Oceans of Slumber – Starlight and Ash
Gothic Metal | Southern Rock
When you get into the habit of listening to albums based on how interesting the cover art is, as I have been for many years now, you’ll inevitably end up listening to a lot of metal. Whether you’re a metal fan or not, you have to take your hat off to the community all the same, as they seem to have a monopoly on the most wild, imaginative, detailed and fantastical artwork ever attached to music. More study is needed, but I’m pretty sure there’s a strong correlation between how incredible the cover is and how ear-splittingly heavy the music beneath is. More times than I can count, I’ve seen a renaissance painting too beautiful to have been made by human hands, and clicked the play button beneath it, only to be greeted with music akin to duelling jackhammers and vocals that sound like a crocodile gargling ball-bearings. If only I could get into that style of music, my record collection could double as an art gallery.
I stumbled across Oceans of Slumber in just such a manner a few albums back. While certainly not one of the most challenging listens I’ve come across, the central imposing stomp of doom metal that I found within wasn’t quite my cup of tea, even if I did find some of the ancillary elements noteworthy. In the intervening years it’s clear that the band have gone through a period of growth and reinvention, and the latest step in that journey, Starlight and Ash, has an aura of mystique and spirituality that it’s gorgeous artwork merely hints at. I’m reminded of Anathema, and how they moved from their metal origins and shifted focus to have a greater emphasis on melody and atmosphere. That’s very much the route taken here too, and by god the band wear it well.
While tracks like ‘Star Altar’ and the latter half of ‘Just a Day’ keep some of that doom pedigree alive, for the most part the album eschews earth-shaking riffs in favour of a bewitching southern gothic style. This isn’t the heavy footfalls of some gargantuan beast, this is the hairs on the back of your neck standing up as you feel something watching you within the mist. This is a deal at the crossroads, your heart pounding and the air growing thick as it dawns on you that you’re signing your life away. The sultry sweltering blues riff that cuts through the haze on album highlight ‘The Lighthouse’, culminating in a fleeting yet wonderfully expressive solo. The southern twang of the arpeggiated folk and mournful slide guitar on ‘Red Forest Roads’, luring you into a false sense of security before being struck by an apocalyptic breakdown in its final minutes. The record knows when to unleash it’s metal side, when to keep adding layers to the atmosphere and exactly how to keep winding up the tension until it snaps. What’s more, the anticipation and release feel just as compelling and cathartic as each other.
There’s another interesting interplay at work here too, beyond just the contrast of the lighter and heavier elements. For want of a better term, Starlight and Ash has both a coldness and a warmth to it. There’s that gothic gloom that evokes haunted mansions and gnarled woodlands in the bleak guitar tones and mournful piano, reminiscent of Opeth on tracks like ‘The Shipbuilder’s Son’, juxtaposed beautifully by the warmth and passion inherent in the blues and gospel elements. While there are plenty of instrumental choices that contribute greatly to the latter, by far the band’s greatest weapon is the astonishing vocals of Cammie Gilbert-Beverly. From gritty and bewitching, to soaring and soulful – whatever the track calls for and then some! The shift away from doom metal makes perfect sense now; drowning out a voice like that is nothing short of sacrilege. To say that this record’s softer approach gives her vocals more time in the spotlight would be an understatement, she’s a force of nature and she reminds you of that fact at every turn. While talking “softer” though, special mention has to go to the album’s two quietest offerings. ‘The Spring of 21’ is a gentle and meditative piano piece that feels both haunting and uplifting, while the band’s take on ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is a gorgeous rendition of what I would have called an untouchable classic. The violin playing on the latter is absolutely inspired.
While I may have missed the steps that led here, my impression is that Oceans of Slumber are exactly where they’re meant to be. Starlight and Ash honours and respects their roots while also settling in to a sound that suits them down to the ground and plays to all their strengths. The soul, the tension, the atmosphere – I’m struggling to think of another band, metal or otherwise, that would manage to tick all the boxes that this record does. If this is the only place I can get another fix of whatever intoxicating musical concoction this is, then I’m praying for more albums in this same vein from Oceans of Slumber.