German progressive metal ensemble The Ocean have always stood out from their genre brethren. For one thing, they strike a persistently compelling and idiosyncratic balance between delicately moody accentuations and abrasively complex underpinnings. Plus, their paleontologically-focused concepts offer academically absorbing lyricism and an innovative way to link all of their LPs.
That's as true of 2004's Fluxion debut as it is 2020's Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic / Cenozoic, and fortunately, newcomer Holocene keeps the tradition going wonderfully. In fact, it feels extra connected to its predecessor since the closing song on Phanerozoic II is called—you guessed it—"Holocene." Simply put, it delivers everything fans could want and should anticipate from another Ocean outing by primarily staying loyal to what they do best. (After all, when you have a formula this good, you don't want to mess with it too much, right?)
Retaining the same line-up as the prior record, Holocene is intended as the "closing chapter to their … album series" in that it's "an appendix to the two Phanerozoic albums and [2007's] Precambrian." The band adds: "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."
For better or worse, then, it's a highly relevant—and perhaps necessary—musical statement.
As stated earlier, The Ocean predominantly stick to their tried-and-true chemistry, yet the heightened emphasis on "the electronic world" positively gives Holocene its own flavor, too. Similarly, having Swedish producer Karl Daniel Lidén on board (instead of longtime collaborator Jens Bogren) effectively achieves the comparatively "organic sound" the group's aiming for.
Guitarist Robin Staps reflects: "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, synth]. 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."
Indeed, that fusion of classic Ocean techniques and newly employed programmed trimmings is apparent from the jump, with fascinating opener "Preboreal" softly radiating foreboding digital tones as it establishes a mostly gentle arrangement comprised of mesmerizing rhythms, urgent guitar lines, and cataclysmic horns. Expectedly, vocalist Loïc Rossetti's corresponding dirges ("No grasp on reality / Attention shaping identities / We've lost our capacities to construct something tangible") are equally gripping and resonant, cementing it as a stunning starter.
Follow-up "Boreal" is even more dynamic thanks to its gradual evolution from synthy lamentation (reminiscent of Phanerozoic II's "Triassic") to explosive prog metal devastation. Later, “Atlantic” doubles down on that dichotomy with some incredibly hooky and heartbreaking guitarwork, whereas the eventual screams and diabolic instrumentation of "Subboreal" and "Subatlantic" find The Ocean tapping into their sludge metal and post-hardcore tendencies.
Although every piece of the Holocene puzzle is magnificently characteristic and intoxicating, it's the relatively atypical "Unconformities" that stands out most. Why? Because it's a gorgeously atmospheric slice of gothic/industrial rock spearheaded by the divine yearning of Norwegian singer Karin Park. Already a celebrated and prolific indietronica artist in her own right, she delivers what Staps rightly deems "the most accessible track of the album, but also the one with the heaviest ending." Juxtaposed by Rossetti's increasingly chaotic and chilling command ("Don't turn on the bright lights!"), Park ensures that "Unconformities" is an indisputable highlight of the group's entire catalog.
The Ocean were inevitably going to have a tough time surpassing what they accomplished with the Phanerozoic LPs. While Holocene doesn't definitively best that prior duo, it certainly matches them. By incorporating more electronic elements – as well as the elegance of Park – into their customary yet perpetually alluring recipe, the band has fashioned another immersive journey that's absolutely haunting, courageous, and essential.