David Ramis Åhlfeldt
Right off the back of a 6 months world tour, the Berlin-based atmospheric post metal juggernaut The Ocean (Collective) returns with the follow-up to their critically acclaimed Phanerozoic double album. Holocene sees The Ocean add a closing chapter to their palaeontology-inspired album series, presenting a gear shift towards the electronic world while redefining heaviness at the same time.
Founded at the dawn of the millennium, the group of musicians helmed by guitarist Robin Staps shows no sign of slowing down even with over 20 years under their belt. Coming together around a shared vision of limitless sonic exploration and unrelenting heaviness, they gained a formidable reputation within the post rock, post metal, progressive metal & hardcore scenes.
Being revered as one of the most devastating live bands in contemporary heavy music, The Ocean became a regular fixture on the European festival circuit appearing on metal festivals like Hellfest, Wacken and Resurrection as well as mainstream rock open airs like Roskilde, Dour, Pukkelpop or Oya and tastemakers’ indoor boutique festivals like Roadburn and Dunk!. Over the course of their storied career, the band have toured Europe and North America with artists such as Opeth, Mastodon, Mono, Cult of Luna, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Katatonia, Karnivool, Anathema, Between The Buried And Me and Devin Townsend. The band’s own Pelagic Records has become one of the world’s leading labels for post-rock and post-metal, with a catalogue of over 230 physical releases since 2009.
Throughout the years, the music of The Ocean has become increasingly characterized by a distinct thoughtfulness and maturity, starting with their seminal 2007 album Precambrian, which marked the start of an album series inspired by Earth’s geological time scale. On the following Heliocentric (2010) and Anthropocentric (2010) the band presented a thorough critique of Christianity, but it was their 2013 album Pelagial that really blew everyone away: “a stunning concept album that takes listeners from the ocean’s surface to its deepest, darkest depths, with the music and lyrical themes — often doubling as metaphors for the human psyche — getting increasing heavier, weighty and claustrophobic as the album progresses. And oh, what a journey it is!”, MetalSucks raved. Pelagial married an intricate narrative with unconventional songwriting, and was hailed as one of the best metal albums of the decade by publications such as Loudwire, MetalSucks, About and Visions.
Where the creativity other bands often wanes after producing such an opus magnum, The Ocean continued their streak of artistically impressive endeavors with another double album released in 2018 and 2020. Continuing their palaeontology-themed album series, the critically acclaimed Phanerozoic I and II saw the band grow musically as well as in terms of numbers with the addition of new members. David Åhfeldt (guitars), Mattias Hägerstrand (bass), Paul Seidel (drums) and Peter Voigtmann (synths) joined Staps and vocalist Loïc Rossetti after the release of Pelagial, and the fact that this lineup has remained stable until this very day has allowed the band to refine their sound and their live performance, becoming the tight behemoth that they are today. Their streaming concerts recorded during lockdown, performing Phanerozoic I and II in their entirety (part 2 for Roadburn Festival) and ambitiously released in 3LP + DVD format leave no doubt of their prowess as a seminal post-metal act.
Phanerozoic II ended with a track titled “Holocene”, and now it’s clear that this track was pointing in the direction of things to come, both conceptually and musically. The dark, synth-driven track Holocene ends abruptly and yet connects seamlessly with the beginning of the new album: the haunting synth sounds of opener “Preboreal”.
Enter the Holocene — the latest and thus-far shortest epoch on the geological time scale in which humanity appeared on the planet. Through rapid proliferation and technological progress, our species has shaped and changed our planet in ways unprecedented in history. Moving into the human age, The Ocean have become more intimate and captivating musically, while creeping deeper into their own DNA with numerous references to their earlier discography which older fans will cherish.
Listening to the album Holocene brings back familiar feelings: that wide open spaciousness found on the 2nd half of Pelagial, those dark subdued delay-soaked melodies lingering underneath the aquatic surface all unmistakably carry the trademark of Staps’ ingenious writing – but there is also a new emphasis here: the distortion on the guitars is dialed back in favor of radiant synths and horns in every song, and Rossetti’s charismatic vocals remain mostly clean.
It is not until the end of the engrossing “Atlantic”, track 4 of the record, that the Berliners finally rip away this comfortable, brass-saturated oceanic blanket that they have wrapped around you until then and wake you up with what is probably the biggest riff of their career. By taking their time and holding back the inevitable explosion for so long, its impact is twice as devastating.
This track can serve as sort of an epitomization of the record as a whole: slow, long build-ups augmented by lush vibraphones and beckoning brass sections eventually lead to dramatic riff eruptions and cataclysmic breakdowns. The degree of polyphony on display here is immense, there are main melodies and sub-melodies lurking underneath the surface, and the same is true for the rhythmical side. Occasionally each member is straying away from the main path and following their own respective trails, blissfully getting lost at times, but always returning in the right moment and converging into the force majeure that the group as a whole have become. The result is a listening experience that brings new discoveries even after the 10th listen.
Staps explains about the writing process behind Holocene:
“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 to- wards totally unforeseen but very exciting places.”
The result is an eclectic album showcasing a palette of sounds that is wider than ever in the history of the collective, an album that hails the riff and Reznor-style bit-crushed vocal extravaganza as much as it bows to Radiohead, as in the stunning 3rd track “Sea of Reeds” with the album’s strongest vocal hookline – or early 2000’s trip hop, such as in” Atantic” and “Subatlantic”. The Massive Attack influence is quite obvious and makes more sense than you would have ever guessed within the context of this band.
“We’re all huge fans of Mezzanine, which is still one of the best-produced albums to date, it has aged incredibly well”, says synth wizzard Voigtmann. “And for me it is an immensely heavy album too, a different kind of heaviness, but one that somehow connects logically with what we’ve been doing with The Ocean over the course of the past 2 albums.”
While Staps took Voigtmann’s initial ideas and “oceanized” them as he says, Voigtmann still pursued his own vision of these ideas, entirely without guitars. This resulted in an ambient electronic parallel album under his alter ego SHRVL, titled “Limbus”. A part of the ltd. Holocene 4LP boxset which also includes the vocal and instrumental versions of the Holocene album and an extra 10” vinyl EP, Voigtmann’s solo album offers an intriguing alternative view on some of the musical ideas of Holocene, and a deep insight into his creative mind.
In many ways Holocene is a departure as much as it is a return to the band’s roots. It is only logical that the album was recorded entirely by the band themselves at Voigtmann’s studio Die Mühle in the rural North of Germany and at the band’s own Oceanland 2.0 studio in Berlin. This approach also led to the desire for a different approach towards mixing the album.
“While we still think that Jens Bogren’s mixes of our previous 3 albums sound great, we wanted a more organic sound this time around, says Staps. “So we set out on a mission to get test mixes done by a number of people, from close friends to some pretty big names, but none of them came close to how we wanted this record to sound, and after a few months we got really frustrated.”
This is when Swedish producer and long time ally Karl Daniel Lidén came around as the delivering angel, with a test mix that convinced the band to hire him for mix and mastering. Lidén’s mix brings an unprecedented clarity to the sound of the band, with a huge, ambient drum sound contrasting the electronics, and a warm and fat but somewhat brittle guitar tone that suits the diverse string work on the album incredibly well and merges with the tone of the brass into orchestral grandeur.
“I’ve always loved the sound of brass but I’ve become obsessed with it during the writing of this record, and at one point there were bones and horns in almost every song”, comments Staps. “The trombones were recorded by Steve Thompson in London, whom I was introduced to by our mutual friend Jo Quail. We’ve never met in person, I sent him sheet music and pre-productions with MIDI-bones and he interpreted that on the real instrument. Trumpets and horns were recorded by Fritz Mooshammer in Berlin, who already made an appearance on the Phanerozoic records”.
A definite highlight on Holocene is the appearance of the unmistakable, mesmerizing voice of Norwegian singer Karin Park on «Unconformities». Staps comments:
“Karin is simply a class and a force of her own. She has a unique, beautiful and dramatic voice and she’s an incredibly inspiring musician and person. After releasing three of her albums and watching her stunning performance at Roadburn as well as with Årabrot many times, I became such a fan that I couldn’t help but ask her to guest on our album. The outcome is what is probably the most accessible track of the album, but also the one with the heaviest ending”.
Across their vast discography The Ocean have been on a continuous crusade against close-mindedness, ignorance and intellectual obstinacy, from the distinct anti-Christian sentiment of their -centric records through the psychological, Tarkovsky-inspired contemplations on Pelagial to exploring Nietzsche’s ideas of amor fati and Eternal Recurrence on the Phanerozoic albums.
On Holocene The Ocean continue their strife, tackling subjects like the rise of conspiracy theories during the pandemic («Boreal»), the morbid grand-scheme social quest for eternal youth («Parabiosis») and how our current day’s instagram-society is epitomizing Guy Debord’s visionary socio-economical analysis in the „Society of the Spectacle“ («Preboreal»). The booklet of the album is indeed peppered with quotes by Debord and Raoul Vaneigem. Debord was a founding member of The Situationist Internationale, a French protest movement made up of avant-garde artists and political theorists that sought to create ‘situations’—moments in which the monotony of everyday capitalist routine was disrupted without having to buy commodities. They wanted to encourage people to find moments of truth and real experience among the all-pervasive consumerist lie.
By placing their subject matter in the context of Situationism, The Ocean create an overarching narrative for their music, unifying the separate themes of Holocene, as well as the band’s previous releases, into a single universal message: an act of resistance against our Society of The Spectacle.
“Holocene is an appendix to the 2 Phanerozoic albums and Precambrian, or the final and concluding chapter, making it a quadrilogy if you want so”, Staps comments. “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.”
With Holocene The Ocean draw us into their momentum of truly forward-thinking music and relentless live performances. More than 20 years into their career, this Berlin-based collective still shake us to the core, inviting us to reconsider our lives from different angles. Dwelling in the depths of our inner contemplations, while looking up, we can see the light at the surface. A light we might have taken for granted for so long, but of which The Ocean show us a rare glimpse of perspective. Holocene unites the might of this massive act’s past and present, while creating a deeper understanding of their world as well as ours in the process.
Europe / UK: Northern Music, Haydn Britland
China: New Noise Agency, Jef Vreys
Rest of world:
Europe: Chris Breuer
UK: Simon Glacken
France: Clément Duboscq
North America: Stephanie Marlow
South America: Nicky Tejero Roger
Australia: Chris Maric