Album Review: THE OCEAN - Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic/Cenozoic

Artist: The Ocean

Album: Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic/Cenozoic

Genre: Progressive Metal

Review by Brady Irwin

We knew it was coming, right? As we progressed through the epochs, marching along from the fires of the Precambrian through the biosphere-chaos of the early Phanerozoic, stopping briefly on the way into the depths of the masterpiece Pelagial, we now come to the stompiest and most iconic of Earth epochs outside of the present day.

On a windswept, Siberian-style glum Melbourne afternoon, hot tea nearby and a sense of niggling repetitive exhaustion during lockdown, escapism into the lands of both fantasy and fiction, especially those dominated by larger-than-life figures, has never been more appealing.

Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic/Cenozoic begins with a balming ease, the clean arpeggios of ‘Triassic’ just what the scientist ordered to ease us out of our current plane and into a more expansive and tumultuous stretch of our planets’ geographic and zoological history. Light refrains and palm-muted rhythm guitar mingle with growing, tribal drums and melodic bass, which warbles with a distorted twang. Synths brood with a very Ridley Scott cyberpunk flavour. It’s a sludgy opener reminiscent of Cult of Luna, until smooth vocals lilt in, Robin Staps intermingling with primary vocalist Loic Rossetti in that canonical mix of punky, gruff post-metal barks and more ethereal softness. Multi-layered vocal harmonies make a nice touch to the push-pull, too. Lyrically, as usual, nod towards the more intrapersonal and the larger-than-life scale of nature. Some almost Eastern-tinged leads provide a flavourful little bridge to a hard-and-fast crescendo. This is great stuff, so far.

Given to the era of our most iconic of creatures, the abrupt stomp of the stop-start drum chokes by Paul Seidel evokes the idea of gnashing carnivores with follow-up track ‘Jurassic/Cretaceous’. A riff that bounces and tightens in equal measure mingles with the smooth keys and horns of the frontman’s programming. Taking space to breathe in a vast and cavernous but sultry section, the band ride their atmospheric build-ups in and out of thudding bites of riffage. This 13-minute monster integrates some fairly in-your-face, martial horns and big chords until the mid-section, ebbing into a darker piano and electronica-driven break. As the crescendo breaks into the refrain of ‘Wiped off the face of the Earth!’, the death-metal climax is a sudden jolting out of the serenity. Lurching into a relentless post-metal barrage that brings the jagged edge of their earlier discography, lyrics about reptiles, gigantic forest fires and extinction, the scale suddenly zooms to this almost-incomprehensible level that builds towards a crunchy, thrash-laden pinnacle.

‘Paleaocene’ wastes little time from behind, taking the baton with a vocal bark that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Raised Fist record. Sitting atop a mountainous riff that breaks into a tremolo section, it’s a faster juxtaposition to the exploratory nature of the first two tracks. Out of nowhere, things drop back into a shallower, bass-driven interlude, and you’d be forgiven they’d stick around here for a few minutes as post-metal acts are apt for doing. Nope! Breaking back into the steadfast march of before but with an added layer of harsh vocals, the track snarls and dissipates. If you weren’t keeping an eye on track times, say, from a CD player, you’d almost be forgiven for where the rest of it went.

Changing the script once more, the wilting and sharp leads of ‘Eocone’ meld with a high-register croon, pulling the mood right back up into brighter territory. An aural dust-off that is surrounded by an at-times odd cacophony of vocal lines and layered riffs, it’s a mildly perturbing but melodic number. With little impact whatsoever, it’s actually refreshing to be treated to the bands’ more subdued side without always bellowing into a metallic crescendo towards the end.

‘Oligocene’ morphs the emotional and stylistic palette even further, breaking into a haunting and echo-heavy synth reprise, a sonic equivalent of traversing a cavern flecked with some form of bioluminescence. The careful balance between eeriness and calm is treated well, massaging the ears, only slightly drawing in some light, backgrounded guitar wails that are almost imperceptible. I feel like I’m back in Pelagial, miles under the ocean in some deepwater vista, and it’s an interlude both comforting and strange.

‘Miocene/Pleocene’ washes ashore on that electronic wave, straight at the feet of a bluesy guitar lick, simple rhythm section, slow-but-sure gruff barks and synth warbles. Slightly autotuned background vocals reminiscent of Gojira subtly hum in the background, coming to the fore in a bright and epic wail over a heavier chord progression. There’s a sense of slow grandiosity here, the duality of the female vocals over the large chords allowing a feel of power and crescendo to sit comfortably within the relative track run-time of just under five minutes. It seems the band are out to prove that, as genres, both progressive and post-metal can attain a sense of dizzying height and contrast without always resorting to drawn-out engagements, and the digestible chunk that is the track is very satiating in it’s relatively brief lifespan.

Contrastingly, ‘Pleistocene’s sharp, alarm-klaxon-like synth and piano roll is like a sudden stand-to. Momentarily, before the warm vocals and strings add in, you’d be forgiven for thinking your smoke detector or similar device had gone off. It’s not long, however, before a mournful mix of barks, string and heavy riffs comes thudding in. As the piano and synth returns alongside a strange dual-vocal harmony, the track broods with a strange vibe, like Muse after being struck with a fever. A heavier wall of riffage wipes that away, partially, before it all comes together in an epic zenith, breaking out into shrieking and blast-beats that approaches something more black metal-sounding than anything I’ve heard from these guys, at least in a very long time. It’s a pummeling, screech-heavy blast riff that gets the blood surging, a vitriolic section that collides into thick walls of double-kicks, chords and snappy arpeggios, breaking off with little to no warning.

‘Holocene’ does little to reassure the listener after this sonic battery, at least with the expansive synth that feels more a product of Blade Runner than of anything natural. The heavy use of science-fiction-inspired synth in this album really is a nice touch, demonstrating that the band are able to employ clear themes between albums. The warm vocal refrains and consistent bass clack provide a bit more of a friendly anchor, in a slow circular spin between brightness and just the odd off-key notes here and there. Warm strings and robotic, consistent vocal phrasing mixed with an instrumental soup that wavers between inviting and coldly unfamiliar. Rather than push on with a 20-minute closer, the track succinctly waves goodbye in a fluid, restrained and melodic manner, emanating a latter-day Katatonia aura before, as with other tracks, stopping abruptly.

And there you have it. Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic/Cenozoic is an album that confidently straddles the lines of both melodic prog/electronica subtlety and anthemic, hard-hitting post-metal fury. Yet another fine addition in the bands’ catalogue, and a worthy representation of the richness of one of Earth’s richest geologic eons.

Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic/Cenozoic is out now via Metal Blade Records.

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