Houston’s Oceans of Slumber have carefully broadened their sound with each record and have reliably crafted some of the most exciting and forward thinking extreme metal of the modern era. Each album has built upon previous strengths, refining what’s worked and garnishing it with experimental flourish, and the metal community has had the absolute delight of witnessing what was once a promising young band with an unorthodox vision rapidly evolve into one of the most dominant beasts in the genre.
That isn’t the case with “Starlight and Ash.” Where previous albums have been steps forward, “Starlight and Ash” is a gigantic f**king leap. Largely shedding their Extreme Metal exoskeleton, Oceans of Slumber have effectively morphed into Extreme Southern Gothic while remaining true to their progressive doom heritage. “The Waters Rising” receives us with echoes of Theater of Tragedy‘s “Cassandra” resonating across its verses, with the antagonistic clean and acoustic textures of guitarists Jesse Santos and Alexander Lucien weaving a muted unease underneath Cammie Beverly‘s expertly fraught clamor evoking a tension that never assuages. Things heavy up at the bridge just before the entire band explodes into the more familiar fervor, but while we immediately recognize it as Oceans of Slumber, we note that it is a deliberately restrained outburst, accented by drummer Dobber Beverly‘s decidedly more organic tones. Oceans aren’t plummeting us over the edge as they might have done previously; they’re nudging us unwillingly towards an unavoidable precipice, inspiring the very feeling of dread within us rather than merely telling us about it. For a band perfectly capable of ripping our faces off to consciously shackle that desire to instead get under our very skin deftly illustrates both maturity and poise, and the fact that they can alternately induce both resplendence and discomfort in under five minutes with results intensifying with each listen suggests that if they haven’t mastered this discipline already, they’re really f**king close.
“Hearts of Stone” is a four-minute venture that will satisfy fans who fear artistic growth, but without the band sacrificing their natural tendency to do just that; the doomy verses are underscored by almost bluesy articulations with a slight cowboy twang, while Mat Aleman‘s synth wavers unnervingly beneath the refrain. “The Lighthouse” festers the country and southern goth traditions, with Santos and Lucien playing devilishly bluesy patchworks that would sound just golden on a freaking dobro, while also replicating pedal steels and rusty-stringed Telecasters plugged into a blown out Pignose. Ms Beverly meanwhile agonizes in a manner only she can do to truly usher in a new era for the band. It’s absolutely still Oceans, but an Oceans that exposes a dimension they’d only hinted at before.
Cuts like “Red Forest Roads” stunningly integrate the new path Oceans have taken with the savagery for which they’re known. Opening with Ms Beverly spilling her guts over some of the most poignant slide playing you’ve ever heard come from a band rooted in black metal, the visuals of seedy, unsavory individuals indulging in seedy, unsavory acts quickly takes us away into one of the most brutal moments in the entire Oceans discography, Ms Beverly drawing from her blues and gospel background to pulverize the listener with a sonic compound that only she and her band-mates can claim as their own. Cammie firmly reasserts herself as not just one of the most powerful woman voices in metal, but as one of the most powerful voices in metal period. Her name belongs alongside Floor Jansen‘s, with whom her only similarity is her unimaginable might.
Other tracks, like the funereal “The Hanging Tree” and “Salvation,” arouse the existential angst of mortality even if you’re not paying attention to the lyrics, while “Star Altar” transports the listener to a dreary, swampy town that keeps dreary, swampy secrets. But “Just a Day” deserves special mention for being one of the most beautiful pieces of music these ears have ever heard. Segueing from (and continuing with) Beverly‘s delicate ivory-tinkling, “Just a Day” begins with an uncharacteristically serene delivery from Cammie, whose soothing singing over that celestially placid piano recalls “My Immortal,” and just hits you. And no sooner does it hit you that we’re back in doom territory, Ms Beverly‘s harrowing lament accented by Carla Kihlstedt‘s weeping violin.
As tradition dictates, we’re then treated to another remake of a song you’ve heard ten thousand times, “House of the Rising Sun.” And as their previous remakes would indicate, this is more a reinterpretation than a paltry cover, though unlike “Nights in White Satin” or “On the Turning Away,” which were both bolstered with brutality, this one is stripped entirely of the rock elements The Animals gave it in 1964. To think it took a Texas metal band to bring a British pop hit back home to its secondary Southern roots speaks to what Oceans of Slumber can achieve.
Closer “The Shipbuilder’s Son” crystallizes the new Oceans sound: it is desolate, remorseful, and more conscious of the heaviness that can be created without the reliable tools of jackhammer drums and eardrum-bursting guitars. Somehow clocking in at nearly five minutes, the song – and the entire record, for that matter – is so masterfully structured, so commandingly executed, and so tightly packed with bleakness and blight that we’re emotionally manipulated into sympathizing with monsters, and into thinking that “Starlight and Ash” is longer than it really is.
Oceans of Slumber began 2020 by releasing an uncannily timed cover of Billie Holiday‘s cautionary “Strange Fruit,” a scathing critique of the Jim Crow South; one could solidly defend the case that their absolutely goddamn chilling re-imagining of this song inspired this change of course we hear on “Starlight and Ash.” Regardless, “Starlight and Ash” and its visualization of deeply flawed characters engaged in unspeakable deeds sounds like sonic ecdysis, feels like the extreme metal soundtrack to a lost Tennessee Williams manuscript, and might very well be a bold new mission statement from one of the most gripping merchants of contemporary metal.
Released By: Century Media Records
Released On: July 22nd, 2022
Genre: Southern Gothic Rock / Progressive Doom Rock
- Cammie Beverly / Vocals
- Dobber Beverly / Drums, piano
- Mat Aleman / Keyboards
- Semir Ozerkan / Bass
- Jesse Santos / Guitar
- Alexander Lucian / Guitar
- Carla Kihlstedt / Session violin
“Starlight and Ash” track-list:
- The Waters Rising
- Hearts of Stone
- The Lighthouse
- Red Forest Rose
- The Hanging Tree
- Star Altar
- Spring of 21
- Just a Day
- House of the Rising Sun (The Animals‘ Cover)
- The Shipbuilder’s Son
I've long heralded Oceans of Slumber as the future of metal. “Starlight and Ash” definitively cements that conviction even as they inch away from their metal substratum. Some metal purists may protest, but Oceans of Slumber don't have shit to prove. They've done that already.