Artist: Oceans Of Slumber
Album Title: The Banished Heart
Label: Century Media
Date Of Release: 2 March 2018
“The last few years have been turbulent. When you have this mixture of a few very emotional and creative people, it gets shaky sometimes. Internal and family struggles were trying to rot us from the inside out. This new album is a reflection of those personal feelings.”
‘Love. Loss. Struggle. Surrender. The Journey. The End.’
Thus begins the third chapter in the history of Oceans of Slumber…
I have been aware of US metal band Oceans of Slumber since their debut, ‘Aetherial’. However, I really began to pay proper attention to them through their sophomore album, ‘Winter’, released two years ago to the very month. ‘Winter’ was a big step up from the debut but I still had reservations, commenting as follows within my review:
“The flow of the album could perhaps be better as the momentum of the record is slightly compromised in the mid-section. And thanks to the sheer variety and willingness to experiment, the cohesiveness of the record is frequently tested.”
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed ‘Winter’, finally concluding:
“…there are far more positives than negatives to take from ‘Winter’, to the point where I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this album to anyone who will listen to me.”
It is safe to say then, that I have been looking forward to Oceans of Slumber’s third full-length for some time. The Texan-based quintet comprised of vocalist Cammie Gilbert, guitarists Anthony Contreras and Sean Gary, bassist Keegan Kelly and drummer Dobber Beverly, have drip-fed us with information over the past few months, suggesting via the quote above and others, that ‘The Banished Heart’ would be an album fuelled and inspired by raw emotions close to the band members. The somewhat dark and striking cover artwork further underlined this stance and I, alongside many other admirers, became ever-more intrigued as to how the final product would sound.
Thankfully, we need to wait no longer as the release of ‘The Banished Heart’ is upon us. And true to the accompanying quotes and the artwork, this record looms over us all like a hulking, malevolent swathe of anger, frustration, darkness and despair. Naturally, as a result, ‘The Banished Heart’ is not an easy or a straightforward listen. However, as far as I’m concerned, it is most definitely a rewarding experience, out of which comes beauty both in terms of the music itself and through the small shoots of positivity, hope and resolve that peek through the gloom, hinting at the first stage of repair for damaged souls.
It remains the case, much like with ‘Winter’, that ‘The Banished Heart’ will divide opinion, and quite markedly too. There are already those that have declared their general malaise and dislike for the extreme metal outfit, whilst others have lapped up the first few tracks released to the world, cementing their love for the band without even hearing this album in full. Having lived with ‘The Banished Heart’ for a week or more, I have no qualms in placing myself in the latter group, the group that sees something rather special in Oceans of Slumber.
First and foremost, ‘The Banished Heart’ is another big step up for the band. The songs are smoother, more mature and simply stronger all round. The same goes for the individual performances too. It goes without saying that Dobber Beverly is a monster behind the drum kit and that vocalist Cammie Gilbert is a unique and captivating vocalist. But Oceans of Slumber are more than a duo; the guitar work is excellent on this record on account of the fact that the riffs are more powerful and impactful and the tones are wonderful, be they in full-on crunch mode or delivering something more delicate and nuanced. Even the bass, usually the least noticed instrument in heavy metal circles, can be heard producing some glorious sounds at the lower end of the register.
What I like best about Oceans of Slumber, apart from the way that they wear their hearts on their sleeves – or in this case, in their hands, outstretched – is that they are truly unique. I could reference a hundred bands in an attempt to describe the music on ‘The Banished Heart’, everyone from My Dying Bride, to Paradise Lost, to Opeth, to Enslaved, to Katatonia. However, it would simply be easier to say that Oceans of Slumber sound like Oceans of Slumber.
Within the eleven songs on this record, the quintet cover some ground, moving effortlessly from death metal climes (‘Etiolation’), to black metal (‘At Dawn’), to thrash (‘A Path To Broken Stars’), to doom, to prog and back again. The five musicians are also able to release themselves from the pull of metal on occasion, and explore different sonic tapestries, with ambient and jazz being the most apparent. It all culminates in a rich, colourful, demanding and thoroughly absorbing listen. The raw emotions that cut through the material also make it a tough, uncomfortable and disturbing experience at times but the honesty makes the album that much stronger.
At nearly 65 minutes in total, ‘The Banished Heart’ is a weighty tome, and does little to make the experience any easier for the unwitting listener. Arguably there are a couple too many songs on the record and there’s a case to be made for a slight edit. However, when I think about it, it’d be tough to identify which songs should be culled, such is the consistency of the music.
Opening track ‘The Decay of Disregard’ is a stonking track, a real statement of intent and a portent of things to come. It is both slow and ponderous, and fast-paced with a melody that comes alive after a few spins, led by the smooth and sensitive voice of Gilbert. The doom metal plod, led by superb riffs from guitarists Anthony Contreras and Sean Gary, battles with moments of full-on power to great effect, enhanced by the brutal drumming of Beverly, who hits warp speed at times. But it is the emotion of Cammie Gilbert’s voice that takes the music to the next level. Defiant yet fragile, she conveys so much with effortless conviction; it is truly a beautiful thing to hear.
The intro to ‘Fleeting Vigilance’ is pure modern-day Katatonia before a savage male growl rips through the heart of the song. The shifts between light and shade, heavy and soft are excellent, leading to a sprawling composition that belies its relatively short length. The bass of Keegan Kelly within the minimalist sections catch my ear, whilst the song ends with a wonderfully eloquent lead guitar solo which is more about expressing emotion through well-chosen notes than shredding at a million miles an hour.
The title track sits at the number four slot and it is easily a personal favourite. Full of rich, symphonic melodies, it is the perfect vehicle for Cammie Gilbert to entrance and beguile us with her silky smooth delivery one minute and her explosive power the next. The track itself dials down the heaviness for large parts, sounding more like a dark and twisted lullaby at times. In spite of this, it remains an intense listen due to the inherent sadness within the lone piano sections, the lyrical content and the theatrical, cinematic construction, particularly at the song’s death.
By contrast, ‘Howl of the Rougarou’ offers a stark change of pace, with an acoustic guitar and vocals the only instruments at the outset, filtered through a deliberately grainy production. Normal service is resumed in the second half via well-constructed brutal intensity, but it’s another demonstration of the willingness of Oceans of Slumber to experiment.
Arguably the best moment on ‘The Banished Heart’, however, is reserved for the penultimate track, in the form of the exquisite ‘No Color, No Light’. Featuring guest vocals from the peerless Tom Englund of Evergrey, it is the most melodic and anthemic song on the record, almost ballad-like in tone and pace. As good as the whole band is here, this song is all about the vocals. Gilbert and Englund work beautifully together, creating fireworks and sending shivers down my spine frequently. However, the guitar note that thunders and resonates at the 3:07 mark, followed by Cammie’s heartfelt pleadings and Englund’s sensationally emotional response ensure that this has to be one of the very best individual songs of 2018 so far, maybe longer. It is a magical moment, simply magical.
I could go on, but by now, I think you get the idea and you fully understand how much I like this record. I had hoped that Oceans of Slumber might improve upon ‘Winter’, but the reality is that they have produced something better in just about every aspect. Fuelled by dark and raw emotion it may have been, but in ‘The Banished Heart’, these negative emotions have given birth to something hugely positive, uniquely challenging, and incredibly beautiful.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from 2018 and from previous years right here:
Poem – Unique
Gleb Kolyadin – Gleb Kolyadin
Apathy Noir – Black Soil
Deathwhite – For A Black Tomorrow
Conjurer – Mire
Jukub Zytecki – Feather Bed/Ladder Head
Lione/Conti – Lione/Conti
Usurpress – Interregnum
Kælling – Lacuna
Vinide – Reveal
Armored Dawn – Barbarians In Black
Long Distance Calling – Boundless
In Vain – Currents
Harakiri For The Sky – Arson
Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets And Dead Messiahs
Tribulation – Down Below
Machine Head – Catharsis
Bjorn Riis – Coming Home EP
Twilight’s Embrace – Penance EP
Bloodshot Dawn – Reanimation
Rise of Avernus – Eigengrau
Arch Echo – Arch Echo
Asenblut – Legenden
Bleeding Gods – Dodekathlon
Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse