Centered around “an ever-changing lineup of . . . musicians and visual artists” who support founding guitarist/songwriter Robin Staps, The Ocean Collective have been serving up a special blend of atmospheric progressive metal for nearly twenty years. While certainly channeling peers like BTBAM, Periphery, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and TesseracT, Staps and company still manage to sound quite idiosyncratic, and thankfully, that remains true on Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic. The first of a two-part project (with Phanerozoic II scheduled for 2020), it tastefully and ceaselessly juxtaposes guttural and transcendental treatments with masterful cohesion, yielding a simultaneously breathtaking and brutal journey every fan of the genre should take.
Staps classifies the LP as “the missing link between . . . Precambrian and Heliocentric / Anthropocentric.” Thematically, he says, it relates to “eternal recurrence,” a term coined by Nietzsche to express how “everything happens over and over again, an infinite amount of times throughout infinite time and space.” This pattern can’t be changed, so Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic explores “finding ways of dealing with that.” Helping Staps bring this concept to life are David Ramis Åhlfeldt (guitars) and Loïc Rossetti (vocals), as well as recording newcomers Peter Voigtmann (synths), Paul Seidel (drums), and Mattias Hägerstrand (bass). In addition, appearances from pianist Vincent Membrez, cellist Dalai Theofilopoulou, and even singer Jonas Renkse (Katatonia) flesh out the crushing splendor of Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic even more.
The album reveals its nuanced and emotional ethers from the get-go, with prologue “The Cambrian Explosion” cascading natural sounds in-between a moody piano motif and surrounding synth dissonance. It’s ominously pre-apocalyptic as it sets the stage for the more robust continuation of “Cambrian II: Eternal Recurrence” (which features arguably the most simple yet seductive chorus of the whole sequence). Its dual guitar arpeggios are especially mesmerizing, as is its integration of the “Explosion” theme. Together, they make for a stunning one-two punch.
The Ocean Collective pepper Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic with many other wonderfully melodic and ambient slices. For instance, “Silurian: Age of Sea Scorpions” actually conjures the mellower side of System of a Down and Opeth, respectively, in its weighty, urgent verses and multilayered instrumental reprieves (complete with some classical touches and a generally dense sense of loss and purpose). As you’d expect, Renkse excels at covering “Devonian: Nascent” with his trademark silky desolation when singing alone—he complements Rossetti well, too, of course—and the arrangement appropriately provides bittersweet catastrophe on which to lay his dirges. In fact, it’s probably the superlative track of the collection, which is saying something. Closer “Permian: The Great Dying” (which references “an event when 95% of all life on Earth was wiped out”) mirrors “Cambrian II” in that it places an entrancing clean section (with piercing strings and harmonies) at its core, insinuating that the cycle will continue endlessly.
These serenely haunting paths wouldn’t be nearly as impactful if not juxtaposed by some truly vicious movements. In particular, “Ordovicium: The Glaciation of Gondwana” launches with a venomous combo of screaming, rhythms, and chords that—save for a brief breather halfway through—never really lets up; likewise, “The Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse” is essentially a wordless fury of ever-changing riffs, percussion, and subtly ethereal addendums that cast an engrossing cloud of devastation.
The soft and heavy personas of Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic work very well on their own, but it’s the ways in which they’re almost ceaseless combined throughout the LP that marks The Ocean Collective as masters of creative duality. Its mixtures of soaring outcries, guttural commotions, irate intensity, and atmospheric ascensions are always gripping and fluid, resulting in a singular trip whose impact does justice to its subject matter.