounds. And at moments, yes, it does help, but then there are also moments when I missed hearing him. So the instrumental version ends up roughly equal to the version with vocals.
So that’s what I got out of Pelagial. The production and musician ship are generally good, but when the album is through I was left with a vague sense of unfulfilled ambition and a headache instead of any substantial satisfaction. If you can stand the sheer sonic force of this album (and I’m sure that's what many of you are looking for since this is a metal site and all), then you’ll like what The Ocean present here. If not, then listen at your own risk. It’s an easier album to admire than to love.