Googling “definition of heavy” is akin to stumbling down a rabbit hole, climbing back out, and then after dusting yourself off, willingly diving back in again head first. What is fascinating is just how many of these numerous definitions could say in brackets “see the new Oceans of Slumber album ‘Starlight And Ash’”. For starters; “having great weight”, or “difficult to bear: causing or characterized by severe pain or suffering”, “depth or intensity” is a doozy, or “borne down by something oppressive”. All are ideal descriptions of what awaits the listener when ‘Starlight And Ash’ creeps out of the speakers, but perhaps the most appropriate definition of “heavy” with regards to Oceans of Slumber would be: “greater in quantity or quality than the average of its kind or class”. Nail. Hit. On. Head.
The most personal, and ambitious Oceans of Slumber album to date, ‘Starlight And Ash’ is perhaps not the surprising left-turn in musical styles that it has been made out to be. The band dropped a few hints on 2020’s stunning self-titled album. Yes, on ‘Starlight And Ash’ the black/doom metal leanings from earlier output are redundant, but, for instance, if you take out the bludgeoning riffs, blast beats, and harsh vocals from 2020’s ‘The Soundtrack to My Last Day’ then the bare bones of that particular song is the stop-you-in-your-tracks haunting vocals from Cammie Beverly. But it is the hugely cinematic ‘To the Seas (A Tolling of the Bells)’ – one of the many standout moments on 2020’s studio offering – that offers up the biggest hint of where the Texan sextet was headed on studio album number five. Going back even further, who could forget the spellbinding 2016 cover of The Moody Blues classic ‘Nights in White Satin’ (Justin Hayward with blast beats)?
After a few brooding moments, helped along by Dobber Beverly’s subtle piano work – which is given top-billing on the solo piano composition ‘The Spring of 21’ – opening track ‘The Waters Rising’ grows into the heaviest track on the album (along with the majestical ‘Red Forest Roads’) and Dobber gets the chance to flex his muscles behind his primary weapon of choice: his drumkit. Even when he is pummelling his kit he plays it cool and displays a deft touch missing from so many of his peers. The song is allowed to grow naturally, and Cammie’s vocals show great control as she reigns in the urge to unleash the big guns too early, and when mid-song arrives, all bets are off as she delivers a hair-raising performance. The expansive soundscapes of ‘Hearts of Stone’ keeps the momentum going and then the brand New Southern Gothic comes to the forefront with the atmospheric beauty of ‘The Lighthouse’ which features some of the most beautiful, light guitar tones heard for some time.
Whereas previous albums were about the progressive nature of the band and the instrumentation took more of a central role, on ‘Starlight And Ash’ it is the gorgeous vocals of Cammie Beverly that are front and center. Her performance on ‘Salvation’ is hypnotic and spellbinding, with the male backing vocals lending an eery, church-like air to proceedings, while ‘Star Altar’ and the heartbreaking intro to ‘Just A Day’ spark memories of discovering Tori Amos for the first time. The latter is especially deserving of extra column inches for just how much Oceans of Slumber packs into the six-minute suite of music that has more layers than you might care to mention. So much going on in this one that it would make your head spin, and the only sane thing to do after it ends is to press the button marked “repeat” to ensure that it was indeed just the one song. Standout moments? Too close to call, although ‘The Hanging Tree’, ‘Salvation’ and ‘The Shipbuilders Son’ are beginning to edge clear in the race, with ‘The Waters Rising’, ‘The Lighthouse’ and ‘Just A Day’ all closing in. The mournful string-laden cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is perfect, so perfect that Oceans of Slumber make it their own.
If you were paying attention in class over the last six years or so, the starkness, and simplicity of ‘Starlight And Ash’ should not really come as that much of a surprise. The quality of the material featured within should certainly not come as a surprise as Oceans of Slumber has been wowing more on each release since Cammie joined, and ‘Starlight And Ash’ is their ”Rainbow Rising’, their ‘White Album’, or their ‘Songs of Faith And Devotion’ – a gamechanger. I bet my left nut that this will feature heavily in album of the year lists come December, and most will have it top-three. An incredible listening experience from the first minute to the very last, and an album to fall in love with over and over again.
Available now through Century Media, more information here.
Review – Dave
Photo by TheHeavyGlow/Jamie LaCombe
OCEANS OF SLUMBER is:
Cammie Beverly – Vocals
Xan Fernandez – Guitar
Jessie Santos – Guitar
Mathew Aleman – Synth
Semir Ozerkan – Bass
Dobber Beverly – Drums and Piano