Oceans of Slumber is a progressive metal band from Texas that surprised me. Winter, an album ironically named after something not experienced in Texas,1 is an album of strange character coming from one of metal’s premier labels. Rather than fitting into any of the expected “surefire” categories produced by most labels these days, Oceans of Slumber walks its own path. Their sound is best described as a combination of melodic death, doom and black metal influenced by the Century Black roster circa 1998. Winter blends that with a sadboy metal and an alternative rock base making the album beautiful, mysterious, and oddly chaotic. It’s also really good.
My first impression, though, was that Winter is a beautiful album. All of its diverse pieces are like differently colored threads in a motley arrangement of impressions and ideas. What holds the weave together are the smooth alto tones of Cammie Gilbert. Gilbert’s voice is soft, sultry and deep, but she can swell and fade and knock out moments of epic power (chorus/bridge on “Devout” – awesome). She rides the waves of emotional music and the different genres and she always comes out on top, echoing Åkerfeldt (“Turpentine”) or channeling Stayley (“Apopologue” or “Sunlight”), or using a range and light touch at times, while contrasting it with emotional power that most metal vocalists dream of (“…This Road”). Even when the band breaks into its most extreme moments, Cammie is conspicuous in her absence. Her dynamic voice and approach work to unite the disparate weave and I’m not sure that Winter works without her.
Musically disparate, yes, but Winter is a cool record. Taken song-by-song, each one offers something unique and they’re all well-written. As a whole, it’s tougher going down. The thing that stands out for me after so many listens is that the album doesn’t quite feel cohesive. At 13 songs and 54 minutes, there’s a haphazard lurch to it. I can’t decide if this is a brilliant construction or the result of having a lot of good material, but more song stems than the band wanted to leave on the proverbial cutting room floor. This creates a whole which feels spotty, not connecting the heaviest and softest material, but rather just containing both within the same record. Opening track “Winter” exemplifies this issue. Nearly half-way through the song is the first time a new listener realizes the band has some death metal chops. And the rest of the album is kind of an ongoing tease; dangling excellent ’90s-colored melodic death with a distinctly Scandinavian flavor just out of reach. When blended just right, it’s excellent. “Suffer the Last Bridge” shows the band knocking out both a grungy ’90s rock chorus and a grindy, driven bridge in the same song—a weird, but highly effective, combination.
Of course, the heavier moments are interspersed with sublime a capella cleans like “Lullaby” or the instrumental “Laid to Rest,” both of which are like doodles in a sketchbook. So, too, “Good Life” and “How Tall the Trees” are interspersed between longer songs, with a piano solo “Grace” closing out the album. After a few listens I set up the track listing to be all the proper songs, followed by the sketches and the band’s excellent, but weirdly placed, cover of “Night in White Satin” at the very end. The album’s scattered feel is tough for me to immerse myself in completely. The interludes are beautiful but almost distracting, and yet all the ideas are so good. “Lullaby” makes my heart ache, and the melodies and harmonies in “Sunlight” put me in a rapture. This lilting ride pays off at the end, though, as “…This Road” is an amazing song. Like Diablo Swing Orchestra‘s “Justice for Saint Mary,” this album’s penultimate track (but probably should’ve been the closer) nails the drama and emotional climax that the whole album hints at.
When it comes down to it Winter is a beautiful enigma. Even frustrated as I am with the album’s flow, I’m enraptured by the material. The whole band—from guitarists Contreras and Gary, rhythm section Kelly and Beverly (both dudes, btw), and synth dude Yelsaeb—is obviously extremely talented and it shows through in their bursts of furious virtuosity which punctuate all the songs in one way or another. These exclamation points make me wish for a heavier album, where the band could flex those muscles more. But there’s so much to love here and there’s so much potential, too. Oceans of Slumber is a band that nails a unique balance and has the talent to do whatever they want. The strength of the whole band wrapped in the multifaceted vocal charisma of Gilbert makes Winter shine, and spring is coming.