Since this post ended up turning out to be more of an essay than a review. Here is the footage from the DVD that came with the album, a live performance of the whole album in a warehouse. Brilliant.
The first time I heard of Oceansize was in 2009. Australian prog rock powerhouse Cog announced that Oceansize would travel from England to support them on their east coast tour. It would mark the first time Oceansize travelled to Australian shores, and sadly, also the last.
For a now long-forgotten reason, I wasn’t able to make that concert in my home town. To the best of my recollection, I had tickets but something came up. “Not to worry,” I thought, “I’ve seen Cog ten times already”.
Murray, you fool…
If only you knew how much of an impact the Mancunian band would have on you over the next eight years.
I remember reading the reviews from that tour. They all shared a similar sentiment, Oceansize were good. Damn good. Every show that a friend of mine attended, they all reported back very positive things. Oceansize had matched Cog live. Impressive.
I saw Cog live during what I consider to be their live peak, the New Normal tours. Before all of the click tracks and electronic elements eroded some of the showmanship live, it was there but it was less present. Before the scars of recording their second album had been made, there was a largess they carried with them like nothing could get slow down their rise. They felt like they were pushing themselves and their equipment every night. Almost every time I saw them their equipment faulted before they did. Cog had a reputation.
In September 2005 Cog and Shihad, co-headed a tour. Swapping who opened each night. The night I saw them was at Shellharbour Workers Club, in one of a handful of Cog show I’d seen where seemingly nothing went wrong. No bass heads shorting, or PA overloading, or other technical issues that threaten to derail a song or two.
That night Cog was perfection.
The crowd bounced to the beat and hung on every note of Flynn Gower’s vocals, singing along with broad overtly Australian inflexion.
After Cog had finished that night, Shihad came out. They had just witnessed a timeless performance and had to follow it. Shihad are an excellent band and gains an extra leg live. That extra leg still didn’t help them that night, they were relegated to a support act that had to play after an incredible performance. Full credit to Shihad, they played their best and still put on a good show.
So, now you should have some idea as to how good Cog was in that era. If Oceansize had more than held their own against Cog I had to know more.
I hopped online to the JB Hifi website and ordered the first search result that came up for Oceansize, their most recent album “Frames” plus a bonus DVD. Done.
I waited. The postman came.
Out of the satchel came an auburn cardboard box, embossed with a clever logo made out of negative space. 1 The palette of auburn, black and white is intrinsically linked to that album for me.
My first listen to Frames sticks with me. I was in my car making the twenty minute drive to work. By the time I’d arrived at work I’d completed three tracks. I wasn’t sure where tracks one and two started and ended. It’s three and a half minutes before you hear the first vocals on the album. It’s well over ten minutes before you hear the first 4/4. It throws you in the deep end right away and I wasn’t ready. There is no obvious single. For context, a quick Google at the time returned the YouTube video for their most recent single, “New Pin”, a four minute radio friendly, rather catchy number. The shortest song on Frames is six and a half minutes long. Two songs hit the ten minute mark. Frames is different.
What sort of monster am I listening to? There is so much for the ears to focus on and the mind to take in when listening to this album.
When music diverts away from 4/4 time it can get very easy to feel disjointed, the listener’s brain generally knows “hey, this pattern isn’t repeating where it should”. We get accustomed to certain things, like 4/4 time, assonance, staying within a key.
One of the most beautiful aspects of music for me is when musicians are able to write melodic content that isn’t in 4/4. Want to impress me even more? Write something so good that I only notice after a few repeats that we’re not in 4/4 land anymore Toto (the dog, not the band). Oceansize gave me that in spades on Frames.
Commemorative 9/11 T-Shirt bounces between 9/8 and 11/8 as stated previously, yet it carries a melody doing so. Every few repetitions of the melody is celebrated by adding another layer. As I mentioned earlier, it takes three and a half minutes before the vocals join in. The eight and a half minute length feels justified when slowly and delicately building an idea like this. Repeating the same few bar melody for the majority of the song is done masterfully, there is enough play within the variations that it doesn’t feel boring. Held together by the repeated motif and the excellent drumming, the song blurs where the obvious repeats are in the patterns. The last minute or so of …T-Shirt changes it up, allowing it to set the scene for the next track, Unfamiliar.
Unfamiliar launches with a syncopated ringing of chords. The guitars jangling with clarity that isn’t usually heard in music as heavy as this. The ringing of chords slowly yields to the pattern played on the drums and reel in the intensity of the musical elements to allow space for the vocals in the verse. The heroes of Unfamiliar are the use of dynamics, the bass and the dual lead section at the end. The dynamics strip back each time before launching again. The classic horror movie trick, everything goes quiet just before something is about to happen. Building suspense, just like how it’s done in music. The honky nasal tone of the bass cuts through on this track. I’ve since learned that bassist Steven Hodson plays a Gibson Grabber that was found in a school bin. That bass is all about pushing out the nasal sounds. 2 . Full credit to Hodson though, the playing is really what catches the attention on the majority of this song, the melodic movement in the pre-chorus is of particular note. Finally that dual lead section, I love the playing. I love the tone. I’m reminded of some of Tony Iommi’s solos with Black Sabbath where he is essentially playing different solos hard panned left and hard panned right. I love it. It’s so chaotic, yet the supporting elements make it all feel so meticulously planned and tight.
Trail of Fire is essentially the Mark Heron show. The drummer has free range to drive the song forward until the guitars really kick in, from there on in the song becomes a Chris Sheldon masterclass in successfully mixing multiple instruments democratically, yet in a way that feels like each section sonically grows from the previous. At times the drums are the focus, at others the guitars or synth. In an unusual move, yet one common in past Oceansize records is to move the vocals back in the mix, they’re not buried, but at times they are close. Vennart’s distorted vocals in the second half of the song become more instrumental to my ears than lyrical, yet it comes off as a deliberate choice rather than a shortcoming in the mix. From the four minute mark onwards the guitars employ pitch shifting effects adding further excitement to the track. Trail of Fire remains true to its name, at times it feels like all the things are turned to 10. Despite this, the song never feels out of control, though it does teeter on the edge. Everything is deliberate and perfectly reined back in at the end, Oceansize could have enjoyed the clichéd rock ending to the song but chose not to.
Savant starts small. After the sonic grandeur of Trail of Fire, it needed to. This album does an impressive job of creating a flow between songs, it feels organic, deliberate or not. Vennart has a chance to shine vocally with all of this space allowed him. He grabs the chance and his voice sits up front in the mix. I find there to be a timid or reserved quality to his voice, despite being effected it feels raw. I assume it is a byproduct of singing over unusual time signatures for so long, but Vennart has a very deliberate phrasing to his vocals, each syllable is melodic and purposefully used. Having multiple members of the band who can sing allows for beautiful moments such as the refrain “where I see us…”, where multiple voices are singing in close harmony. Texturally I love this effect and the changes in the music that accompany this section match it perfectly. Where other songs on the album build to an explosive peak of distorted guitars, wah and raucous drums, Savant pivots and brings in a very tasteful string section to close out the song. It doesn’t feel like an afterthought or clichéd like string sections often can. It feels deliberate, restrained and puts the song first.
Only Twin feels the closest to any of the tracks from the previous album, Everyone Into Position. Though the differences are still marked, if this song were on the previous album I’m sure it would have sounded prettier, the Frames incarnation feels heavier and unashamedly abrasive at times. Only Twin features a string ensemble, just as Savant did. The difference this time being that the strings provide tension rather than that anthemic lift that string sections often do. If you were to pair Only Twin with a scene in a movie it’s the scene where the protagonist is watching as their world falls apart, the scene where the spouse leaves or the business collapses and they are powerless to do anything but observe. The DVD that accompanies Frames has the string only mix for Only Twin, which is a nice addition to hear how the song sounds with the other instruments missing. The string mix still has that sense of unease, that tension.
An Old Friend of the Christies is the chance for respite for the listener. It’s the longest track on the album and is also the only instrumental track. I’ve heard it many times, as a musician the only thing harder than playing fast is playing very slowly. An Old Friend of the Christies is very slow. Very deliberate. Very open, there is nowhere to hide on this track. Halfway through the song we reach the point we’ve been building to, the big guitar heavy riff. There is something about the mindset of this song that evoke Pink Floyd to me, a little nod to Echoes here, a touch of One of These Days there. Some will probably find this song to be a boring interlude, I don’t hear it as that as there is enough interesting stuff happening in the song to carry it forward when listened to in the context of the album.
Sleeping Dogs and Dead Lions comes off as a blend of The Cardiacs, a touch of djent and yet still retains the Oceansize DNA. It features the most aggressive vocal performance on the album by far and ticks off a few of the boxes I mentioned earlier, dissonance and unusual time signatures. The result is a track that at times feels jarring which is then manipulated more to leave the listener feeling even less comfortable in knowing what will come next. Despite all the dissonance going on there are still layers of clean arpeggiated guitar that carry through the Oceansize sound through the particularly jarring sections. It’s my least favourite song on the album, yet it has a place in the overall structure. The other songs don’t sound as beautiful without something to provide contrast, if nothing else, Sleeping Dogs and Dead Lions provides that.
The Frame. This is my favourite Oceansize song. I’ve had a think about it for a while, there are other songs that come close but when push comes to shove this is the song that I would share to people and say “this is Oceansize in a song”. The Frame follows the same formula as most of the songs on this album, long and gradually evolving pieces of music. There is no hint of “hey let’s make this song longer so we can have an extended solo or some of the other rock tropes. It’s what the songs needs, so it’s what the song gets. I don’t know what Vennart’s lyrical intent was with the song, I have a hunch and that hunch aligns perfectly with what I take from it. The Frame is an avalanche of a song, slowly building and adding over time ‘till it becomes a wall of guitars elevating the refrain “I am not the picture now, I am The Frame”. There is a sense of closure that I draw from the song, it feels like a brilliant bookend to a brilliant album. The sweeping strings at the end weave some of the musical elements from elsewhere on the album and for the first time on the album the band indulge themselves in a bit of a rock-star ending complete with feedback.
Nice one lads.
Frames isn’t the album for everyone. It’s hard to find an entry point and takes a long time to digest. The songs are long, unashamedly so. The album comes off as a raised middle finger to record label pressure, or the need to write songs for anyone but yourself. Mike Vennart wrote in his blog while discussing Oceansize’s previous album Everyone Into Position, “Frames was the sound of a band absolutely refusing to care what anyone thinks anymore. It’s a beautiful sound.” 3
Frames is an album that is full of excellent musicianship, songwriting and production. Balancing three guitarists, a bassist and very dynamic drummer in with the vocals and occasional keyboards would have been a tough job, yet it is accomplished effortlessly. There isn’t a point on the album where the spotlight isn’t on the appropriate guitar noodle, or drum fill. The production is borderline invisible, leaving me feeling as if this is the best pure unadulterated sound of the five members of Oceansize in a room together.
I adore this album. I adore this band. I hope you do too.
Here it is again, live, in full. This time from the equally brilliant Feed to Feed DVD.