Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up, the fourth studio album by alternative progressive band Oceansize has a heavier tone but manages to reintroduce the band’s skillful songwriting style, packed neatly in thick guitar soundscapes and clever stereo manipulations.
This might sound weird coming from a member of a prog-rock band, but when I first read that Oceansize’s Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up was going to be “fifteen songs, all under four minutes”, I was genuinely excited.
An Introduction to My Oceansize Experience
When I first heard Oceansize’s first album, Effloresce, I really liked its classic ‘The Bends’ alternative rock sound, only it came with a more vigorous approach. I listened to it a lot, though it didn’t scale as a top album at first.
When Everything Into Position was released, I got it and listened to it a few times, thinking it was nice. I told Opher about it, without making much of a fuss about it. “Oceansize have a new album out” is pretty much all I said.
Then a few weeks later Opher said he had been listening to the album and that it was awesome. So I gave Everything Into Position another listen. All of the sudden, I rediscovered the amazing and rich musical world that is Oceansize. I consumed both albums repeatedly, savoring the music over and over again, always finding out something new.
This band was giving me everything I ever wanted in music: a dynamite sound with sharp guitars, a good versatile vocalist and compositions that are both intelligent and emotionally driven. What was so great about them was the fact that they were able to produce complex prog-like riffs and compositions, but it sounded like they weren’t even trying to do that. Only after dozens of listens to Effloresce did I even notice that many of the songs sported odd time signatures. This was refreshing compared to all those Neo-Prog bands that have been dragging 7/8 into the ground in the past 30 years, creating what we in the “scene” call a Progressive Rock Cliché.
And then, came Frames. I was concerned that Oceansize would become too self-conscious by the great artistic and critical accomplishments of Everything Into Position, and when it was released, I felt like that’s exactly what had happened.
Frames still had the great sound and powerful performance that an Oceansize fan would expect, and it did have some great moments, but to me it felt like the natural complex compositions were gone, and were replaced by songs that sounded like very long sessions. It was as if in the past, they just wrote songs that sounded proggy, but when they became aware that they’re actually playing progressive rock they panicked and started trying too hard to keep up with themselves and ended making the same mistakes that rookie neo-prog bands do.
Don’t get me wrong, Frames was definitely not a flop. It does have some great moments, exciting riffs and an amazing sound. It wasn’t a huge disappointment like every Mars Volta album released after De-Loused in the Comatorium. But it did have 10 minute long instrumentals that took forever to get to nowhere, like “An Old Friend of the Christies”. The album’s opener, Commemorative 9/11 T-Shirt (awesome title btw), featured the same 11/8 time signature used on the Charm Offensive to open Everything Into Position, except that on the Charm Offensive, it actually went somewhere, instead of repeating the same riff for three and a half minutes before actually starting the song.
My, that was a Long introduction; let’s get to the actual review, shall we?
So anyway, after an album with songs that lasted for over eight minutes for no apparent reason, the fact that the band even joked about producing an all-four-minute-song album was a hint that they’ve seen the error of their mistake, and are now ready to return to their roots.
As with all Oceansize albums, it took a while to get used to it. Even as I was writing this review, I was listening to parts of Frames and telling myself “hey, this is actually not that bad after all.” So Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up took some time to sink in, as any album with profound music and lyrics does.
At first it sounded like the band was burrowing deeper into their Meshuggah influences. After a few full listens, it became evident that this was only partially true. The heavy songs were much heavier, but that didn’t reflect on the lighter songs, nor did it cause them to feel unrelated to the feel of the album. That’s the sign of a really good band: when it can slap a progressive death metal assault next to a slow, mellow ballad, and still sound like the same band.
The album’s sound is very warm and concise, with a rich analog feel to it. The guitars sound like they were played out of king-size high-end amps, the mix is sharp and clear, the arrangements are well balanced, allowing you to hear every single instrument (or at least, so it sounds, maybe there are more layers of guitars hiding somewhere).
The album also includes some very interesting stereo manipulations, which at first I felt were a bit redundant, but after getting to know the songs I learned to appreciate them. Silent / Transparent begins with very eclectic drumming, and the extreme panning stood out so much that at first it made feel like they were artificially trying to cover up the lack of originality in the songwriting with some technical tricks. But then I decided it wasn’t the case, so stop writing that hate mail.
Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up is not without its faults, though. There’s still an excessive use of consistent patterns, which generates a certain sense of repetitiveness, lacking the rich composition style of Everything into Position. Some redundant moments like the 3 minute long postlude on Oscar Acceptance Speech, which does sound very nice but lasts for way too long, and the over-the-top metal extravaganza of It's My Tail and I'll Chase It If I Want To.
The last two songs, Pine and SuperImposter, are quite reminiscent of the band’s “old style”. I love the sound of their spacey effect-drenched guitars, combined with Mike Vennart’s smooth, relaxing and yet somehow at the same time haunting and disturbing voice. These two songs make an excellent ending for a somewhat unbalanced album.
Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up shows that Oceansize still has a lot to offer. It’s not their best album, but once again, it’s not their worst album either (seriously, that Mars Volta album was horrible.) I’m looking forward to hear more from the band, as even on their worst day, Oceansize still kicks the collective asses of most of the bands that operate in today’s “New Prog” scene. I’m hoping to fly out of the country sometime and make it to at least one of their shows before it is too late, like in the case of the Cooper Temple Clause.
When talking to people about Solstice Coil, I am often asked three questions: 1) what does Solstice Coil mean? 2) How do you pronounce it? (Mostly Israeli people ask that) and 3) what kind of music do you play / wtf is alternative progressive rock?
So here are some answers for you:
1) It means nothing. Just kidding, it means something, we just don't know what… I elaborated about this in this interview.
2) You pronounce it phonetically, obviously!
I remember writing a forum ad for our first show, which stated that we played alternative rock / grunge / Britpop. Naturally, those were different times, with a completely different material. Our influences at the time were mostly Muse, Radiohead and Nickelback.
Okay, just kidding about Nickelback, but I was a keen fan of Britpop bands, mainly Ocean Color Scene, Dodgy, Blur, Oasis and Mansun.
Obviously, a lot has changed since then. We started diving into the world of progressive rock, which eventually led us to chuck all the songs we had and replace them with what would eventually become A Prescription for Paper Cuts. The thing was, we didn't quite feel like we were making progressive rock per se.
The Search for Definition
My singing style has always been influenced by Thom Yorke and Matthew Bellamy, as well as the mood of our compositions. We also didn't feel like we were measuring up to "real" progressive rock bands like Genesis, King Crimson and Yes – we really didn't feel like our music was that complicated.
On the other hand, we sure as hell weren't going to define ourselves as a Neo-Prog band. We also didn't want to claim to be a prog-metal band because some songs weren't that heavy and the falsetto style of singing found in APPC was very none-metal.
I'll just Create My Own Genre, Then! (With blackjack, and hookers)
We decided a new sub-sub-genre was in order. Since we combined alternative rock and progressive rock, it was only natural to call it Alternative Progressive Rock, or alt-prog-rock for short. Or APR for really short. Though nobody calls it that.
We didn't know of many bands that fused these two styles the same way we did at the time, except maybe for fellow Israeli rock band Eatliz, but they took it to a far more extreme direction, which was often clearly progressive metal (even if they won't admit it).
Surprise, Surprise, Alternative Progressive Rock Exists
When we finally got to record some tracks and upload them to the web, we started receiving all sorts of feedback. One comment on Garageband mentioned The Mars Volta, which we didn't know at the time.
After listening carefully to their music, we felt like we had just found our twin brother – this was a band that made crazy music with odd time signatures, unorthodox song structures, long guitar solos and busy arrangements, while still maintaining a modern sound and not actually sounding like a prog band at all!
So naturally, after we were told we sound like them, we started doing everything we could to sound like them, but on purpose.
Then another comment spoke of Dredg. Though not quite a progressive alternative band, they do present some unconventional songwriting and a unique drumming style, especially on El Cielo.
The most notable band we found was Oceansize. Now this was a band that had the guitars and vocals of Radiohead and Muse, only all of their songs are played on a 7/8 time signature. Efflorescence paved the way, but Everyone into Position really established their reign as alternative progressive rock kings (though their MySpace paged defined them as a Progressive Death Indie band).
I would also like to note two albums from the late 1990s that I feel are model examples of alt-prog-rock:
Mansun - Six
This brilliant concept album is the apex of what I think alternative progressive rock should be: ambiguous yet meaningful lyrics and unexpected compositions that never cease to surprise you. I recently read on Paul Draper's blog about the making of Six, and it really inspired me. I wrote a review about the album a few years ago, you can read it here (for Israelis and Hebrew majors only)
Pulp – This is Hardcore
Yes, Pulp. If you don't know this album and you think Pulp was nothing but an upbeat Britpop band with some silly hit songs, think again. This concept album is very well crafted, musically, lyrically and visually. It's not as off-the-hook as Six, but it has some very interesting compositions, particularly the title theme, which is both moving and intellectually stimulating – and that's what alternative progressive rock is all about!
If you can think of any more examples for alternative progressive rock, let me know!