I was surprised to see an album by ...and Oceans pop up out of the blue in 2020. It was their first in eighteen years, after spending plenty of time as industrial band Havoc Unit and death metal band Festerday, their original incarnation. But suddenly they they were with a long overdue fifth album and, only three years later, here's their sixth. I absolutely do not want to go back to eighteen year gaps, but this wasn't as successful for me as its predecessor, gorgeous cover art notwithstanding.
Like Cosmic World Mother, this is mature black metal with symphonic textures wrapped around it and plenty of odd little diversions into other realms. The first of those comes halfway through the opening title track, when the black prog suddenly vanishes as if we've bumped the dial on a radio and accidentally tuned into some sort of crossdimensional eclectica channel. There's what sounds like carnival music with effects, as if someone's playing an American Fotoplayer, the device used to accompany silent movies. Maybe our signal is being hacked; I could see this being the work of Max Headroom. And then we're back to where we were. Very strange.
I wasn't a fan of the first half of the title track. The drums sound OK but the cymbals are awful and I wondered what happened to the glorious mix that I enjoyed so much on the previous album. I was happy when it perks right up after that strange interlude, with beautifully slow melodies laid over frantic blastbeats. I might complain about how it ends just like that, but then The Collector and His Construct continues as if it's the second part of the very same song, so I won't. I like that one a lot, because it plays with that mix of slow melodies over frantic urgency and it does it throughout.
This is the ...and Oceans I want to hear, a band who manage to combine the overwhelming mindset of traditional black metal with elegant melodies that seem utterly effortless. It's as if the album's some sort of vehicle that sits on a thousand mad but highly effective legs that speeds away from us in jagged lines without any hesitation. It seems like it'll be impossible to keep up with it, except that somehow we find ourselves floating in serene fashion above the maelstrom of activity below us and we're able to look down on the fury from a safe place.
Given that this approach is hardly the most immediate to grasp, the question always comes down to how well the songs grow on us with repeat listens. A first time through isn't going to be enough but a second should start to feel right and a third should allow us to start calling out highlights. It played that way for me, the first listen mostly disappointing but the second much improved and a third time through the charm. I'm still not particularly fond of the first few minutes of the album, which seems like the point it ought to grab me hardest, but it kicks in soon enough and maintains its momentum throughout.
The Collector and His Construct is better than the title track, but Within Fire and Crystal is better again, because its contrasts are brighter. I like how it gets doomy in its midsection too. It's a song that gets more interesting the further it goes and I do appreciate those. Carried on Lead Wings is a third strong song in a row, which bodes really well for the album as a whole. Eventually, though, my struggles with the mix took over.
A song like Likt Törnen Genom Kött, with its epic flow lurking in delightful shadows under the main thrust of the music, ought to feel blissfully immersive but I couldn't find how to dive in. I have zero knowledge of how to be a studio engineer, but I can see where the problem is. At my regular level of volume, I found myself focusing extra hard on the backdrop, because it seemed to be too low in the mix. I wanted to hear more of it and the band kept getting in the way. So I turned it up to see if it would burst through at a higher volume, but the drums became annoying in the foreground and they took me out of the experience, even as the bass crept out to be noticed.
Early on, it didn't seem quite right but I was able to cope. Maybe the early songs are good enough that they can climb above the problem, but that doesn't ring true because songs like Likt Törnen Genom Kött and Inverse Magnification Matrix feel like they should be too but the mix stops them from reaching their full potential, from delivering the oomph that they deserve at any volume. I seriously want to hear Antti Simonen's epic keyboard sweep on Inverse Magnification Matrix but it's too hidden.
I don't know to fix this, but it would seem to me that it could be done by pushing and pulling sliders on that mixing desk and that's someone else's job. What's oddest is that it feels inconsistent, as if the engineer changed between sides, which makes little sense. It's certainly more of a problem as we drift out of the first side than earlier. Long story short, I'm happy that this particular group are continuing as ...and Oceans, at least for the present, but this isn't as good an album as it could be. It doesn't seem as progressive as its predecessor, with the dips into wild material asides instead of integral components. I still want to see them live though. I want to see how this translates to stage.