Sound: 4 albums and 12 years into their career, Oceansize seem resigned to perennial obscurity. One of the most respected and hard-working bands on the UK scene, their truly unique and pioneering sound seems to fall on deaf ears when it forays into the wider music landscape.
It's no secret why, 8 minute long songs with no discernable chorus and names like "Silent/Transparent" just aren't cool, generally being labelled "Preposterous" by the mainstream music press and dismissed out of hand. However, upon listening, truly listening, with an open mind, one would see this for the tragedy it is. Because underneath the 8 minute long songs and constantly shifting time signatures, there is groove, simplicity, harmony, and real organic genuine soul.
This musical style has perhaps permanently stigmatized them with the label of Prog Rock, which they reject. The constant need to label and pigeon-hole all musical endeavour is perhaps most damaging to bands such as Oceansize. In truth, their back catalogue spans a vast array of genres: Rock, Indie, Metal, Hardcore Punk, Orchestral, Acid Jazz, and a few songs that can only be described as new-age lullabies. But no, their songs are in uncommon time signatures and regularly exceed 6 minutes, so they're Prog, that's the rule, if you want to be popular you have to be one thing and nothing else.
These are points that warrant mention, because latest effort "Self Preserved While The Bodies Float Up", marks a significant departure in format and style. Only 2 songs breach 6 minutes, and 3 songs are entirely in 4/4, both firsts for the band ("Frames" had no songs under 6 minutes and by my reckoning not a single bar of 4/4). As a whole proposition, Self Preserved is a peculiar contradiction. There is a definite flow and cohesion in the song order, with distinct loud and quiet sections and beautiful transitions each way, but perhaps more than ever, a massive variety of musical styles and ideas with very little bridging them. As such, this album proves a rather disjointed listen.
The slow pounding sludge metal of brutal opener "Part Cardiac" channels the work of the Melvins and Part Chimp (who the track was named for) and by their own account marks the heaviest moment of the band's career. Next track "SuperImposer" serves as something of a thematic antithesis to the opener. While both definitely tick the "heavy" box, "Part Cardiac" was brutal, direct and slow. "SuperImposer" however is lighter, fanciful, but fast and frantic. It serves its function as 2'nd track very well, peeling the listener off the wall that "Part Cardiac" smashed them into and driving them to hospital very fast. Nevertheless it drifts by unexceptionally, with no real riff or hook to latch on to and somewhat muddy vocals it's a nice ride, but leaves no real lasting impression.
"Build Us A Rocket Then...(You Rocket Building C**t)" (which quite frankly makes all other song titles seem inadequate) concludes the opening salvo in spectacular fashion, providing some of the catchiest moments of the album, and serves as a perfect testament to the band's ability to write memorable, groovy riffs in odd time signatures as the song progresses through 7/8, 5/8 and 9/8 seamlessly. "Rocket" also places drummer Mark Heron firmly in the spotlight, hitting every drum in sight at a frenzied pace and proving why he's regarded as one of the best there is.
"Oscar Acceptance Speech" provides the first real curve ball of musical style. Mike Vennart's tasteful falsetto croons drift happily over steady drums and textural layers of ambience, noises and effected piano. The steady pace is broken first by an ambient breakdown, and then a bass heavy and unusually funky riff that evokes Muse more each time I listen to it. Multitracked vocals are used to full effect as the song morphs into the beautiful string coda that lilts gently into the quiet mid-section. Opening this midsection is "Ransoms". Here the instruments provide a haunting textural backdrop to Vennart's disarmingly tender vocal and lyrical performance that harks back to the serenity of last year's "Home & Minor" EP. This theme continues with "A Penny's Weight", what can only be described as a lullaby, and possibly the most esoteric thing the band has ever committed to record. A guest appearance by Claire Lemmon compliments Vennart's hypnotic drones perfectly, as layers of ambience and about 7 different melodies wash around each other. This song doesn't outstay it's welcome which helps preserve its charm and wonder. No sooner has it come than it's gone, leaving you to wonder what the hell just happened.
"Silent/Transparent" picks up the pace, panned drums flit from ear to ear as bass and guitar intertwine delicately. Bassist Steven Hodson is on particularly good form, cutting straight through the middle with a capturing groove before venturing high up the neck with delay to take the lead for a melodic interlude. The 4 minute build up that closes this track reminds the listener of their post-rock leanings, as a simple pattern is repeated with increasing intensity to cinematic effect.
"It's My Tail and I'll Chase It If I want to" is another unusual proposition. Disregarding the 30 odd seconds of studio noise (the inclusion of which still baffles me), this song is best approximated in existing terms as progressive punk metal. Mark Heron again is on fire, a rapid fire kick-snare beat with grand cymbal washes giving way to a tom beat that Ginger Baker would have trouble matching. Vennart's off-kilter shouting vocals and blinding delivery are accompanied by sporadic yelps courtesy of Biffy Clyro's Simon Neil to amazing effect.
"Pine" finds Vennart again baring his soul as he reflects on on young love while the music builds to a dense climax, the organ refrain and Hodson's bass work been particular highlights. Unfortunately, given the strength of previous Oceansize record closers such as "Ornament/The Last Wrong's" and "The Frame", "SuperImposter" can only be described as a disappointment, short of the initial dirty musicians thrill of a 5/4 waltz and some poignant lyrics, this song brings nothing particularly captivating to the table and is perhaps the closest to filler the band have ever come, and frankly sounds very similar to "Pine", which is by far the better song. Bonus track
"Cloak" concludes the journey fittingly, epitomising the ecumenicity of the album by been the quietist, calmest song of the album, if not their career. Beautifully contrasting the heaviest song of their career that began the album, "Cloak" sounds like something you would hear in a smoky jazz club at 2am with a double whisky and a heart full of troubles. // 9
Lyrics: "Self Preserved" marks a notable maturing of Vennart's lyrics. He has always been a skilled lyric writer, even the angsty songs found on Effloresce were presented in an intelligent and mature fashion. "Ransoms" in particular is an unusually vulnerable and literal song, describing his despair the kidnapping and possible murder of his wife/girlfriend. "SuperImposer" seems to be an unusually vicious attack at either the military, politicians, or just people in general. "Build Us A Rocket Then..." Is probably the best singing perforfmance of the album, Vennarts delivery perfectly fitting the music, from the wistful wails of the bridges to the frantic urgeny of the outro. "Silent/Transparent" sees a return to cryptic symbolist form, as Vennart laments lost love and ending up with someone he's not entirely sure about(probably). // 9
Overall Impression: "Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up" is perhaps Oceansize's most challenging listen yet, primarily because it first seems to be unchallenging. These songs are more direct, succinct, digestible. Where Oceansize songs of old presented multiple ideas in one go, these songs present one or two ideas/styles and leave it at that. But all the ideas are still there, they still take time to absorb and appreciate. One idea more prevalent than any other is the less rock, quieter side of the band, that although always present, was brought full bore on the "Home and Minor" EP. That effort appears not to have been a unique experiment, perhaps been the first step of an evolution of their sound towards the quieter end of the spectrum. The individual songs presented here are fantastic, and include some of their best to date, "Build As A Rocket...", "Part Cardiac" and "Oscar Acceptance Speech" being my personal highlights. In it's entirety however, the album lacks the consistency of "Frames" or "Effloresce"; this is, ultimately, far better as a collection of songs than an album. // 8