If The Magic School Bus was a German progressive death metal band, it would be The Ocean (or The Ocean Collective). Of all the ways one might be exposed to the geological periods of the Earth, the music of The Ocean is by far the most brutal, dramatic, beautiful, and entertaining. Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic picks up where 2007’s Precambrian left off, continuing the epic chronological accord of the Earth’s geologic past in stunning fashion. Where Precambrian succeeds, Phanerozoic exceeds, surpassing all greatness already established by these titans of the genre, with this, the first of a two album package. We are treated to flawless and enthralling narrative structures, ever dynamic and dramatic passages that constantly excite and carry the listener along, aided by a diverse range of vocals and instrumentation that evolve yet remain rooted to the concept.
Do yourself a favor. Go back and spin The Ocean’s Precambrian, and then immediately throw down Phanerozoic. I recently wrote a piece on my favorite call-back moments in prog metal, and I think track one of Phanerozoic, “The Cambrian Explosion” might be the new reigning champ. Disc two of Precambrian opens with a simple, repeating, four descending note melody. The rhythm pops up again in the album’s concluding track, “Cryogenian.” So of course, track one of Phanerozoic, appropriately entitled “The Cambrian Explosion,” opens with this familiar theme. Not only is this a delightful wink and nod to established fans, it’s a damn fine opening to the album.
In true prog fashion, “The Cambrian Explosion” is a two minute, slow-building introduction that hits it’s climax as the track transitions into “Cambrian II: Eternal Recurrence.” The two tracks combined succeed in setting the stage for the album. They are heavy, lumbering, with trading off clean and harsh vocals, and dense, layered guitar chords. The lyrics seek to highlight the insignificance of your life amidst the vastness of the Earth’s evolution, successfully keeping your arrogant ass in check. After a quiet interlude, the theme is reestablished in a chilling transition at 6:30, beautifully book-ending an excellent start to the album.
Thanks to the next track, “Ordovicium: The Glaciation of Gondwana,” I now know what the glaciation of Gondwana was. See, learning already. This track displays Loïc Rossetti’s most tortured harsh vocals, from the perspective of a person living through the breaking up of the super-continent Gondwana and the cryptic, desperate personal conflict that arises. It’s a fine track, but the least memorable of the album.
With perhaps the most metal title ever, “Silurian: Age of Sea Scorpions” is an emotional whiplash. This song carries some of the most poignant and devastating moments of the album, often transitioning in unexpected ways. The use of violin and piano are especially effective. The transition at 5:10 is a brilliant touch, and the melodic interlude that follows is the prettiest passage of the album. The airy, harmonized vocals floating atop cascading piano notes evokes visions of long-extinct exotic sea creatures, settling into eternity on the ocean floor, trapped beneath endless ice.
Beautifully tragic tone now established, the voice of Jonas Renske of Katatonia is all too fitting for “Devonian: Nascent.” Now, I was anticipating this album from its announcement, and I’m on the record as picking Renske as my favorite clean vocalist in all of metal, so needless to say, this track was destined to please. Having digested it for some time, the song merely meets expectations. To be clear, I think it’s great, but my expectations were very high, and I would have preferred more interplay between Renske and Rossetti, especially later in the track. Overall, it makes for a fine second single.
The first single, “Permian: the Great Dying” expertly finishes the album, following the brisk instrumental, “The Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse.” “Permian” is a complex song that constantly builds on itself throughout its roughly nine and a half minutes. The interplay between exposed vocal passages and then stacks of harmonized vocals backed by heavily distorted guitars and strings gives the track its power. Although the beat is relatively simple, the vocal lines often feel extended beyond expectations and bring a lot of surprising flourish. The melody of the word “alive” at the nine minute mark gives me chills every time. I can envision no better way to end the album, and the geologic time period than with “the great dying.” I just feel blessed that my prehistoric ancestors were part of the five percent that survived it so I can hear this song today.
Sadly, The Ocean are not for everyone, but they should be. This is one of those albums I lament how few people will hear and appreciate, because it’s genius. Phanerozoic is the conclusion The Ocean of 2007 was destined to reach. It’s mature, with a polished, consistent sound throughout. The lyrics are provocative, somehow tying the drama of massive transitions in geologic time to the dramas of the human experience, millions of years removed. The vocals are impassioned, intense and beautiful. There are surprising details strewn throughout, and the instrumentation is deftly tailored to each passage. Phanerozoic is easily my favorite The Ocean release, and perhaps the best thing about it is there’s a second part due to be released in 2020. Here’s hoping part two lives up to the promises part one makes.
FAVORITE TRACK: “Permian: the Great Dying”
RELEASE DATE: 11/2/18
FOR FANS OF: Between the Buried and Me, Ne Obliviscaris