'Animus' - Ocean Architecture (7/10)
Until relatively recently, I saw the world of prog metal as a stagnant genre. Sure, there were bands out there doing remarkable things with prog and extreme metal styles, but as far as the 'classic' sound largely popularized by Dream Theater went, I got the impression that the majority of participant bands were more or less content to retrace the territory outlined by a few great musicians. Arguably since 2010 with Haken's "Aquarius" however, I've become excited again about progressive metal, largely in thanks to young bands like Ocean Architecture. Like Haken, Caligula's Horse, and Distorted Harmony, Ocean Architecture fuse the classic sounds of progressive metal with a strong contemporary influence. Although the synthesizers and shred sweeps of the bygone era are in full display here, you're just as bound to here parts that would fit on a present day alternative rock record. Ocean Architecture's style isn't completely fresh in the way it brings its many sounds and ideas together, but in combination with strong melodic writing, impressive musicianship and a pleasant conceptual approach, these guys have put together a fine debut with "Animus".
Progressive metal is usually defined by a penchant for time signature changes, synth solos and guitar wizardry, and "Animus" enjoys all of these qualities. However, there's more of a down-to-earth vibe to the performance that you would more likely see in a contemporary rock band. Ocean Architecture's sound is remarkable for its lack of pretentious bombast and 'epic cheese'; exactly the sort of stuff that first bored me with the genre. Although the instrumentation on "Animus" betrays a strong Dream Theater influence, Ocean Architecture clearly brings in more of a present day influence than anything else. Although vocalist Parker Deal's performance here is versatile, his natural tenor sounds like it could fit on an artistically accomplished pop album. Although his voice can be a bit of an acquired taste within the metal sphere, his clean delivery is indicative of great skill, particularly with note to his vibrato. However, in lieu of another of the band's contemporary influences- metalcore- there are also a fair amount of sections here where screams are used. Although there's certainly nothing wrong with harsh vocals, the way they're used on "Animus" feels unnecessary. In fact, many of the album's metalcore influences tend to feel out of place on the album. The worst case of this is an apparent breakdown towards the end of the second track, "The Last Stand", where the strong atmospheric momentum that was built up throughout the rest of the song is broken.
Although you probably wouldn't be able to tell from the album art and music alone, "Animus" is a conceptual album "that tells an unfolding story about doubt, anger, perception, confusion, fear, insanity, and enlightenment." It sounds vague on paper, and perhaps it remains so in the music, but it regardless lays a firm groundwork for a wide range of emotions to be explored in the music. Conceptually, "Animus" is remarkably similar to To-Mera's "Exile", also released this year. Initial anxieties and isolation eventually gives way to a sense of relief and acceptance. The lyrics are functional, but rarely brilliant, seeming to fall back on now cliched 'prog' tropes of reality and metaphorically dressed up ways of describing emotion. Take from it what you will, but Ocean Architecture keep the focus on the music itself, leaving the concept as a sort of 'optional extra' that can be more or less done without. The big thing that the conceptual angle gives here is a greater sense of overarching flow. Particularly with regards to Parker's vocal melodies, there are a few recurring motifs throughout the album. These themes are not recycled ideas from past tracks either; Ocean Architecture's skill with composition enables them to approach the idea from a new perspective. For example, pay attention to the tense melodic chorus of "Plato's Cave", a melody that is altered only slightly in structure, but completely recreated with the much more optimistic melody that fuels the album's climax at the end of "Animus Pt. II". This flow and structure really compliments repeated listens, and leaves "Animus" feeling very memorable when taken as a whole.
It's great to hear a new band so willing to experiment with so many sounds on one album. At over an hour long, "Animus" was a very ambitious undertaking, and for the most part, it has paid off. On top of a strong sense of style and structure, Ocean Architecture also sport a degree of musicianship that you wouldn't expect from a band of their youth. In particular, Nic Giordano's drum performance and Joe Dorsey's keyboard work are fantastic, with the former offering a wide dynamic and the latter adding some great depth and texture to the mix. The production may run a little flat when compared to the 'professional standard', but the fact that Ocean Architecture are capable of competing with the genre veterans this early on is a testament to their potential.