Review: Oceans of Slumber – Starlight and Ash
First, a little shit talking:
When it comes to adherence to what I can best describe as the sanctity of a genre’s tenets, metalheads tend to be a bit more zealous than fans of other music. We like things the way we like them, goddammit, and change confuses and scares us more than most. We probably need therapy for that. But it’s hard to deny that the metal-to-country genre pivot has historically been- and I say this generously- fucking dogshit. Devin Townsend may have pulled off a solid album with Casualties of Cool (which ironically is the only album in the modern DT oeuvre that I actually enjoy), but it has been categorically awful when attempted by other metal artists. This is all to say that I met the announcement that Oceans of Slumber would be taking their new album in a twangy direction with some trepidation.
But Oceans of Slumber are not like other metal artists. Their grasp of concepts foreign to the wider world of metal, such as nuance and subtlety, combined with their experience in writing for clean guitar and more reserved approach to songwriting in general make them uniquely suited to trying their hand at this type of music. In retrospect, it was silly to have worried that Starlight and Ash would be yeehaw bro country or cheesy whinging garbage a la That Man And Me, but it’s still mind blowing how great it turned out in the end.
And, as it turns out, the added twanginess is neither an all-encompassing change to the music or even the only new aspect of it. Make no mistake: this is very much an Oceans of Slumber album in spite of the stylistic changes, and it could be argued that said changes bring some of the best of what the band has to offer to the forefront. The darkness and mournfulness present throughout their discography is in full force on songs like “The Lighthouse” and “Salvation,” with their bluesy Gothic country melodies and lonely guitar work. This more overtly Southern flavor extends into the songs with metal roots as well; “Star Altar” in particular throws on a ton of fuzz for the crunchy guitars, and the chorus sounds like it shares some of its DNA with the melodic side of Georgia sludge acts.
The compositions on this album might initially feel sparse to some metal fans’ ears, but this is by design. The open feel of the songs allow each instrument to explore in impactful ways as well as letting the excellent production shine through, from subtle touches of synth and piano to the occasional violin melody interwoven with the guitar and vocals. They also make the bombastic moments hit particularly hard; the midway build-up in “The Waters Rising” to its chorus and the rollicking closing bars of “Just A Day” feel huge, and the band absolutely explodes into the finale of “Red Forest Roads” in what might be the most powerful moment of their discography. Everything feels so meticulously placed, written by true experts of their craft, but performed so earnestly that it always feels organic and authentic.
So perhaps my opening musings on country were misleading in the context of this album, but to put it frankly, it’s the first place my mind went the dusty imagery in the video for “The Lighthouse” and the band’s own description of their music as “a new southern gothic.” This is an album I feel wholly unqualified to talk about; the scope of my own listening and experience with music, largely limited to the metal scene, is not enough to describe the breadth of the album’s influences and stylistic choices. I can hear bits of blues, R&B, doom, and, yes, country, all come together into something that defies salient explanation from me; it’s metal, but it isn’t. All I can say definitively is that I like it a lot. Whether Starlight and Ash represents a new course in the band’s journey or is simply a rest stop off the beaten path, Oceans of Slumber have created something special.