OCEANS OF SLUMBER — Starlight and Ash

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OCEANS OF SLUMBER - Starlight and Ash cover
4.50 | 2 ratings | 2 reviews
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Album · 2022


1. The Waters Rising (04:24)
2. Hearts of Stone (03:56)
3. The Lighthouse (03:34)
4. Red Forest Roads (04:08)
5. The Hanging Tree (04:03)
6. Salvation (05:04)
7. Star Altar (05:55)
8. The Spring of '21 (03:20)
9. Just a Day (06:03)
10. House of the Rising Sun (04:23)
11. The Shipbuilder's Son (04:58)

Total Time 48:49


- Dobber Beverly / Drums, Piano
- Cammie Gilbert / Vocals
- Mat V. Aleman / Keyboards
- Semir Özerkan / Bass
- Jessie Santos / Guitars
- Alexander Lucian / Guitars

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"It’s going to be more experimental." "We’re taking our established sound and expanding it." "This will be our darkest record yet." So many bands make these claims before a new release, only to backpedal and make the exact same album as before. However, upon hearing the first few songs on Starlight and Ash, it became very clear to me that Oceans of Slumber would stay true to their word and do something different this time around. Instead of continuing on with the progressive doom sound that had become their signature, they decided to pare things down and draw inspiration from the very land they were formed upon. Now, I need to make something very clear: this doesn’t mean the sextet have abandoned everything that made them who they are. You still get Cammie Gilbert’s expressive vocals, frequent dynamic shifts, and the same melancholic atmosphere the band have always been known for. However, the way they approach these elements has changed significantly.

So what do I mean by “the very land they were formed upon”? Well, it’s actually very literal: Starlight and Ash takes the members’ Texan roots and brings them closer to the forefront. The death growls and epic song lengths have all but disappeared, making way for lean cuts of southern gothic doom rock – yes, most of the metal has been stripped away on this project as well. Once in a while you’ll get a song like “Star Altar” or “Just a Day”, both of which harken back to the band’s earlier material, but the majority of Starlight and Ash is spent exploring previously uncharted sonic territory. Single “The Lighthouse” was certainly a sign of things to come, marked by an acoustic guitar motif that must have been ripped straight out of an old spaghetti western movie. But other songs go even further to establish the band’s newfound experimentation, such as the hypnotic gothic rock of “The Hanging Tree” and the lovely solo piano piece “The Spring of 21”; these tunes retain Oceans of Slumber’s usual brand of melancholic beauty while taking them into exciting new directions.

The band members themselves have also scaled back their performances, and nowhere is this more important than with our two main songwriters, the spousal duo of Gilbert and drummer Dobber Beverly. Instead of frequently relying on the dramatic belting of the former and the over-the-top drum fills of the latter, both have opted for a more understated approach this time around. In the case of Gilbert, this serves to make the climaxes even more powerful; opener “The Waters Rising”, serves as a prime example, as she finally lets loose midway through the song after two minutes of anxious buildup. Combined with the ever-quickening tempo, it’s a legitimately exciting payoff. Beverly, meanwhile, has revamped his playing style to compliment each song without being too flashy; occasionally you’ll still get overly technical flights of fancy, but they’re not nearly as prominent as before. Of course, I also can’t downplay how effective the shortened song lengths are on Starlight and Ash: despite the relative lack of metal on the record, the tightened song structures and arrangements ironically give the material much more urgency. “The Hanging Tree” and “Hearts of Stone” are just as slow and doomy as what you’ll find on previous records, but because of how much content they pack into just four minutes each, nothing comes across as meandering – a common problem with their earlier work.

With all of that said, there’s still room for improvement. For all the praise I’ve given the group for their willingness to experiment, some of the results don’t quite hit the mark. The cover of “House of the Rising Sun” is probably the worst offender, as it simply seems out of place; in fact, aside from some nice violin work, there’s not much to speak of. The song doesn’t build up to anything particularly interesting, instead opting to remain in generic ballad territory throughout its runtime; if there’s any song on the record that could have benefitted from an explosive climax, it’s this one. Still, I have to commend Oceans of Slumber for even attempting an album like this. I suppose only time will tell whether Starlight and Ash ends up being a transitional record or a one-off experiment, but what we received in the meantime is quite the compelling experience. Even if you’ve been disappointed with the group’s past efforts, I still suggest giving this one a try; it might just convert you.
I’ll start this review with a confession: this is the album that I always hoped Oceans of Slumber would make. Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy the Texan band’s take on the progressive death/doom genre that they have been perfecting over their previous albums. But especially after their 2020’s self-titled LP, I had the strong feeling that the band had reached the limits of what they could do with that sound. It had started to grow stale and did not seem to do full justice to the band’s immense talent, especially to that of their lead singer Cammie Gilbert. Unexpressed potential is probably a way to put it – there was tons of that on their last album. A change was inevitable if Oceans of Slumber wanted to move to the next level. And what a change they delivered with Starlight and Ash!

The new album wipes away most of the tenets that had guided the band’s sound up to this point. Gone are the cavernous death growls. Gone the blistering double-bass runs and most of the other extreme metal aesthetics. Comparing the new LP’s tracklist with that of previous records, you’ll also realize that even the band’s idea of what a song is has radically changed– gone are the long-winding, multi-part 7-minute epics, leaving room for more concise, 4-minute tunes centered around Cammie Gilbert’s extraordinary vocal talent. You get the gist: Oceans of Slumber have taken the road that several other metal bands took before them, moving away from the heavy shores of extreme metal towards softer, more melodic expanses.

To be frank, this much I had expected after listening to Oceans of Slumber’s last LP. That record already contained a handful of more melodic, gothic ballads that were catered to Gilbert’s clean voice. My bet at the time was that the band would continue to dig deeper into this balladry sound, perhaps landing somewhere not far from modern-day Anathema. And here is where I was spectacularly wrong. Because, you see, Starlight and Ash does much more than simply mellowing down the band’s original sound. That’s only part of it. Oceans of Slumber take this softer songwriting approach and let it grow into a whole new aesthetic, which they dubbed “Southern Gothic”.

If you are like me, the term Southern Gothic will tell you little about the actual sonic identity of the album, but it may give you a good idea of the type of vibes it emanates: dark, gloomy, dramatic, but also charged with a deeper spiritual intensity that speaks of trauma and catharsis. Then there is of course the adjective “Southern”, which is testament to the band’s geographical roots and evokes rhythm and blues, gospel, and country music. And here is probably where the biggest surprise of the album lies: those Southern musical traditions are subtly weaved into the songs to form a new, hybrid sound where twangy blues guitars and gospel choirs are juxtaposed to art rock sensibilities, dashes of electronica and, of course, a lingering sense of sluggish heaviness that is inherited straight from the band’s death/doom origins.

This genre bending is done masterfully and ever-so-subtly. The blues and gospel influences are not as in-your-face as, say, in a Zeal & Ardor album, but surface gently from the groovy rhythms and soulful melodies of “The Lighthouse” and “Salvation”, probably the two songs with the strongest Southern accents on the album. These tracks also illustrate another characteristic of the album’s sound that emerges consistently through its 11 songs: drum grooves and vocal melodies take absolutely center stage in Starlight and Ash, to the point that at times they constitute a song’s whole texture. Guitars and keyboards are instead used with restraint, to inject bursts of color into the sound and to shift the songs’ dynamics to dramatic effects (“The Waters Rising”; “Hearts of Stone”; “Red Forest Roads”). Elsewhere, Oceans of Slumber flirt with dreamy art pop (“The Hanging Tree”), while “Star Altar” is the song that most reminds me of the band’s metal heritage – a gorgeous, doomy affair that twists and turns across its different parts before exploding into a spellbinding, down-tuned finale that is bound to trigger some serious headbanging.

These first seven songs are absolutely stunning and showcase the tremendous potential of the band’s newfound style. The flow from song to song is also exceptional: each new track builds on the previous one, but introduces new nuances to the sound, subtly pushing it into a slightly distinct direction to explore a different sonic niche. The magic breaks down somewhat as the album moves to the next set of songs (“The Spring of ‘21”, “Just a Day” and “House of the Rising Sun” - the latter a cover of a 1960s song by UK rhythm-and-blues act The Animals). I cannot quite put my finger on what it is, but these three tracks do not chime in with the rest of the record. Taken separately, there is nothing particularly wrong with each of them. Granted, “The Spring of ‘21” could do with some trimming in its second half, and the mood shifts in “Just a Day” are just a tad too jarring, but this is nothing that one does not get used to after a few listens. My reservation mostly comes from the way these three songs diverge – quite abruptly – from the rest of the album, both sonically and in terms of atmosphere. While the sound progression up to here had been gentle and subtle, suddenly we are confronted with a stark narrative jump, as we plunge into moody piano music (“The Spring of ‘21”, the first part of “Just a Day”) that suddenly turns into the heaviest wall-of-sound bit you will find in the whole album (the second part and the finale of “Just a Day”). Meanwhile, “House of the Rising Sun” veers into chamber rock, with its lush string arrangements and violin solo, marking yet another sudden change of direction in terms of sound. Starlight and Ash eventually returns to the sonic identity of its initial songs with “The Shipbuilder's Son” – a very good song in itself, although it’s somehow too late to restore the continuity and the magic that the first seven tracks were able to create.

Despite my misgivings about the album’s second-half, Starlight and Ash remains a mighty strong record. I have no doubt this is Oceans of Slumber’s best album to date and I am quite sure it will top my album of the year list too. But I am also prepared to go out on a limb and say this record will end up among my favourite 10/15 albums of all times, simply because it excels in absolutely everything that I love in music. It has a sound that innovates without losing sight of the band’s own heritage (both musical and cultural), and, as a consequence, it feels fresh and interesting but at the same familiar. It is exquisitely produced, feeling organic and nuanced, but retaining bite and power when needed. It contains fantastic melodies and arrangements, and superb performances from all musicians involved, especially from Cammie Gilbert – probably the best female singer in metal right now. Most importantly, Starlight and Ash delivers music with soul, capable of connecting with the listener at a profound emotional level, thanks to its themes of trauma and redemption and to its deep musicality and transporting impetus. As I said at the beginning of this review, I have been waiting for Oceans of Slumber to write this album since I first heard their music back in 2016, as I felt the band had the potential to express themselves at a whole new level. Even so, Starlight and Ash vastly surpasses my expectations. If there is only one album you can listen to this year, make sure it is this one.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

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