Here’s one many of us at AMG have been waiting for with bated breath. Back in 2016, Oceans of Slumber’s excellent but flawed Winter made it onto a number of year-end lists, including AMG Himself despite his positively negative review. Needless to say, all of us were eager to see if the Texas progsters could tighten up in a few areas and push things a bit farther on their next release. Of course, being the pack leader, AMG asserted himself early and claimed dibs on this prized promo, but a quick call to Jeff Gillooly and the review was mine. Although after listening to this 65-minute personal journey at least a dozen times, I wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew…
There is no instant gratification to be found on The Banished Heart. This is a dense and intense journey, spurred primarily by drummer Dobber Beverly’s marriage breakup and the birth of his daughter. The emotions conveyed throughout the album are overpoweringly personal, so much so in fact that not everyone will be able to connect with the feelings of heartbreaking loss, misplaced rage, or profound hopelessness that permeate the music. Yes, coming out the other end of this heartrending journey to find peace and love are also themes in play, but how much one can relate to these experiences, and join the band on such an intense road, will be the deciding factor on how much the album resonates.
Themes aside, Oceans of Slumber have cleaned up a few bothersome items from Winter, presenting us with tighter songwriting and a much more effective song sequence. On Winter, the band inexplicably chose to drop a cover song as the third track. On The Banished Heart, a beautiful rendition of the 19th century folk song “Wayfaring Stranger”1 wraps up the album in perfect fashion. After an emotionally exhausting hour, Cammie Gilbert’s vocal combined with Beverly’s atmospheric keyboard work and electronic percussion feels like a huge sigh of relief. Instrumental interludes are brief and effective, again offering respite from the barrage of emotions. And the breadth of styles and musicianship on display are often nothing short of stunning.
More doom than anything, but with plenty of the band’s trademark blast beats, harsh vocals that counter Gilbert’s fantastic, soulful range, and progressive arrangements, the songs here are all very strong. “No Color, No Light” is a tear-inducing duet with Tom Englund of Evergrey – and who better for depressing, introspective prog? “Fleeting Vigilance” builds in fury, harsh vocals screaming “Liar, manipulator, corroded from within, you watch as I die inside,” all culminating in a fantastic guitar solo. “Etiolation” and “A Path to Broken Stars” are the strongest tandem, the former with a thunderous beginning that rarely lets up, the latter with intricate guitar picking, and both with Gilbert’s beautiful vocals.
The Banished Heart doesn’t come without its own set of flaws, however. The first has already been mentioned: this is a difficult album to connect with emotionally. It takes patience and effort to fully engage – yes, it’s more than worth it in the long run, but won’t be for everyone. My main issue, though, is with Beverly himself. The man is an outstanding drummer, and his piano work throughout is poignant, and beautifully arranged. But there are times when he overdrums, most notably almost all of opening track “The Decay of Disregard.” As Robert Fripp once said to Bill Bruford, “if you want to play something in this spot, don’t.” Sometimes less really is more. The production, again provided by Beverly, is a prime example of why musicians aside from Steven Wilson shouldn’t produce their own work. Each instrument sounds great on its own, but oftentimes the rush of music overpowers Gilbert, and since she should be the focus of the band, when she sounds buried in the mix it makes it harder to follow along. Cleaning up the EQ of the rhythm section (and less drumming) would allow Gilbert’s lower register to shine through as it deserves to.
Much like last year’s Pain of Salvation album, it took more listens than it should have for me to “get” The Banished Heart. If you’re willing to put forth the effort, and approach this album with patience, you’ll eventually be rewarded. Oceans of Slumber have released an album that is grandiose and epic, poignant and brutal, extremely well-written and performed, and emotionally massive. It’s not the masterpiece we were all hoping for, but it’s damn good.
DR: 102 | Format Reviewed: 192 kbps mp3
Label: Century Media
Websites: oceansofslumber.bandcamp.com | oceansofslumber.com | facebook.com/oceansofslumber/
Releases Worldwide: March 2nd, 2018