Certainly one of the most anticipated albums of the year would be Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic (hereafter referred to as II). The last album from German progressive post metal collective The Ocean, Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic (hereafter referred to as I), easily made it onto our 2018 year-end list and set up II with very high expectations. The trick is living up to those expectations.
Right out of the gate two things are obvious on II. First, this album lives up to, and in fact exceeds in some respects, its predecessor. And second, this is not merely a continuation of the first album, but another evolutionary step in The Ocean’s sound. Musically and vocally, II is the band’s most dynamic album to date, introducing a variety of vocal styles and effects as well as new more organic, even Eastern-influenced, musical motifs we haven’t heard from them before.
“Triassic” and “Jurassic | Cretaceous” just might be the best one-two opening punch of the year in progressive metal. While “The Cambrian Explosion” opened I with a sense of epic foreboding, “Triassic” launches II in a more pensive manner, moody and airy. It doesn’t take long for this feeling to transform into a sense of anticipation, though, as intricate bass lines jam behind a clean-picked guitar melody and the music slowly builds before dropping off again. Loic Rossetti joins in with an almost robotic intonation, and three minutes in the band launches furiously into a brief hardcore burst. This ebb and flow repeats for five more minutes, perfectly displaying The Ocean’s prowess with both heaviness and dynamics.
“Jurassic | Cretaceous” would be my current favorite song of the year, and is very Tool-like in nature. In fact, were this a Tool song it would very possibly be one of their best. The intro hammers itself into our consciousness before an incredibly dynamic post-intro opens the song proper. Again Rossetti’s vocal chops are on full display, but assisted this time around (like on I’s “Devonian: Nascent”) by Katatonia’s Jonas Renske, making the song a vocal tour de force. The heavy/soft moments, the varied percussion, the delayed guitar melodies; between these two opening songs it all adds up to twenty-two minutes of perfection.
The sole weakness of II is the dip in quality in the middle. Neither “Eocene” nor “Oligocene” do much to hold our attention. The former isn’t a bad song per se, but rather nondescript compared to the opening trio, making it a bit of a come-down, and “Oligocene” is a short instrumental track that, despite falling in the middle of the album, fails to unite the two halves. These two “good” songs detract from the other six near-perfect tracks, but they are forgiven in the grand scheme of the record.
Thankfully, the final trio of songs once again pick up where the first three tracks left off, with plenty of heavy riffing, clean/harsh vocals, and epic arrangements. “Pleistocene” in particular here is a diamond in the rough. It starts in an almost bouncy pop rock fashion, with a very catchy vocal melody, and even some strings, but just as we are about to write the song off, in comes the heavy verse, even blackened screams and blastbeats, providing a contrast that demands multiple visits to fully appreciate. “Holocene” brings the lyrical theme back to the beginning, with Rossetti repeating lyrics from “Triassic.”
Once again produced by Jens Bogren, the sounds and mix are dead-on. Drums were tracked at the same time for II as they were for I, which keeps things consistent, and Bogren once again wields a deft hand on the console, augmenting the organic quality of the songs with an unobtrusive mix that keeps everything exactly where it should be. In short, these albums are a joy to listen to.
How much listeners love this album will depend on what facets of The Ocean they most identify with. Those who prefer the band’s hardcore roots and the unrelenting heaviness of Precambrian will be somewhat disappointed, while fans of the band’s newer more progressive material and Loic Rossetti’s vocals just might put II at the top of their favorites list.
(released September 25, 2020 on Metal Blade Records)
Heavy Music Headquarters Rating:
Watch The Ocean – “Jurassic | Cretaceous” Video