[1st February 2013]
01. God In Skin
02. Coffins Like Kites
05. Only A Corpse
08. Blackest Cloud
09. Great Divide
After a great many listens to Aetherial, debut full length release by Texans Oceans of Slumber, I found myself struggling to put into writing an assessment of the album and, after a bit of thought, settled on the reasons for this being twofold. Firstly, Aetherial is a complex and eclectic work, demonstrating impressive variety throughout. Secondly, it’s always a little hard to pragmatically critique an album you really enjoy. Comfortably the best album I have had the pleasure of listening to this year, Aetherial to me is a triumph of musicianship and songwriting, and an absolute joy to listen to.
Categorising the overall sound of Aetherial is challenging and Oceans of Slumber demonstrate a fantastic ability to encompass a vast array of styles and influences within the album. Though a general genre descriptor of progressive metal probably serves the band best, and is among the monikers reflected on their Facebook page, I feel the term fails to do justice to the album’s remarkable scope. This approach to progressive rock and metal is certainly not new in intent but on Aetherial, I feel Oceans of Slumber pull it off to a greater extent than the vast majority of their contemporaries, getting considerable value from the varied musical background of their members. Though the experience in the grindcore genre of drummer Dobber Beverley can be easily recognised, I feel it is the jazz background of guitarist Sean Gary that contributes to the complex and inspired songwriting found throughout the album. I cannot think of the last album that brought to mind so many different stylistic parallels and potential influences and yet succeeds in maintaining a sound to call its own.
The diversity on Aetherial is its greatest strength and is no more prevalent than in the vocal styles used throughout the album. More than the common combination of guttural screams and crooning clean vocals, Oceans of Slumber explore a range within each subset and the resulting effect adds greatly to the record. Album highlight and opener “God In Skin” does well to demonstrate a number of these vocal styles, opening with yells akin to those frequently found in sludge metal (also somewhat reminiscent of the vocals of Robb Flynn), interweaved with guttural screeches, and finally topping off with clean vocals which flit stylistically between Opeth and southern metal. The real achievement with regards to the vocal performance on Aetherial is not that it demonstrates such variety, but that through effective production and the talent of vocalist Ronnie Allen, each vocal style is delivered convincingly and with great conviction.
Musically there is a huge amount going on the album and as such it is challenging to pin down their stylistic traits within each individual track, nevermind on the album as a whole. Aforementioned opener “God In Skin” quickly hops from sounding akin to earlier Opeth material, to Cult of Luna style pounding aggression, then settling into a more rocky sound before finishing with blast beats and death metal shrieks. Second track “Coffins Like Kites” immediately differentiates itself from the opener with a doomy feel, breaking into a strikingly heavy death metal break, opening into some of the albums best riffing and guitar work at times not dissimilar from that characteristic of bands like Periphery.
The complex riffing and rhythmic feel used on “Coffins Like Kites” highlights another major strength of the album as a whole: the absence of unnecessary instrumental noodling and self-indulgent song structures. The desire to indulge in endless soloing and instrumental breaks is one many comparable bands succumb to, but Oceans of Slumber steer clear of this trap, and instead all tracks on Aetherial maintain considerable momentum and drive throughout. That is not to say that no such indulgences are made however, and guitar solos at the end of the aforementioned “Coffins Like Kites”, along with an unexpected but pleasingly executed bass solo towards the latter half of the title track, serve to demonstrate the capability for technical complexity is certainly not lacking among the group.
“Only A Corpse” investigates the softer elements of the bands sound to a much greater degree and, unusually for this style, has a clearly defined and catchy chorus as a component of a more standard song structure than found elsewhere on the album. This track also best invokes a final comparison to be made between Oceans of Slumber and other bands in the genre: specifically in its occasionally uncanny similarity to the two seminal 2010 ‘-centric‘ releases by The Ocean. From my perspective, this is often an unfortunate likeness to point out; Heliocentric being well in the running for my favourite album of all time, but in this case they more than stand up to the comparison.
I typically try to steer away from more delineated track-by-track reviews when critiquing albums, but in this case I struggled to talk about Aetherial without delving into at least a few specifics. This album sets out to achieve an enormous amount and the depth of sound and style achieved is matched only by the remarkable consistency and general quality of writing and performance found throughout. Though I’m sure at this point this is a given, I strongly recommend anyone give Aetherial at least one listen and I personally wait with baited breath to see what Oceans of Slumber will produce as their sound continues to develop in the coming years.