Oceans of Slumber – Starlight and Ash


You’d think Oceans of Slumber were a different band to the one that appeared on the scene in 2013 as a disjointed prog metal paradox. That’s because they are different. The group gained wider attention in 2014 with the addition of Cammie Gilbert on vocals and a new Opeth-inspired sound. Century Media snapped them up in 2015, and they enjoyed reasonable critical acclaim for the three albums that followed, including 2020’s self-titled effort. These days, sole-surviving founder member, Dobber Beverly, gets his heavy fix in black metal favourites, Necrofier, while Gilbert (his wife) handles main song-writing duties for Oceans of Slumber. This has its merits, in that the frontwoman can demonstrate her magnificent voice. But it also has its drawbacks on their latest record, which will alienate the die-hards with its embrace of shorter songs and more simple structures wrapped in a minimalist rock framework. Starlight and Ash will dazzle and disappoint depending on your perception of what this band represent to you as a musical entity.

You won’t find a trace of the extreme metal tangents that powered the last three albums, but you will find a few songs of genuine brilliance here. Opener, ‘The Waters Rising’, confirms that Gilbert revisited her Depeche Mode and Nick Cave records for inspiration. A combination of synth bass and sparse piano notes is all she needs as her platform to demonstrate the full emotional might of her vocal register. The pathos and purpose of the word delivery is remarkable. Listen to the anguish of the chorus as she hits notes that Adele would applaud for their emotive resonance. You can feel the presence of the band members waiting to insert some distortion and aggression into the gaps, but the contrasting dynamics that made 2016’s Winter such an admirable record remain locked away. Follow up, ‘Hearts of Stone’, thrives on a naked simplicity and a reduced duration that will shock the older fanbase. Those that want to like it will identify the Katatonia foundations; those that are indifferent will lament how it sounds like radio rock with a latent gothic tinge.

The problem with this record is that it should be a Cammie Gilbert solo LP. Is there a better singer in the progressive rock and metal sphere? Here, the band push her voice to the forefront and reduce the input of their instruments as if playing as a backing group for Sade or Dido. ‘The Lighthouse’ adds an Eric Clapton blues hook to offer a modicum of musical splendour, and ‘Star Altar’ remembers the band’s roots in doom metal with an extended intro that sounds like an aging alt-rock band revisiting their grunge beginnings. Every song here will astonish you with the tenacity and technique of Gilbert’s voice. ‘Just a Day’ is worthy of Tori Amos in her Under the Pink era with its magnificent tenor falsetto navigating through the luscious piano scales. The sudden eruption of guitar distortion at the two-minute mark reminds you that Oceans of Slumber were a metal band as late as 2020. This one can stand next to anything on the recent GGGOLDDD record. If only we had more compositions like this rather than the innocuous run of songs from track four (‘Red Forest Roads’) to track six (‘Salvation’), which deliver a spell-biding voice but little else.

We’d be more than happy with the outcome if Tori Amos or PJ Harvey released something like Starlight and Ash. But Oceans of Slumber are a prog metal band. Their decision to abandon the aggression and technical musicianship in favour of a stripped-back emotional fragility exposes a bland outer core to the music that proves hard to surmount for the listener. You can argue that the new sound brings more coherence to the uneasy Jekyll and Hyde nature of previous albums, and there’s no doubt Gilbert’s song-writing skills are as impressive as her voice. But the musical instruments subordinate everything to her vocals and succumb to the verse-bridge-chorus formula with only a whimper of resistance. Closing track, ‘The Shipbuilder’s Son’, is one such example where the underused guitarists add palm-muted rhythms at the midway point to make up for their lack of opportunity throughout the album.

It feels wrong to judge this LP in the context of what came before it and what brought them to this point, but it’s impossible to ignore these things. This reviewer feels guilty for criticising the record for its musical minimalism when Gilbert’s voice is so extraordinary in its reach and so rich in its emotional depth. One cannot fault the song writing, but once can lament that Oceans of Slumber are no longer a metal band. What they do on their next album could mark an irreversible divorce from the metal underground if they continue in this direction. The question is whether they can widen their fanbase to prepare for this possibility in the future.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 22/07/2022

Record Label: Century Media

Standout tracks: The Waters Rising, The Light House, Just a Day

Suggested Further Listening: Pain of Salvation – Panther (2020), Depeche Mode – Spirit (2017), Tori Amos – Under the Pink (1994)