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Old 02-01-2012, 07:00 PM   #804 (permalink)
Trollheart
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Self preserved while the bodies float up --- Oceansize --- 2010 (Superball)

Since the dawn of time (well, for decades anyway) there have been weird and obscure album titles. This however has to be one of the weirdest. Fourth and final album from prog rockers Oceansize, it gained wide acclaim both for their efforts to step out from behind long, convoluted prog songs as evidenced on their previous albums, particularly “Frames” and “Effloresce” and for exhibiting a heavier side to their music. Is it, though, a fitting end to their legacy, a sign-off that hits all the right notes?

It opens on “Part cardiac”, which starts off like someone tuning an electric guitar, and becomes a heavy cruncher, with almost shouted vocals from Mike Vennart, which I have to say are quite hard to make out behind his wall of guitar sound and the thundering drums. My first impression is that this is not prog rock, or even prog metal, as I generally know it. The song's more than halfway through and all I've been able to make out so far is in-your-face guitar, like a much slower Motorhead, and someone yelling in the background, but I have no idea what Vennart is singing, if singing is the word. Part cardiac? Could give you one, or him, the way he's forcing that voice!

“Superimposer” goes for an all-out drum assault, but this time you can at least hear Vennart sing, and the guitars, though still heavy, are a little more restrained, not so violent and all-pervasive. There's a suggestion of good backing vocals there, but again they're kind of subsumed in either the bad production or the oversaturation of guitars, and it's really hard to hear them clearly. As the song nears its end the guitars scale back a little and you can hear the singing, and it is good, but it ends on a fairly confused mess of noise, which so far is not I have to say endearing this band to me! However, the next track makes the last two sound like ballads, as “Build us a rocket then” kicks up the gear into tenth, and, well, rockets off into the farthest reaches of space. The vocals are, to be fair, clearer here, but the guitar just tends to overshadow anything, and even though there are keyboards, courtesy of both Steve Hodson and Gambler, it's very hard to hear if they make any sort of impression, as Vennart's guitars never really give way, hogging the whole song.

There's an almost amusing point, just near the end of the song, when a small piece of introspective guitar is attempted, but immediately blasted out of the way by what I would have to term eff-star-star-key-you guitar. Things finally settle a little for “Oscar acceptance speech”, the longest track on the album at just under nine minutes, with nice slightly discordant piano and just the barest percussion from Mark Heron, Vennart's guitar kept on a tight leash for the first time. His vocal, as well, can be made out much more clearly here, and is not at all bad. Helen Tonge guests with some really nice violin near the end, and it's a much slower, more restrained track altogether. I much prefer this side of Oceansize, but can it last?

Well, for now, yes it can it would seem. “Ransoms” is another laidback ballad, with muted guitar and a chance for the keyboardists to shine, while Vennart restricts himself to a really nice lazy little solo, throwing some feedback on it for good measure as the song ends, then “A penny's weight” seems to be in Beatles/Beach Boys territory, with a dreamy little melody and some great vocal harmonies, nice bright keys and piano. “Silent/Transparent” is the second-longest track, just over eight and a half minutes, and again it's relaxed, uptempo but without the heaviness or grunge of the first three tracks.

It would appear then that Oceansize were a strange band, one who could morph from heavy death metal fugues and skullcrushing guitar attacks to light, poppy, almost pastoral melodies at the drop of a plectrum. Versatile, certainly, and it's quite clear that on “Self preserved while the bodies float up” you get to experience both sides of the band. Vennart shows on this track that he knows how to rein in the guitar when he has to, and the fine piano playing of Hodson really shines on this song. But it's Vennart's gentle (yeah, I said gentle. I know!) vocal on “Silent/Transparent” that really transforms the Oceansize sound, and your appreciation --- or lack of same --- of their final album. It's really quite remarkable, and shows a band who were not content to stay in the same genre or style for long.

Even a sustained guitar attack to close the song is handled tastefully and with restraint, and contibutes to and improves the song, rather than just bludgeoning it, and the listener, into submission, as has previously been the case. I started out wanting to like this album, decided after three tracks I was beginning to hate it, and now feel the love washing over me. Just proves you can't make up your mind halfway! Then, as if to sort of contradict that thought, “It's my tail and I'll chase it if I want to” comes kicking in the door with heavy guitar and surrender-or-die-well-die-anyway drums, a heavy heavy beat and definitely no lilting piano. The vocal, like the song, is delivered at a mile-a-minute, and you'd wonder how Vennart and backing vocalist Simon Neil can keep up that sort of pace? But even though it's heavy, there's a great melody about it and you can hear everything: it's not just a wall of sound or indeed noise, like “Part cardiac”, “Superimposer” or “Build us a rocket then”.

And then everything turns around again, and “Pine” is brought in on simple acoustic guitar and keyboards, with Vennart back at his laidback best, a mini-anthem with some gorgeous cello from Semay Wu, and the album closes on “Superimposter” (add the “t”), which is nothing like it's “t”-less cousin from the beginning of the album. It's a mid-paced blues effort with more downbeat vocals from Vennart and an acoustic guitar that strides along the melody, some feedback guitar that again fleshes out the song rather than stripping the flesh from it, and on balance a really nice closer.

So for an album that started out like someone trying to kick their way out of my head, this album has performed, like the Incredible Hulk, a startling metamorphosis, becoming a collection of decent, listenable, well-written songs that you can hear, appreciate and enjoy. “Self preserved...” received a huge number of plaudits on its release, and while I can't quite agree with their almost unanimously gushing praise for this swansong for Oceansize, I can say that by the time it's over I'm relieved that it didn't all continue as it began.

Whether it's a great album or not is something I'm not that sure I can decide right now. What is not in dispute though is that it shows two very different sides of a very accomplished and versatile band, who certainly seemed to know how to straddle boundaries without actually falling over into either completely.

TRACKLISTING

1. Part cardiac
2. Superimposer
3. Build us a rocket then...
4. Oscar acceptance speech
5. Ransoms
6. A penny's weight
7. Silent/Transparent
8. It's my tail and I'll chase it if I want to
9. Pine
10. Superimposter
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