It’s often a wonder that Oceans Of Slumber aren’t bigger than they are, at the very least within progressive metal. They’re well-liked; they usually put out good work; but despite that, their last couple of albums have hit a point of stasis for them that hasn’t gone unrecognised. Again, that’s from a purely outside-looking-in perspective, but given how much of the narrative around Starlight And Ash has found the band openly drawing from new sources of Southern, gothic Americana and especially Nick Cave, the impression is that this is a sanctioned facelift to potentially open up some new doorways. It also doesn’t hurt that they’ve inadvertently crossed into the wider territory of Zeal & Ardor and Lingua Ignota, both of whom have found tremendous success among heavy music’s avant-garde sect through the twisting of puritanical Christian ideals through a metal lens. But at the same time, when those two acts aren’t ‘metal’ in the more traditional sense that Oceans Of Slumber are, there’s a freedom to go further that Starlight And Ash doesn’t have the benefit of. This isn’t gothic intensity burned by its own fire and brimstone, and subsequently can’t wrench out the same depths to yield those earth-shaking results. To be fair, that isn’t really a failing of Oceans Of Slumber themselves, a band who aren’t equipped to that same extent and still try to work with what they have to cultivate their version of the atmosphere. That’s mostly found in how additional instrumental touches will do the heavy lifting, like the strings and twanging acoustics of The Lighthouse, or how hollow and creaking their take on House Of The Rising Sun is, even before the violin rips it apart with so much impact. There’s also the fact that Cammie Beverly is a tremendous vocalist, who brings a noted soul element in her timbre that weaves in the Southern flavour. The stronger touches are still worth paying attention to, seeing as they’re the heaviest contributing factors of Starlight And Ash’s most defined version of personality.
That’s not to say that there’s none elsewhere either, but the roadblock that the two aforementioned artists pose stays in earnest throughout. For one, the connection to the source isn’t a strong; compared to Manuel Gagneux’s reinterpretation of slave spirituals or Kristin Hayter’s harrowing personality experiences at the centre of a religious Southern community, Oceans Of Slumber’s tales of a coastal town feel as arm’s-length as they are. It’s not a worthless angle, exploring a literary scene for how these themes can gestate and manifest, but it’s not like the album as a whole really allows them to resonate that much. Splitting the difference between prog-metal elegance and grandeur, and an earthy, gothic weight really only comes to pass on the closer The Shipbuilder’s Son, even then swaying further towards the former. As unnecessary as another version of House Of The Rising Sun is, it’s the best approximation of the feel Oceans Of Slumber are going for, where it hangs heavy in the air and emits a tangible darkness. But elsewhere, the natural cleanliness of the prog-metal production—while fit for purpose usually—is at odds with this specific direction, making for an album whose slower nature can sometimes read as a clutch of power-ballads with the dynamism tamped way down. The comparisons to Evanescence may have been applied flippantly in the past (as usual), but it’s far more accurate with The Hanging Tree and especially the start of Just A Day in poised symphonic metal without a lot of flavour. It gets to a point where the uptempo metal breaks come as a pleasant change of pace, despite their struggle to fit in with what’s around them. They at least go some way to rectifying the pacing issue, which subsequently opens up the problem of how disappointingly flat the production is on the regular, and how it utterly smashes through the vaporous, swirling work it’s paired with. They’re grievances that add up, not to where Starlight And Ash is outright terrible, but to where it falters enough to count. Solid ideas and an overall listenable execution only go so far when the unconnected lines are baked in this deeply, something which Oceans Of Slumber move through valiantly on this album despite running into them a fair amount. The most positive response that can really be mustered for it is ‘it’s alright’.
For fans of: Swallow The Sun, Nick Cave, Evanescence
‘Starlight And Ash’ by Oceans Of Slumber is released on 22nd July on Century Media Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall