As much as it's even possible, the Bruce Hutchinson-illustrated cover of Ocean's second album, Pantheon of the Lesser (Important), conveys almost every abstract impression you glean from actually listening to the album. Atop a stark snow-white backdrop is the reflective, silver foil-printed image of an angel, hooded like the Grim Reaper, with two socket-eyed babies suckling her breasts. A shallow pool of waves churns under the angel; after a minute, you realize she's born from the water. Above her, rays of sunshine pierce through the metallic sheen and gulls fly overhead. The cover suggests something disturbing and possibly even sublime — primal, elemental ingredients that swell to become something equally beautiful, foreboding, and terrifying. It's an alchemy Pantheon of the Lesser masters.
GODS IN THE MAKING Ocean. CREDIT WADE GOSSELIN
The album — a two-track, hour-long, deconstructionist monster — is the linchpin of what's become an exciting moment for the Portland doom metal four-piece, after Pantheon's late-2008 release. Last week, the band headlined the first concert in Pitchfork's new "Show No Mercy" metal showcase in Brooklyn, shortly after writer Grayson Currin tagged Pantheon with a big 8.4 rating and almost every variation of the adjectives "monolithic" and "colossal" you can think of. This comes after a feature in the extreme music Decibel magazine and prominent raves in Outburn and Terrorizer. While they keep a relatively low profile in Portland, Ocean are preparing for two March dates in town: the first an all-ages show with Eld and Julius on March 7, followed by a March 26 date at Geno's.
I e-mailed Brandon Stosuy, a senior writer at the blog Stereogum and curator of the "Show No Mercy" concert series, expressing some surprise that the band, who seem woefully undervalued at home, would make such a sudden splash in the national metal scene. He said Ocean's status in Portland is fairly similar to what it is in the genre writ large:
"They're on Important Records [also home to Conifer], which isn't the most metal of labels, which already gives them a bit of an outsider status. Add to that the fact that they're in Portland, and they really do feel like these dudes who exist [unto] themselves, outside of a specific scene ... They have a pretty broad appeal, despite making what folks might see as 'extreme' or 'difficult' music. I think this is a testament to how good they are at what they do."
By dint of its epic structure, it's obligatory to refer to the challenge Ocean pose to an MP3-hungry audience, but there's nothing shrill or hard-to-swallow about Pantheon of the Lesser, despite the fact that it sounds like reliving the most tortured moments of your past in excruciating slow-motion. "The Beacon" begins with two minutes of Candy and JL's prolonged, feedback-heavy riffs that beg to be reveled in. Eric Brackett's drums respond in kind, building an intense anticipation — can he play this slow for this long? — the band only deliver in fits and starts.
Rather than throwing you a bone, Ocean pelt you with shards of marrow for 21 minutes, offering fascinating new details every minute or so: hypnotic motifs recur with subtle variations, catharses are constantly withheld and replaced with melodic shifts that prove even more satisfying. You reward the band's patience with your own rapt attention, taking an almost masochistic pleasure in discovering how much deeper and darker they can go. When the payoff hits, the band retain their inherent minimalism while delivering an undulating, titanic wall of sound.
With the album, Stosuy says "[t]hey've mastered the glacial pace ... there's a start to finish excitement as a listener. And the material holds up incredibly well to dozens and dozens of listens. As spare and slow as it seems at times, the subtleties run deep." He reported that the band had excellent turnout and a great set at the "Show No Mercy" concert, and all signs suggest that Ocean could become a powerhouse in the metal scene. "At this point," Stosuy says, "you'd be hard pressed to find a doom band who's able to remain so exciting and so minimal at the same time."
Christopher Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
OCEAN |Pantheon of the Lesser | released on Important Records | performing at SPACE Gallery, in Portland | March 7 @ 7:30 pm | with Eld and Julius | $8, all ages