I first heard Oceans of Slumber a couple of years ago, with their debut record Aetherial. And honestly, I don’t remember much from it aside from it having a reasonably wide range of influence and being a bit of an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink sort of record. The band pulled together influences from black, sludge and death metal, which would normally have me very excited, but combined it with their core progressive metal sound in a distinctly American way. I’m not one for huge generalisations, but until recently most American progressive metal hasn’t really been to my taste, with too many connections to the nonsense production of 00’s grunge or showmanship of flagship bands like Symphony X and Dream Theater, which Oceans of Slumber no doubt had. In all honesty, when I was offered this album to review and remembered the name, I was hesitant to even listen to it based on all that I had heard from and about them before, but after a brief piece of research I quickly changed my mind.
If you heard Aetherial, and think you can judge Oceans of Slumber on it, don’t. There are still huge genre connections between Aetherial and Winter, but this might as well be a totally different band. They have a different vocalist, a heightened production sense, and a general improvement on literally everything you could possibly improve on. Take my description for Aetherial in the previous paragraph, and then imagine that, but done extremely well, and you have Winter. There’s less black and sludge here, and there’s a whole half an album that is hardly even metal, but the band have kept the same diversity in influence but done it in a manner that removes much of the sloppiness of the debut. Whenever mixed debuts come along I always feel as if the bands could make quality music if they fixed several parts of their sound, but they seldom do. Here, it’s like Oceans of Slumber have fixed absolutely everything I disliked about their debut, leaving nothing but quality. Even the cover art is representative of this – from amateurish try-hard “prog” nonsense, to quality art and symbolism, it’s a perfect representation of their shift from bedroom band to global force.
I find myself in a similar position discussing Winter as I was last year when discussing Minnesota progressive metal group Amiensus, and their sophomore album Ascension. These two albums have an almost ridiculous amount in common, and both represent a brilliant discovery of maturity and compositional skill. Both bands are American, and both managed to break the shackles of the cheesy American metal sound to create something of their own on their sophomores. Amiensus came from a black metal direction and created an album of emotive and varied progressive metal – retaining their heavy roots but bringing in melodic songwriting, female vocals, softer segments, and a range of different dynamics that eschewed the cheesy and often hard-to-take-seriously over-done vibe that comes with a lot of American progressive metal. With Winter, Oceans of Slumber haven’t made such a style shift – this contains most of the same ingredients as their debut, but they’ve matured in the same way Amiensus did in terms of removing corniness and outdated arrangements – everything here sounds fresh and well-composed and in its right place, and the combination of prog, black, death and occasionally folk sounds far more natural and authentic as opposed to gimmicky and thrown together.
The most notable change, other than the change in maturity and improvement in songwriting, is the shift to female lead vocals for this album. Female vocalists in metal regularly (and by regularly, I mean pretty much all of them, without fail) accompany relatively poor music, with the sounds frequently falling in the vein of fake choirs and symphonics that some sarcastically call “corset metal”. Occasional exceptions are obviously there, but when I think about it I know of plenty of great female vocalists in metal, but not many who are members of great bands. Here, it’s totally different. For starters, Cammie Gilbert is not your standard Euro symphonic power metal female vocalist, and you’re sure as hell not going to find any Simone Simons-style operatic vibrato on this record. Instead, I’d compare the vocals on this record to a band like Opeth, or more recently, someone like Australia’s Arcane (a lot of the quieter sections here remind me compositionally of the softer second disc of Known/Learned as well). Cammie’s vocals have soul and subtlety and a variety of moods, and they are really here to compliment the quieter sections of the record, although that’s not to say they don’t use her over the metal parts.
Even within the first minute of the opening title track, you can hear the colour in her voice, beautifully complementing the rich, softer songwriting, and the equally colourful and emotive drumming. Akerfeldt, of course, sounds nothing like her in terms of timbre, but the way Oceans of Slumber utilise both her clean vocals and the harsh vocals of the other bands members reminds me the most of a record like Watershed – diverse, unique, and never without emotion, something which a lot of female vocalists in metal are sadly lacking. The aforementioned Known/Learned did a similar trick with the ever-flawless Jim Grey. Most of the songs were built around his diversity and ability to create emotion, and Oceans have done a similar thing with Gilbert.
But the album still falls short of a masterpiece in a few regards, and it’s almost always in the heaviest sections. The drumming in the softer parts is absolutely stunning – subtle and subdued and beautifully accentuated in so many ways, but during the metal segments it’s a generic and bland barrage of double kicks and death blasts. Similar to how Amiensus, even with their coming of age, couldn’t fully shed the corny symphonics on Ascension, there’s still a strong link to bland American death metal on Winter. One can draw a lot of comparisons to Opeth, but Opeth’s death metal segments were always melodically strong, here you are really just left wanting them to go away. The first half of “Devout” comes to mind, with a chaos akin to that of Ne Obliviscaris but with weaker timbres, as do the unfortunately generic metalcore tendencies on “Apologue”.
For me, the best representation of the development Oceans of Slumber have shown is their decision to cover the Moody Blues’ classic “Nights in White Satin” on the main disc of this album. The song is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time, but isn’t the sort that you’d expect a metal band to even know about, let alone cover with style and dignity. But that’s just what Oceans have become – a band with diversity and maturity and emotion, something that is missing in an awful lot of progressive metal of their style. Even the interludes, which include acoustic guitar solo tracks, and even a wood flute number (“Good Life”). For many bands the use of a flute constitutes cheese and nothing but cheese, but Oceans have used it tastefully.
There are still moments on this record in which I feel they have some improvement to make – the death metal segments are a good idea in terms of breaking up the music, but when they’re done so averagely and the softer parts are done with flawless execution, they can feel a bit redundant and annoying. But on the whole this is truly impressive. Shades of the emotion of Arcane, the dynamics of Enslaved or Borknagar, the composition of Opeth and the soul of a singer you’d expect to find in jazz far more than metal, Winter is not only a vast improvement for Oceans of Slumber, but one of the best progressive metal records I have heard recently.