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Last I saw Ocean, Halloween 2004 or thereabouts, we sat around a table in the old Genoís, just a week before they sold various and sundry possessions and packed up for a tour to Chicago. Once they reached the Windy City, they were to record with Sanford Parker, a producer with a solid name in the underground doom-rock genre the band inhabit. Important Records were helping out with the recording time, and Ocean had a slew of material they were ready to get on tape. And they did record it, getting four songs worth (a lot when each song is 20 minutes long). Of course, nothing of that session will appear on their debut record, Here Where Nothing Grows, which theyíll release with a show at the new Genoís November 19.
Sometimes the best plans donít turn out like youíd hoped. Sometimes everything you ever needed is right here in your backyard. Ocean ended up taking their material to Marc Bartholomew and his Bandsaw Recording (heís done Conifer, the long-delayed Phantom Buffalo EP, and used to be the Skinny soundguy, among other resume items) and liking what they got there a sight better. Which is what counts, right? You can put any name you want in the liner notes, but if the engineer doesnít get your sound the way you want it, whatís the point?
In a genre like this, where songs leisurely stretch out and yawn; where vocals enter after about four minutes, last 30 seconds, then return 10 minutes later; where itís kind of expected youíll listen to the record at least once really loudly in your headphones, the engineering is of paramount importance. So the guys in Ocean didnít settle. They recorded it again. And now theyíre happy.
Well, as happy as you can be when youíre playing doom rock. If the three songs listed in liner notes were broken down into suites and subtitles, I might be reminded of Yesís more psychedelic years. Oh, and if the music was played twice as fast. For a largely instrumental album, youíll find a paucity of individual instrumental heroics from players who know their instruments inside and out. Itís just not that kind of music. Itís much more about the tenor and feel of the presentation than it is about trying to impress.
Not that there arenít impressive turns here. The slower a band plays, the harder it is to keep tight together, and the more obvious mistakes are. The drummer is the lynchpin. Will Broadbent, the original drummer, quit just after the Chicago sessions and was replaced by a Providence-based Troll. He didnít work out and was so replaced with Eric Brackett, late of Adamo and Castle Bravo. In the long run, they should be all set. Brackettís one of the more talented drummers in town, playing with an interesting open style, and is able on their debut to keep everyone in their paces.
In "First Reign," his frequent drum breakdowns keep giving the impression that something significant is going to happen Ė like, okay, here comes the song proper, the speed up youíre expecting Ė but it never really comes. Instead, a new element like a winter wind whipping through a deserted bell tower enters around the 4:30 mark, constituting not quite melody. The first vocals (by Candy) come in around 5:00 Ė deeply growled and in no way intelligible, but a nice change of pace and lending a personality to the track. Midway through some of the "singing," the guitar (Reuben Little and John Lennon, longtime Portland rock guitarists split duties) does lend a bit more melody, and quickens in time with the drums, but after the vocals stop so does much of the music, lapsing back into the intro.
Itís not heavy enough or precise enough to be hardcore or math rock; itís sludgy and just as down in the mouth as "doom core" might indicate. Like staring into an oppressive darkness, the mind starts to highlight and make out the slightest of differences Ė is that a major chord? Then here comes a totally unexpected speed-up at the 12:40 mark, like they switched to double time, the guitars beating out a 3/3 high-speed waltz for about 30 seconds, before devolving yet again into the abyss of sloth.
If you were to try to parse out a narrative, it would have to involve the very water body from which Ocean take their name, as though some sentient entity was traversing the scary deeps and only intermittently coming upon anything at all on which to focus. Thus, the sound of rainfall at 18:30 is both appropriate and cool. Like our oceanic traveler has finally surfaced. Iím reminded of those scenes you seen in middle school of the earth forming, how first there was all this seismic activity, and all the world was lava, and then the rains came to fill up the holes and create the vast seas.
Thatís how primal this music is, like the forces of nature, unrelenting and unexplainable and unpredictable. Where and why is totally irrelevant. With Ocean, I have genuinely no clue whatís coming next, or how they might have decided on it. Even if there werenít anything else to speak for it, that would make this album worth having. Luckily, thereís plenty more speak for it Ė I just canít always figure out what itís saying.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com
Issue Date: November 18 - 24, 2005
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