Holocene uses synths, electronic percussion, and brass as complementary additions to The Ocean‘s signature post-metal sound, for what is perhaps their most experimental record yet.

Release date: May 19, 2023 | Pelagic Records | Website | Bandcamp | Facebook

The Ocean is a German post-metal band that was formed in 2000. Their early, sludgy roots eventually began to morph alongside the incorporation of more atmospheric and progressive elements into their music, creating a unique blend of heavy and experimental sounds. One of the band’s most notable changes came with the release of their 2007 album Precambrian, which featured a 15-piece orchestra and a choir. This marked a new level of ambition for the band, and they continued to push the boundaries of their sound with subsequent releases.

Today, The Ocean is known for their epic, sprawling compositions that take listeners on a journey through different moods and textures. Their newest album, and the subject of today’s review, is no different. Holocene, the follow-up to their Phanerozoic double album and the finale of the band’s paleontology-inspired albums, incorporates more synths, electronics, and brass instruments than ever. The result is a record that shows a band refusing to stagnate, even more than two decades into their career. Of course, with experimentation comes some risks.

You may recall that 2020’s Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic ended with a track called “Holocene”, clearly hinting at this next step in the band’s conceptual vision. “Preboreal” picks up there, with some oscillating synths that evoke comparisons to The Ocean’s most recent records. As such, alongside Loïc Rossetti’s singular vocal style, this track feels tonally consistent for the band despite its synth foundation. This approach was in fact foundational, and counter, to the band’s previous compositional approach, as guitarist Robin Staps explains:

‘The writing process of every album we’ve ever made started with me coming up with a guitar riff, a drumbeat or a vocal idea. This album is different since every single song is based on a musical idea that was originally written by Peter (Voigtmann, synths). He came up with these amazing synth parts that were already sounding huge in pre-production, and he sent me some of those raw, unfinished ideas during mid lockdown 2020… and while it was all electronic, it had that definite Ocean vibe to it. It made me want to pick up my guitar instantly… and so I did, and it didn’t take long until we had an inspiring creative exchange that was heading towards totally unforeseen but very exciting places.’

The band cites Massive Attack as an influence on this record, alongside Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead. The electronic percussion, industrial influences, and synths from Voigtmann are just as present on the album as their more traditional guitar, drums, bass, and harsh vocal approach. Of course, we do not actually hear these more aggressive vocals from Rossetti until the fourth of Holocene’s eight tracks. Even the aforementioned “Atlantic” does not start in a heavy place, instead again building from a foundation of minimalist percussion, key layers, and Rossetti’s conceptual lyrics. However, as the nearly 9-minute track unfolds, Mattias Hägerstrand and Paul Seidel weave in some Tool-esque interlocking bass and drum performances (respectively) before again withdrawing into synths and ringing guitars. Eventually, we encounter a climactic, heavy final third act for the song.

This album centers around the holocene, which is our current age. The band describes the record conceptually as:

Holocene is an appendix to the 2 Phanerozoic albums and Precambrian, or the final and concluding chapter, making it a quadrilogy… It’s tackling the holocene epoch, which is the current and shortest chapter in earth’s history, but it is essentially an album about the angst, alienation, loss of reason and critical thinking, rise of conspiracy theories and deconstruction of values in the modern age.’

This bleak view is perfectly conveyed by the mournful, reflective pace of the record. “Unconformities”, featuring unique, haunting vocals from guest Karin Park, seems to capture this mournful core as they float atop a bed of horns and syncopated rhythms. However, the track explodes in a heavier direction alongside the evolution of Rossetti’s screamed refrain ‘Don’t turn on the bright lights’.

At eight tracks and just over 50 minutes in length, The Ocean understands how to be expansive and exploratory without fatiguing their listeners. Especially considering the pessimistic restraint of the record, their choice to focus on eight interconnected songs allows the themes and impact of the record to remain focused. Holocene is certainly one of the most experimental records I have heard from The Ocean. For fans who enjoy that adventurous facet of their sound, there is much to enjoy and analyze here. For those wishing for a more consistently heavy record, there may be a bit more ambiance and synths to wade through than desired. However, regardless of what draws you to The Ocean, the band has to be commended for their ongoing commitment to making progressive music and never resting on their substantial laurels.

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