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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Review: Ocean Chief - Universums Härd

Ocean Chief is a five-man ensemble originating from Mjölby, Sweden. They are around since 2001, playing doom metal in any form ever since. With ‘Universums Härd’ (the hearth of the universe) they bring us their fifth full-length album, or actually I prefer calling this their first release as Ocean Chief 2.0. Compared to the predecessor ‘Sten’ and their earlier work on albums like ‘Tor’ and ‘Den Förste’ they have implemented a lot of changes, which justifies this statement in my opinion. These changes, and I quote, ‘should make ‘Universums Härd’ easier to digest for listeners who thought "Sten" was too excessive and overwhelming’. They succeeded. Where their earlier work was definitely meant for die-hard doom fans only, ‘Universums…’ indeed is a bit more accessible for ears that are not used to über-sluggish, ultra-heavy doom.

Not that we’re dealing with lounge music here, the impressive, slow, grinding wall of distorted guitar riffs packed in complex compositions is still present in a large portion of the album, but it doesn’t sound as dark and massive as it used to. The ominous atmosphere is still there as well, but it’s not as oppressive, grievous anymore. Could very well be a production issue, the songs were recorded live in the studio, but when I read the accompanying text that came with this release I’m sure it was deliberately done. It certainly is not due to the skills of the band members, their mastery is unmistakable. Apart from the lighter sound they have increased the speed a bit on quite a few of the seven songs, which, like the lighter sound, not only opens them up, but also gives the band the opportunity to add more melodic, sometimes even psychedelic elements. Consequently the songs are way shorter, with only one song on this album clocking over 10 minutes, and then only just. All these changes are definitely not a bad thing per se, but it does make me curious as to how the fans of the first hour will respond to this, since they do wander off the beaten track they followed earlier pretty far. That being said, ‘Universums…’ still classifies as a stoner/doom album, be it mixed with other elements.

The transformation from ‘old’ to ‘new’ itself is ingeniously executed. Despite all the intentions and changes, the opener and title song ‘Universums Härd’ begins in true old style Ocean Chief fashion: Slow and thick enough to stop the world from turning, although you immediately hear the lighter sound if you’re familiar with their earlier work. From this 10-minute atmospheric track it’s a small step to ‘Oändlighet’, which appears to be some sort of transition song. While at first continuing on the doomy path taken in track one, the speed gradually picks up, introducing the new features discretely into their music, complete with a guitar solo embedded in the song structure. Next up is ‘Färden’, where, apart from the slow pace, all ties with doom metal have disappeared. In fact, you’d be challenged to find any metal in it at all. It has an Egyptian feel to it, with a prominent role for the keys. Then it’s back to business after this unexpected trip to Egypt with ‘Urtiden’, again a song at a higher pace with an excellent drum line from Larsson. Via the very short ‘Frihet’ which is obviously guitar oriented, we head to the strong end of the album, which consists of two songs: ‘Mörkret’ and ‘Vandringen’. Both songs are great examples of how they have fitted the new elements into their old, yet adapted sound, making them the perfect ending for ‘Universums…’.

In the text that has been sent along they mention this album has been written in a few months, and to be honest, I’m not 100% convinced that is a good thing. I never can get fully rid of the feeling they should have taken more time to work out their new musical concept to more perfection, especially since they have implemented so many changes at once. There’s little consistency in the songs, as if they’re not sure which direction to choose. Tobias Larsson still displays his scream-and-grunt style of singing, but there’s a few passages where he is stretched to the max when it comes to vocal reach, which, I can only assume, is because he still needs to adjust to the new style. He never seriously derails, though. The bass lines are only faintly present, a bit more power would make quite a difference I think.

‘Universums…’ still is a good album, but I get the feeling it could have been better had they put a bit more time (and effort?) in developing and getting used to the new style and the overall production. Should be interesting to keep track of where these guys are going to go with their new style and how they improve, which I’m sure they will. They’ll probably lose a few old style fans due to the changes, but these changes will also gain them fans because their music is made more accessible to a another, bigger audience.

Written by Henric van Essen


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