Since 2001, the Berlin-based musician collective The Ocean have released 7 critically acclaimed studio albums, and a split EP with Japanese post-rock legends Mono. With an ever-changing lineup of various on- and off-stage musicians and visual artists, the relentlessly touring group have become well known for their immense, mind-expanding live shows, which they have carried into the most remote corners of the globe, from Siberian squats to colonial theatres in Ecuador.
Over the course of their storied career, The Ocean have toured with Opeth, Mastodon, Mono, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Anathema, Between The Buried And Me and Devin Townsend, and have appeared on major festivals including Roskilde, Dour, Pukkelpop, Roadburn, Wacken, With Full Force, Summer Slaughter, Summer Breeze and Graspop. The band’s own Pelagic Records has also become one of Europe’s leading labels for post-rock and post-metal, with a catalog of 120 releases since 2009.
“The Ocean do for earth science class what Mastodon did for Melville: make learning brutal”, Decibel wrote about 2007’s Precambrian, Revolver describing it as a “Teutonic paean to Earth’s geology”. 2013’s seminal Pelagial, described as “a filmic ode to shifting moods, dichotomous influences and the musical personification of sinking towards the planet’s deepest underwater points” by Rock Sound, was a milestone for the band, and their most conceptual work to date, and was ranked #3 at LoudWire’s “Best Metal Albums Of 2013”, and #5 in About.com’s “2013 Best Heavy Metal Albums”.
After 5 years of touring on Pelagial, the band started recording their 8th studio album in February 2018, split into two volumes to be separately released in 2018 and 2020 respectively, titled Phanerozoic. The Phanerozoic eon succeeded the Precambrian supereon, spanning a 500 million-year period leading to the present day, and it has witnessed the evolution and diversification of plant and animal life on Earth, and the partial destruction of it during 5 mass extinction events. Conceptually and musically, The Ocean’s Phanerozoic is the missing link between the albums Precambrian and Heliocentric / Anthropocentric.
Guitarist and primary songwriter Robin Staps penned Phanerozoic as he did its predecessors, in seclusion in a house by the ocean. The first volume of the double album Phanerozoic is made up of bleak and heavy songs, boiled down to the essential core of the musical ideas driving them. With analog synths merging with the heavy guitars, the addition of Peter Voigtmann to the band’s ranks has made a marked difference. After years of handling the spectacular lighting design at The Ocean’s live shows, essentially “playing drums on the lighting console every night” as Staps puts it, he now brings a bevy of angry, dystopian sounds to the songs. Phanerozoic also marks the recording debut of bassist Mattias Hägerstrand and drummer Paul Seidel, who both bring their own style and approach to their respective instruments.
As with all of The Ocean’s releases, the music is only one piece of the puzzle. The collective has always been known for lyrics that are poignant and thought-provoking, and Phanerozoic is no exception. The central idea upon which the lyrics are premised is that of ‘eternal recurrence’, “Nietzsche’s concept that everything happens over and over again, an infinite amount of times throughout infinite time and space”, Staps explains. “When you look at Earth’s history you find a lot of evidence for this: continents have collided and drifted apart across the oceans and collided again, life nearly disappeared various times but then resurged again… this album is essentially about time, perception of time, and repetition. It is about coming to terms with the fact that there are things in life which will recur and which we cannot change and finding ways of dealing with that”.
Songs like “Permian: The Great Dying”, referencing an event when 95% of all life on Earth was wiped out, evoke questions as to whether the mass extinction theme of the album is related to the current debate about climate change.
“When you hear the term ‘mass extinction’, everyone thinks of meteors and dying dinosaurs… but what happened at the end of the Permian was not related to any pieces of rock falling from the sky”, Staps explains. The most probable scenario is that The Great Dying was caused by increased volcanic activity which caused a global warming of about 5°, which then led to the release of large amounts of methane gas from shallow seabeds into the atmosphere. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas and caused further warming in a loop effect. “We are now looking at an increase of temperature by about 4° by the end of the century, and the former worst case scenario has now become the proclaimed goal. The same increase in global temperatures which happened at the end of the Permian over the course of several hundreds of thousands of years, is very likely to happen in just over 100-200 years now.”
It is true however that none of the 5 mass extinction events during the Phanerozoic were caused by human behavior, all occurred long before humanity appeared on the map. “Looking at the Phanerozoic makes you realize that even without human impact, Earth has the power and potential to wipe out humanity in its entirety, at any given moment in time”, Staps concludes. “The causes for the global warming which led to The Great Dying were not human-made, but I don’t see any reason to assume that the results of the current human-made warming would not be similarly devastating. Literally everything died at the end of the Permian, even insects didn’t survive.”
The immediacy of Phanerozoic can be attributed to the band working out every detail and testing every song live in the rehearsal room prior to heading into the studio, a different approach as compared to their previous releases. The process of laying down tracks began in Iceland, with the drums being tracked at Sigur Ros’ own Sundlaugin Studios with long-time friend and producer Julien Fehlmann. A big drum room with great natural reverb located in a bleak and beautiful place surrounded by nature provided the perfect location for the initiation of this record.
The remainder of the album was tracked in Berlin. A brass section was recorded, and previous collaborators Vincent Membrez (piano) and longtime live cellist Dalai Theofilopoulou are featured. Katatonia vocalist Jonas Renkse delivers a stunning performance on the 11 minute track “Devonian”. However, this is very much vocalist Loïc Rossetti’s album. Staps and Rossetti worked extensively, trying out a variety of styles and focusing on finding the best possible approach for each song. “Loïc screaming over a heavy part always works great, but our goal was to avoid always going the obvious route this time”, Staps explains. The result is an album which gains its heaviness not from the surface but from below, not so much from the vocals, but from the underlying riffage, bass and drumming.
It was a conscious decision not to let this fondness of experimenting stretch to the choice of the team working on the album: Julien Fehlmann tracked drums, Jens Bogren (Katatonia, Opeth) handled mixing and mastering duties, and Norwegian artist Martin Kvamme, whose only clients are Mike Patton and The Ocean, was once more in charge of the mind-blowing artwork, making this his 5th consecutive collaboration with the collective. “There’s no reason to change a perfectly working formula”, Staps comments. “When Jens played us the basic sound of the record, Loïc and I looked at each other and our jaws dropped. It sounded SO FUCKING HEAVY that for a moment we were thinking about what we could potentially do to make it sound a bit more human and a bit less perfect… but we eventually learned to accept that Jens had simply done an outstanding job”.
Each of The Ocean’s releases has proven a profoundly immersive experience, with an unrivalled attention to detail – something which becomes particularly apparent in the award-winning packaging: for the lavish acrylic boxset that came with 2013’s Pelagial, over 10.000 acrylic layers were individually silk-screen printed and manually assembled. That which accompanied 2010’s double album Heliocentric / Anthropocentric was particularly unique, its gatefold sleeve featuring rotating gold-foiled PVC dials screwed on top of it. Phanerozoic will not fall short of its predecessors: Phanerozoic will come in a trifold (LP) / digipak (CD) with die cuts through multiple layers, creating a 3D effect; topped off by metallic inks and a blind embossing emulating a rock structure.