Label: Century Media Records
Author: Kira L. Schlechter
In the tradition of the best Southern Gothic writers — Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner — metaphoric, atmospheric, densely literary, so deeply products of the land from which they came — is Houston’s OCEANS OF SLUMBER. Nowhere is that more apparent than on their latest self-titled effort, due September 4.
They are singer Cammie Gilbert, guitarist Jessie Santos, guitarist/singer Alexander Lucian, bassist/singer Semir Ozerkan, keyboardist Mat V. Aleman and drummer/pianist (and Cammie’s partner) Dobber Beverly. This is their fifth album, the fourth with Cammie at the mic, and it follows 2018’s ‘The Banished Heart’.
Cammie said in the band’s bio that these are “songs that felt like anthems and calls to action”, ones that deal with “universal truths and turmoils.” And the opener, ‘The Soundtrack To My Last Day’ is exactly that — a wrenching journey, a real ride, through what a last day on earth might be like, full of anger, reflection, resignation and ultimately, peace.
Each repeated verse plots the journey, first “Sick and fading he rested his weary head / Fighting a sleep he knew would never have an end” to “Delirious now he wrings out his weary hands / No one there to share the dismal air of death.” In between the first two verses, Cammie changes perspective, from observer (“He’s chasing tomorrow / On the pyre of his regrets”, such a powerful image) to the character himself (“I’m so far away / I’m so far from home”, her voice here chilling, echoing like the grave), asking for ‘prayers’ as her voice builds in a “Hallelujah”.
The third verse is a harsh male vocal, the dying man bellowing his final defiance (“She says she wants me? Then come and take me!” — the ‘she’ becomes clear later). “A coward’s stance or I would have ended this”, he rages at himself (think ‘I’m too chicken to kill myself’), and it’s pummeling and furious and ranting for release (“Finish me, finish this / Where are you, death?”).
The return to the first verse then introduces the ‘she’ as the psychopompos, a spirit in Greek mythology that guides the dead to the underworld. Cammie becomes that character, who likely was the one observing all along — ”In death we are equal”, she says, she is ‘the queen of the lost’ as her voice soars as his salvation. The repeating of the second verse is the character giving in and welcoming release — “He tells me in the mirror with his dimming breath / To hold him close, and never let him go again.”
And the end is poignant and awful in its finality as the character’s life at last fades and Cammie says, accompanied by a mournful minor-key acoustic guitar, “Here you’ll be mine forever in an emptiness / Nothing to ever let go again.” This is a story with a beginning, middle and end that runs the gamut of emotion in just a few lines — it’s extremely well done.
‘Pray For Fire’ thematically seems to refer to the reckoning America is now having with racial inequality and systematic racism. The beginning seems to refer to that very moment of reckoning (“Will we get back up? Waiting…”), knowing it will be difficult (“But here among the thorns / The climb is much too steep”, “But we persevere because we belong a long way from here.” The chorus is the breaking free — “We refuse to fail / Refuse to lose to their hateful ways.” There’s a line that reminds me of James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time — “Their cross high above us, but salvation has long been denied.” In that book, Baldwin argues that Christianity had become white, that “it was not possible to believe in a black God.” The chorus concludes that nonviolence is no longer the answer — “No room for a peaceful resolution / Long gone is a hope for building any bonds.”
It’s full of pointed commentary: “When you left me in the darkness / I had to make my own flames / A warmth you couldn’t diminish, or ever take away.” Her spoken portion is like an avenging angel, listing a litany of sins and what will be done to rectify them. As the music unleashes around her, she preaches:
–“Now they pray for rain, but I am the coming storm / They pray for forgiveness, but I pray for fire”;
–“See there are no words for you to gain salvation … Persecution was the weapon that you wielded / You held us down in constant judgment and contempt”;
–And finally, “I have no pity for the pain of your heartbreak / I rather we both go down, destroyed together / Then leave a world for you to turn into regret.” It’s so simple, so devastating a condemnation.
They are such a challenge musically, led by Dobber’s maniacal, eccentric, mathematical drumming, shattering in its complexity and depth. It’s not easy listening — it’s definitely work. This is sophisticated heavy music with lashings of prog, avant-garde and black and death metal. Cammie’s voice, too, is unexpected, not your traditional ‘metal’ voice (the music takes care of that), a rich, silken, modulated alto that’s a rootsy, earthy counterpoint.
And they are atypical songwriters, their signature the mantra-like repetition of verses, a technique drawn from folk and blues. The verses don’t necessarily progress the story, but instead serve as reminders, touchpoints, a basis upon which other sections then flesh out their meaning. There’s little rhyming, no contrivance, the words flow in their own way. And they just end songs, without resolution or a neat tidy bow. You’re left hanging emotionally, but that’s how life is — songs aren’t always supposed to solve everything in three or four minutes.
Cammie says she has struggled with bouts of severe depression. “I realised that everyone, in some way or another, is fighting a battle inside themselves. I didn’t want to think of myself as alone in this”, she says in the bio.
And indeed, ‘A Return To The Earth Below’ seems to depict that very journey. Beginning with a reference to Sylvia Plath (“The bell jar’s coming down”), it reads like the onset of a panic attack and it depicts it brilliantly — the trigger (“Broken glass and I am holding my breath”), then that feeling (“A sudden sinking and my heart is falling … I feel the panic inside overtaking / Any resolve I thought I’d found”) and then a kind of a moment of reflection (“On the ledge we danced, now we are falling”), like it was only a matter of time before this would happen again. The second verse is it all unraveling, the attack is coming and her voice is resonant and ringing and on the edge (“It waits for me / Oh it’s never really left”).
Later is a reflection, perhaps in the aftermath, and it’s just her and a bit of guitar and programming as she sits in the rubble — “In only a moment the tides have all changed / Erasing the work and toil of previous days”, like I worked really hard but it came back. She admits her weaknesses as the band crashes and rages around her (“I have tried to flee from myself / I could never, no I could never weather the storm”), but she vows to stop running from it and to begin the process anew (“Purge my fear and make my claim”). The fade-out, though, is ominous and foreboding.
Two instrumentals serve as intriguing segues, further insights into the band’s psyche. ‘Imperfect Divinity’ is richly cinematic, like a movie (a western, maybe), sweeping and Gothic and hair-raising and atonal. The keyboard melody is positively spooky, with the same notes repeated over and over.
‘September (Those Who Come Before)’, a later track and also keyboard-based, is nothing like ‘Imperfect Divinity’, however. As furious as Dobber’s drumming is, his piano work is delicate, emotional, evocative, tender — a swelling string arrangement is added as his base melody goes on underneath and it at last ends the piece alone. It’s a beautiful moment.
Much of ‘The Adorned Fathomless Creation’ could lead one to think it refers to the current administration. Lines like “Now, being free, you are licentious and ruthless the same” are blistering censures, guttural vocals paired with crazed blast beats and slashing, pissed-off guitars. When Cammie comes in, her slower, liquidy vocal is undercut by musical chaos in a fierce indictment of the cult of personality — “A higher power, a righteous claim to rein / A prideful glance, a judgmental gaze / And it brings the weak to their knees.”
Then the music slows and elongates into a gorgeous melody as she drives the point home — “You crave control / A wilful force, a grave injustice” — and asks a series or rhetorical questions, “Where is the line drawn / Between what you seek and what you need”, “Is there meaning / To the constant pain and suffering?” and “Are you happy? / And will you ever get enough?” After a repeat of the guttural call and Cammie’s response, it slows and builds into a crushing stomp as the judgment comes (“They’re coming for you now…Coming to collect what you’ve taken”, as Cammie sings a line and echoes herself in emphasis). Her singing is a dirge but the music backing her is frenetic, unhinged, full of rage.
‘To The Sea (A Tolling Of The Bells)’ indeed begins with bells tolling before it settles into a leisurely shamble of piano and guitar and the melody begins in earnest. It has a feeling of loss, perhaps someone left behind after another’s passing, and it changes perspective, from the passed (“A song in my heart / This tomb where I reside … Tirelessly, I’m always awake / Watching you in your dreamless sleep”) to the one who remains (“The ground, it holds you in / An ocean of slumber / Forever you’ll sleep / But I’m there, too, dreading / The longing of those days gone by”). Finally, Cammie sings “Let me go…say no more…let me go…into the sea”, perhaps joining the two perspectives as the accompaniment lessens and thins around her.
‘The Colours Of Grace’ starts with a gorgeous, vaguely Eastern resonator guitar and a rhythm that gently urges into the verses, again repeated three times, that alternate Cammie and a male voice in a tale of mutual failings (“Today’s a hurting day / No room for anything other than / The sting of failure and regret”). The chorus reaches achingly into a rolling rhythm and a warm, buttery, deep dark melody that’s so good it hurts as Cammie leads, then they sing together the couplet: “You save me from myself” that bares their souls. The second take on the chorus adds electric guitar to swell it to divine levels, changes the lyric (to something like desperation, almost praying for salvation FROM the other person), and drops that couplet down an octave so it’s tragic rather than uplifting.
It too just ends, as an oddly satisfying unresolved cliffhanger, on the line, “So much I want, but can’t obtain.” This might be my favorite track — it’s definitely the most straightforward in every way, but it’s just so stunning. It’s really a power ballad elevated to the sublime.
‘I Mourn These Yellow Leaves’ is an example of the band’s gift for metaphor. Piano leads into the sweep of the first section and that melody is referenced again in the chorus. As are all the tracks, this is laced with Dobber’s unpredictable drumming — his alternating of the blast beats with the straightforward tempo is deceiving in that you almost forget he’s doing both things at once.
The harsh vocal section is furious and dissonant, about how nature is fleeting and brutal (“Despite the fertile soil / These leaves have no means for life”, like they’ve done their job on the tree and now they must die and return to the earth as merely “A blanket to the dampened ground / A safe place for insects and bones”). The metaphor becomes more clear as the song goes on — the changing of the seasons as a metaphor for changing times. As we go into the final section, that concept solidifies — “Everything’s dying now, only to be reborn again / But now we must wait / The seasons can’t be rushed.” Unlike ‘Pray For Fire’, though, this is urging patience, that as the seasons change, so will the times, and as the seasons, it is inexorable and inevitable and it will happen.
‘Total Failure Apparatus’ is a mix of prog in its rhythms at the start to a bridge section that’s pure black metal (with satanically distorted harsh vocals to match) — as fast as it gets in that bridge, the prog aspect remains firmly in place. This seems to again be about depression and fighting those moments that threaten to drag you under for good. It’s a harrowing push and pull between those two things, following the timeline of being at one point (“I can stare at myself forever / And I wonder where it all went wrong”), then falling apart (“Suddenly it all descends / sinking me further in”) and going back and forth over and over. The harsh vocal in this one is the alter ego, the savage element of the civilized soul, the inner voice that undercuts all the healing you try to achieve. At the end, she pulls it back from the brink — she’s survived, for now (“The night fades to the glory of the morning / But I’m no better than I was before / The light fights the dark from seeping further in”). But as she notes, in another cliffhanger ending, “It’s not enough.”
‘The Red Flower’ is fascinating, a stark hymn that is again a metaphor — a barren womb as a lifeless, untended garden. There are many references to infertility — “This empty tomb, filled with poisoned seeds / Once giving life, trouble dwells here now”, “Thorn in the garden / A hastened act of lust” (a very subtle description of sex that fits the metaphor so well) and “The red flower, its beauty blossoming” (but there is no child, the ‘red flower, a reference to menstruation and thence ‘failure’).
The second verse is devastating — “No offspring will ever cast a shadow on her bloom / No masculinity will ever steal her womb.” This could even be a rape reference — it’s many-faceted in interpretation and it’s raw, unflinching, unforgiving. But ultimately, its main point, repeated throughout as a rhetorical question, is “With Saturn’s rejection (Saturn in Roman myth devoured his children so they would not overthrow him) / Are we truly defined?” — that is, as women, are we defined only by our ability to bear children? That’s how it ends too, is with her asking that open-ended question for the last time.
And in some weird way, it’s the perfect lead-in to their cover of Type O Negative’s ode to sex during menstruation, ‘Wolf Moon’. Done with complete sonic respect to the original, it turns the gender perspective on its ear — is it a woman luring another woman or a woman luring a man? It’s completely non-specific and ambiguous — Peter Steele would have loved it. Cammie sings it a bit differently, though — she is certainly seductive, but she treats the plays on words and the double entendres and the strong sexual references with great seriousness, in a way, as opposed to Peter’s droll, wink-wink-nudge-nudge. As Type O Negative used to do with their covers, this one just might top the original.
“This album is the full realization of what Oceans Of Slumber is”, Cammie concludes in the bio. “We’re dark southern souls. We’re passionate and emotive, violent and starkly beautiful.” That is this album — violent, beautiful, despairing yet hopeful, esoteric, challenging, and wonderfully impossible to categorize.