Categorization eludes Firtan. Okeanos, the second record by this German four-piece, is an album of vast fluctuations. Ever immutable and indefinable black metal rests at its core, but its proceeding layers are a lot more complex. Okeanos is a swirling cauldron of flavorsome sounds: profusely potent and pungent. Inspired by avant-garde intellectuals like Nietzsche and Lovecraft, Okeanos is a “dazzling display of epic black metal grandeur, suffused with autumnal atmosphere and winding-yet-captivating compositions.” Firtan well and truly blow their own trumpet. “Panoramic,” “daring,” and “boundless” are adjectives thrown around in the promotional material for the band. On the surface, these adjectives are astute. Firtan don’t seek safe territory. They’re creative and vast. Does this lead to Okeanos being a proficient record though?
Opener “Seegang” is a sign that Firtan aren’t willing to drag out one sound for too long. Like the indulgent flash of feathers of taunting territorial peacocks, a deluge of different extreme metal elements jostle for position center stage. This is sexy, alluring, and instantly throat-gripping music. Symphonic and acoustic melodies surge, rumble, and froth with sensual aggression, yet there is an almost forced element to transitions, jarring even. Tempo shifts and stop-start movements are common, as are chuggier core-ish sections, chained together by more conventional sections of melodic black metal. Violins, acoustic guitars, symphonic ambiance, depressive vocal wails, deep gutturals, rapid drumming, warming shards of tremolo-picked guitar, metalcore-chugs, eastern melodies, atmospheric bridges of subtlety and silence, clean chants, chimes, and other such rich instrumentation are all present in this hocus-pocus magic realm of music. Now breathe. The over-indulgence is sickly. Like a less sterile yet equally flashy Ne Obliviscaris, Firtan dwell in the realms of epic grandeur.
“Tag Verweil” surges forward from the gates with symphonic splendor before morphing into metalcore breakdown territory. Then, with the subtlety of a brick to the face, an interlude of soft, melancholy pagan folk abruptly emerges before a return to the symphonic chuggery of the beginning. Piano interludes and bubbly soloing are also present, stitched on sloppily to the closing phases of the song. “Nacht Verweil” and “Uferlos” are slightly more organic sounding songs which maintain the epic tone of the previous tracks. Violin interludes, spurts of warming upbeat guitar-led melody, eastern tones and deep, gargled chants merge well with the band’s soaring black metal core. I’d have joyously sucked the juices from the overflowing loins of this flashy creature when I first discovered ‘extreme’ metal, but now — jaded, critical, elitist — I’m drawn elsewhere. What have I become?
I’m looking for unity and structure. Okeanos flows with the consistency of an acid-induced nightmare. Isolated, there are sections of truly beautiful music — take the cavernous acoustic atmospheres that swirl at the end of the penultimate track “Uferlos” — but as a whole, listened to from minute one to minute forty, there’s just too much to chew on. By the time you nibble and dig through the fat and gristle, though flavorsome, you’re too tired and unwilling to eat the meaty remnants of goodness. Now, I’m not looking for complete soulless restraint, but the best “epic” albums are those which allow a listener to be both aware and excited by the anticipation of a powerful section or crescendo. If you string a million showstopping moments together, as Firtan do here, potency will fade. Two great examples of this effective build-up are in songs like Agalloch‘s “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion” and in Ne Obliviscaris‘ “Eyrie” — these are two vastly different sounding songs that are subtly built and layered so that the epic release of energy at the end of the songs is that much more powerful.
Ultimately, Okeanos is a disappointment. There’s not a lot here that I would want to return to. There are isolated moments in songs, but as independent entities, there’s little here for me to really get my teeth into. This is odd because I can taste the essence of something great here. We may say that a lot here, but there really is something to be scavenged and re-packaged here. For now, though, Firtan fall short.