Ocean of Grief – Pale Existence Review

Greek melodic doom-death act Ocean of Grief came out of left field in 2018 and seized my attention with their Nightfall’s Lament debut. It had a despairing and forlorn charm sitting someplace between Insomnium and early days Katatonia with choice bits of Rapture included. I bonded with it deeply and spun the hell out of it. It’s taken the band a while to get their sophomore opus out the door, but this week sees the arrival of Pale Existence. With the same lineup in place, Ocean of Grief opted to stretch the song lengths out and go further down the grim rabbit hole of their sadboi tendencies while experimenting with minor progressive elements along the way. Will this result in another triumph of depression? That’s a difficult question to answer. Let’s work through the stages of grief together.

I certainly salute their intestinal fortitude for opening with a 9-minute track, and “Poetry for the Dead” is a large-scale mission statement on what the band are going for. To my ears, it’s very similar to what Deathwhite did on their last outing but with funeral-doom-appropriate death vocals in place of forlorn crooning. The guitars offer a plethora of weepy trilling and dreamy noodling, with the vocals being the only real point of heaviness. Hints of early Katatonia and Opeth dot the landscape and the playing is pristine and lush. The problem is the near-total lack of peaks and valleys. The song locks into a forlorn groove and stays there, only attempting a crescendo of sorts around the halfway point which feels pleasant but anti-climactic. Then it lapses back into restrained trilling for the remainder of its unhappy life. This makes its 9 minutes feel longer than they should. Unfortunately, this becomes a pattern as the album drifts along on a sea of glass. “Dale of Haunted Shades” reflects bits and pieces of Katatonia’s career via the guitar phrasing, but once again, the voyage feels static and flat over its 7-plus minutes with little in the way of drama or dynamics to be found. There is an uptick in aggression at the halfway point, but it’s too tame and restrained to shake you from your beauty sleep. It’s all very pretty though as it floats unhurriedly along.

The only song that escapes this shiny, sleepy prison is “Unspoken Actions” which is more urgent than its somnambulant brethren. This one feels like it got a dose of Omnium Insomnium serum and the aggressive riffage creates a more attention-grabbing listen. Sadly, the back half of Pale Existence feels like an even bigger slog through snooze doom than the first half. No matter how hard I try, my attention fucks off somewhere between “Imprisoned Between Worlds” and “Cryptic Constellations,” and before I know it, the album comes to an end. I’m then jarred awake by October 31’s caveman take on Witchkiller’s semi-legendary NWoBHM gem “Day of the Saxons,” since that follows next in my music library.1 And this ugly wake-up call only serves to accentuate the absence of grit and punch in the material here. It’s not that any song is bad. Every track is loaded with beautiful, plaintive guitar work and lovely harmonies. But there’s just a non-stop feeling of gray haziness without district forms for your attention to fixate on. It all becomes very background-y and nondescript no matter how gorgeous some of the playing is. The songs also feel too drawn out and they bleed together into a high-gloss mush. I can’t easily pick any one from the next beyond “Unspoken Actions.” With a runtime of 51 minutes, the album ends up feeling overlong, making Pale Existence an accurate description of the overall listening experience.

Filippos Koliopanos and Dimitra Zarkadoula deliver truckloads of moody, depressive notes, harmonies, and leads across the album, decorating everything with enough sadboi glory to make anyone feel overstuffed on melancholy. They forgot to pack the heavy stuff though, which is a crucial offset to the forlorn, gloomy trillery. With so much of one and little of the other, the album feels off-balance and one-note, and that note is uniformly gray. Charalabos Oikonomopoulos has a healthy death roar, deep and foundational, but he too is a one-trick minipony. This didn’t matter so much on the debut as the songs had more dynamism, but here with things feeling very same-adjacent, it just adds to the malaise.

Pale Existence is a very tough album to score. It’s certainly the work of talented musicians and there’s no shortage of impressive playing. Mood and atmosphere are present, but overall memorability and hooks are in short supply. There are no points where the music elicits a FUCK YEAH! from me, though I keep hoping it will. I can see playing this on a dark winter night if I want something morose and moody sitting way in the background and not demanding my attention. Beyond that, I can’t see returning to this much, despite how deeply it should be entrenched in my feelhouse. This causes me an ocean of grief of my own.

Rating: 2.5/5.0
DR: 5 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Personal Records
Websites: oceanofgrief.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/oceanofgrief
Releases Worldwide: March 3rd, 2023


Most readers of AMG, from the dissodeath heads to the atmoblack fiends to the noodly progsters, are linked by a common thread: we’ve faced profound grief at some point in our lives. The grief that swallows you whole and drags you to its depths. The grief that suffocates and crushes. The grief that forges a bond between you and the only genre of music that truly attempts to not only describe it, but explore it. In 2018, I was in a very dark place. I was also a casual reader of the blog and thought Steel Druhm was a long-haired college hipster with great taste in doom. His glowing review of Ocean of Grief’s debut, Nightfall’s Lament, caught my eye. I played the embed and knew, almost immediately that I was listening to my AotY. While I could tell it was neither particularly ground-breaking nor unique, it slammed into my solar plexus like a Mike Tyson punch. Nightfall’s Lament described my anguish perfectly, and in doing so, provided deep relief. It was melodic and beautiful and profound. Which meant that 5 years later, when the follow up turned up in the promo sump, I was willing to do anything to review it. By now, the notion of hipster-Druhm was long dispelled, but His Grizzliness took mercy on me (and my promise to review 4 nü-metal monstrosities). This brings us to Pale Existence, my most anticipated album of the year.

For those new to the band, Ocean of Grief are a bunch of Greeks who play a brand of death-doom with heavy emphasis on the doom. Think Insomnium, but a bit slower; Swallow the Sun without the self-pity; Paradise Lost lamenting the one who got away after a few whiskeys. What separates Ocean of Grief from so many others is the shimmering melodicism that goes straight for the heartstrings. Anyone familiar with Nightfall’s Lament will feel immediately at home with Pale Existence, which is a diligent successor rather than a prodigal son. While some tweaks have been made to the Ocean of Grief aesthetic, this is still the sound we know and love. But while sticking to the tried-and-tested has resulted in another good slab ‘o melodic doom, it also means the force has been dulled the second time round.

The greatest strength of the album is the gorgeous atmosphere it creates. Much like Alcoholics Anonymous thrives on the paradoxical notion of one alcoholic helping another, Pale Existence’s deeply melodic, mournful sound is both moving and comforting. The dense roars of Charalabos Oikonomopoulos combine with the subtly excellent guitar work to give us songs of gorgeous and intimate scope. Ocean of Grief continue to display a mastery of pacing, which means that when songs hit their peaks, you feel it in your very marrow. The opening two tracks (“Poetry for the Dead,” “Dale of Haunted Shades”) and closer (“Undeserving”) showcase the band’s ability to not only set up beautiful melodies, but bring them home in a satisfying way.

But… despite all of the deathly goodness going on, it should be noted that for me, Pale Existence lacks the emotional punch of its predecessor. Perhaps it’s because I’m in a better place right now. Perhaps having had 5 years to listen to Nightfall’s Lament, the element of surprise is now gone. But most likely, it’s because too often the band is treading water. Ocean of Grief sound as if they could collectively go to the bog and come back 2 minutes later with a melodic banger. This is not to disrespect the craftsmanship of the songs, but rather to highlight that Pale Existence feels too safe and formulaic at times. This ends up spotlighting the band’s weaknesses (somewhat monotonous vocals, aesthetics over punch). Where Nightfall’s Lament hit hard, this collection too often slips by. The band is clearly comfortable in their groove, but that groove doesn’t slap as hard this time.

It’s almost impossible for bands to follow up albums that fundamentally rocked your world; the expectations are too high. Such is the case here. While this is a laudable collection, Ocean of Grief have not managed to build on Nightfall’s Lament, and instead given us a lovely but safe collection that fails to connect in the way its predecessor did. Fans of melodic doom should definitely still give this a whirl, but I would be surprised if it makes many end-of-year lists, including mine. And gosh, that’s disappointing.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Show 1 footnote

  1. If you don’t know “Day of the Saxons,” you should feel great shame and self-loathing.
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