It’s hard to pinpoint another progressive metal band that’s arisen to greater prominence in recent years than The Ocean. Following on from their grandiose critique of Christianity within their 2010 double album Heliocentric and Anthropocentric and their cinematic plunge to the oceanic depths with their 2013 release Pelagial, the Berlin based collective have become globally renowned not just for their colossal sound but their ability to narrate concepts in a fashion that’s palpably visual as well as vividly atmospheric. The Ocean aren’t just a band that use a meticulous approach to narrate concepts but a band that plunge their listeners into vast soundscapes of filmic detail, a fact made breathtaking evident with their latest double record. Composed of 2018’s Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic and this year’s Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic / Cenozoic, the chronicle is more than a concept in nature; it’s a musical documentation of the still ongoing tale of a Phanerozoic eon, a saga 550 million years in the making that began with the origin of life and one that’s been condensed into two hours worth of incredible music carrying tremendous scope.
Telling the history of an unfathomable period of time and the countless inhabitants that inhabited it is an incredibly ambitious undertaking for most bands - but The Ocean are clearly unlike most bands. Not only has Phanerozoic II been arguably their most far reaching work to date, it’s also been the subject of nothing but critical acclaim from the press world, with the record soon due to receive its rightful place within endless AOTY lists in the coming months. “I'm super stoked to see the very enthusiastic reactions everywhere,” states Robin Staps, guitarist, vocalist, programmer, founding member and general maestro of the band. “We didn't know if releasing an album in the middle of the pandemic was a wise move, but it turns out that yes, seems so at least. Lots of people are sitting around bored at home with extra time for social media and checking out new music, and it seems like we have reached a larger audience than ever before with this album, which is great.”
“Releasing an album you have worked on for a long time is always a bit like I imagine giving birth must feel like. You're finally letting go of something that was inside of you for so long. It's scary, but also really rewarding to watch how that thing you've born and bred interacts with the outside world, from a bird's eye perspective.”
To understand the flawless excellence of the the double record and the experience it provides, one needs to understand that Phanerozoic as a whole isn’t just a standard history lesson. What the record offers is an imaginative opportunity to witness the blossoms of life, the fiery violence and sprawling wonders of the Phanerozoic era first hand. Parts of the record pick one up and drops them in various points of history, allowing them experience the frigid ice ages, the rule of reptilian beasts and the apocalyptic hellfire of extinction through dense soundscapes that mirror the conditions in which they parallel. Other parts offer the listener an insight to the sprawling passage of time, choosing to be more ambiguous in nature. It’s a cinematic sonic adventure performed with detailed precision and genuine atmosphere.
“Covering hundreds of millions of years of earth history within less than 2 hours of music is an incredibly ambitious, maybe essentially pretentious endeavour,” explains Staps. “You can pick out certain imagery, events or facts and focus on them, ideally generalize them into a musical direction, a mood, a feeling... but this will obviously never work as a direct, linear translation. And even if it did, in doing so you are inevitably distorting the relevance of the individual object in focus as much as the big picture.”
“Take ‘Triassic’, for example, an era characterized by hot, dry climate with no polar ice caps... I think the song with its dry basslines, oriental melodies and spheric moog sounds captures that vibe pretty well. Then take the Pleistocene epoch which began roughly 2,5 million years ago, known for its ice ages. Our 'Pleistocene' track has a generally cold feel, blast beats and lyrics emphasizing icy imagery. That's just two examples, it wasn't always possible (nor desired) to translate each period into music in such an obvious way.”
Much like their aforementioned 2013 offering Pelagial - a record that darkens and densifies to mirror the increasingly suffocating pressures of oceanic depths - the Phanerozoic experience shifts over the course of the double record. Whilst the first part of the record is relatively coherent and tame to represent the slow evolution of primitive life, this year’s installation is far more daring, ambitious and threatening. It’s a representation of the chaos of advanced life and a perpetually changing earth, one that’s been host to repeated periods of mass death and extinction. One could easily get the impression that the two albums where written during two separate periods, but yet, this wasn’t the case, as Staps details.
"Everything happens over and over again, an unlimited amount of times, in infinite time and space."
“All songs for both albums were written around the same time, and it was always clear to me which songs were to end up on the fist part: that material was pretty coherent in style, tempo, vibe... the songs for the 2nd part were covering a much larger range of style and musical aesthetics, and for quite some time I couldn't quite imagine how this would become a real album, as especially the Cenozoic material was so eclectic and diverse. At one point I decided to finish the songs and trust that with a consistent sound things would fall into place... and they did. The album became quite a journey, it starts in one place, and finishes in a totally different place, that you won't be able to predict when you listen to the first two songs In a way, the 2nd half of album sounds less archaic and more modern than its predecessor, reflecting our arrival in the modern age.”
In terms of the modern age, whilst the record is primarily a piece of music devoted to the past, parallels between history and our current predicaments are evident. Like the great apex predators that once roamed the prehistoric planes, humanity has become the dominant life upon Earth, threatening and consuming less predatory creatures without care nor difficulty. However, if the history of the planet has taught us anything, a creature’s domination can not be a permanent fixture. Like the extinction events narrated within the album, one is rising upon the horizon, something long destined and arriving sooner due to our species’ carless endeavours. Generally, this is the crux of the track ‘Jurassic / Cretaceous’, the crown jewel of this year’s album and a track featuring Jonas Renkse of Katatonia. Monstrous and gargantuan, the track is the musical envisioning the of the grand extinction event that caused the end of the dinosaurs, and to a certain extent, an exploration of how we as a species are ultimately condemned to a similar fate.
“Lyrically, the red thread that goes through both Phanerozoic albums is the idea of 'Eternal Recurrence', the idea that everything happens over and over again, an unlimited amount of times, in infinite time and space. This can be imagined for occurrences within our individual lifetimes, as well as in the great scheme of things, for the history of humanity or even life on earth itself. When you look at the Phanerozoic, you see a lot of examples for Eternal Recurrence: continents have collided and drifted apart and collided again, life has nearly disappeared from the face of the earth multiple times, then resurged again in different forms and places. Global temperatures have risen, fallen, risen again.. and although geological time scales are unfathomably large, we can learn a lot from looking at certain events that occurred during the Phanerozoic. The Great Dying for example, a mass extinction event 252 million years ago that wiped out 90% of all life on earth, was caused by a gradual rise of global temperatures by only about 5 degrees over several hundreds of thousands of years, all long before humanity appeared on the map to make an impact. With the human-caused climate change that's currently happening, we're looking at a similar increase of global temperature within only a couple of hundreds of years. Count two and two together...”
“The centerpiece of the Mesozoic half of the record, the track 'Jurassic / Cretaceous' was inspired by Lars von Trier's film Melancholia. At the end of the Cretaceous, an asteroid hit earth, and again, most life went extinct in the wake of the impact: tsunamis ravaged the coastlines, entire subcontinents were set on fire and the soot and the ashes clouded the light of the sun for months, photosynthesis came to a halt on a global level, earth plunged into a freeze and both food chains on land and in the oceans collapsed: the Cretaceous-Palaeogene extinction event. Von Trier's film is basically taking this scenario into the present tense, into an earth inhabited by humans, not dinosaurs. And that's basically the essence of this track.”
In all, the double record is an adventure though time, death and life not experienced by humankind. However, as explained by Staps, parts of the record originated from the group’s own adventures. Last year, when the demise of live music was inconceivable, the band embarked on a run of dates through territories not typically associated with the touring circuit, traveling and performing in territories such as Armenia, Kazakhstan, Georgia and East Russia. Through such adventures through the great Asian expense, the band experienced sights unseen by most travelling acts and incorporated the sounds of the wild into the record.
"It was a totally mind-blowing experience and an adventure we'll never forget. We played shows in weird venues in Kazakhstan, I remember one place in Almaty where the stage was on a roof above the bar, and the whole place looked like taken straight out of From Dusk Til Dawn. We took 36 hours trips on the Transsib around the shores of lake Baikal, we were living on a train, feeding on instant soup and chai. We eventually reached Vladivostok, in the far east of Russia, only a 3 hour flight from Tokyo. Our show was cancelled with two days notice, but we managed to set up a last minute show at a beautiful bar called The Big Lebowsky and had the best White Russians of our lives to celebrate the end of Russia. We also recorded parts for the album on that tour, we tracked an array of strange instruments with an Armenian flute and woodwinds player in Yerevan for the opener 'Triassic', so that tour literally became a part of this album for all of us."
"This is what I'm looking for in art and music: to feel alive, to dream, to hate, to feel strongly."
With the Phanerozoic saga now completed and all of us now living through a catastrophe not unlike an a near apocalyptic event, The Ocean now have their eyes on the future, even if it is uncertain. A new record may not be on the horizon just yet ("One thing at a time!", laughs Staps when asked about the prospect) but the band are set to tour through Europe once again next year with fellow post and prog metal stalwarts PG.Lost, Hypno5e and Svalbard. Though it may not happen in the winter as originally planned, the band are certain it shall take place at some point within the year. "There is a great sense of uncertainty of course, everyone is basically just living from one day to the next right now without being able to make plans for anything. On the other hand there is a great deal of understanding within the industry and everyone is trying to work together as good as possible, given the current situation: bands, agents and promoters. For now, our hopes are still up high that we can at least play some of these shows that were already booked before the pandemic, but we're also prepared for the worst and have a backup routing in place for the same tour package for later in the year already, if it should come to that."
Whilst we await for a better day when the horrors of the pandemic are history, The Ocean ultimately wants Phanerozoic to remind us that to be uncomfortable and anxious is to be alive. Granted, thoughts and vistas of death on unfathomably grandiose scales may deliver nothing but horrendous woe, but through such extreme emotion, we are able to feel the jubilance of life with newfound understanding. "Discomfort and anxiety, something we all surely haven't gotten enough of this year, right?", states Staps closing. "Seriously, discomfort is a beautiful thing, it makes us feel alive, it makes us wonder and ask questions. And this is what I'm looking for in art and music: to feel alive, to dream, to hate, to feel strongly. In the comfort-stable mediocrity of our sheltered everyday lives, this is something rare and beautiful." With discomforting anxiety rampant on a global scale, though we may be living through a series of terrifying events, it's vital to use this discomfort as a reminder of the joys of life, and ultimately, understand it as an important reminder of our ultimately fading humanity.