The Ocean, the German post-sludge-metal act masterminded by guitarist Robin Staps, is one of the most consistently high-quality bands in metal today. Ever since Fluxion and Aeolian, Staps has led The Ocean to even greater heights with each release, never settling for anything less than hard-earned perfection. Their latest release, 2013's Pelagial, is no exception.
Musically, Pelagial continues where Heliocentric and Anthropocentric left off; rather than focusing on unadulterated sludge or soaring post-metal alone, Pelagial works towards fusing the two previously segregated aspects of the band's sound into one. There's a conscious development towards a more symphonic, progressively-influenced sound, becoming much more intentionally beautiful and organic than in previous releases. The requisite nods in due respect to the band's past are made, but it's clear that the band are no longer tied by old convention.
Pelagial was conceived as a single piece of music, aurally capturing the sensations of descending deeper and deeper into the ocean (hence, the name). The album audibly shifts from bright and clear at the beginning to much darker and crunchier at the end, highlighting the sense of claustrophobia and isolation that results from the increase of pressure and lack of sunlight at the furthest depths of the ocean. Continuing the band's recent trend of lyrics leaning toward the philosophical, the aural journey also serves as a metaphor for delving deeper and deeper into the human psyche, describing just what makes us who we are and, in particular, what gives us agency.
I was a bit caught off guard by the weird fixation in the promotional material that Pelagial would be available in both vocal and instrumental versions. A lot of albums come with instrumental versions as a bonus; what's so special about this one (aside from shafting vocalist Loïc Rossetti)? At first, I thought it just a ploy to make sure that Pelagial would be a paired release, like all other major releases from the band to date. But as it turns out, Pelagial was originally part of an intentional shift in sound for the band, conceived and written as a purely instrumental release. Though technically not a first for the band (their debut EP Fogdiver was purely instrumental), it certainly seemed very disparate from the lyric-heavy and thought-provoking nature of their recent releases. Regardless, once you're conscious of the fact that the vocals were written after the music, the differences between the two versions become much more noticeable.
First of all, the vocals (less so the lyrics themselves) are very inconsistent. Sometimes they will sound very much at odds the instrumental tracks, almost as if they were tacked-on as an afterthought--the movements "Benthic" and "Bathypelagic" are both quite obviously guilty of this. However, at other times the vocal lines seem truly inspired. This is especially true on movements like "Hadopelagic" and "Mesopelagic", where it can be hard to believe that the music wasn't written with those exact vocals in mind. Also, in listening to the instrumental version alone, a lot of compositional choices become much more understandable, such as the lack of consistent refrains. The instrumental version of the album also gets an alternate mix in order to highlight those marvelously intricate compositions, and believe me, they truly are substantial enough to stand on their own. It makes me wish that the instrumental version was billed first; it's much more satisfying to listen to without the feeling that something is "missing" from it.
Regardless of the very peculiar oddities arising from the nature of the album's recording, Pelagial is a deservedly beautiful release. When you buy it, however, do yourself a favour and listen to the instrumental version first. It gives you a much different, and more deserving, perspective on this deeply multifaceted album.
Recommended if you like: A Storm of Light, Dirge, Cult of Luna