It’s been a hot minute since we last heard from The Ocean. After three years of persistent international grinding on the back of their monumental Pelagial record, the German prog-metal crew was understandably burnt out. Robin Staps – the band’s guitarist, programmer, primary songwriter and only consistent member – had every winding, djentle thwack and rumbling breakdown glued to his brain like ice cream stains on a toddler’s shirt, so when it came time to figure out what would come next for the project, he was keen to unearth a new corner of his self-described elusive mind.
“It always helps to take a step back and look at what you’ve done before,” says Staps. “It’s a natural part of every artistic process. We reflected a lot on Pelagial, especially since we’d played every single one of those songs nearly 300 times. We played close to 300 shows on that album cycle, and we played the album in its entirety every single night, because that’s how it was written and conceptualised – as one hour-long piece of music, basically. On one hand, that was getting a little tiring for us, because we felt like we were tied to that concept; there was no leeway to move things around or change up the setlist.
“But on the other hand, that allowed us to reflect deeply on the record – what was good about it and what wasn’t so good about it, and what we wanted to do differently the next time around. And the other thing is that Pelagial got us more attention than any previous record had, so there were a lot of high expectations for its follow-up. I just wanted to do this right and take my time with it, rather than just rehash what we’d done before. Everyone was expecting a second Pelagial record, and I just didn’t want to do that. It would’ve been impossible to, because [Pelagial] was a very unique concept and a very unique approach to music. It’s great for what it was and I’m still very happy with that record, but I didn’t want to do that again.”
The end result of a two-year hiatus (sans a lone gig in Romania) spent noodling away in solitude – as he’d done with the last four records, Staps would hole himself up in a seaside house in Spain to get the creative juices flowing – is Phanerozoic (fen-air-a-zoh-ick). Part sequel to 2007’s fan-favourite Precambrian LP, the record’s scope usurps Pelagial in more ways than one. For starters, its concept dives into the titular eon spanning the past 541 million years – a fair bit of time to scribble up a story on. The project itself is split into two distinct studio albums: the first, dubbed Palaeozoic, hit shelves at the start of November, and Staps tells us its counterpart will land in 2020.
“It’s just a mammoth project,” Staps says, noting its magnitude not only in literal size, but in personal significance. “It definitely feels like a weight off my shoulders, because I think for the first time ever, it sounds exactly the way I’ve always wanted this band to sound – even in the beginning, back in 2001 when we were starting out. I feel like this record is the closest I’ve come to the initial vision and idea I had of what I wanted to do, and it makes me very happy to be able to say that.”
Australian fans will have the chance to see Phanerozoic come to life in January, when The Ocean headline a juicy Progfest lineup alongside Monuments, Skyharbor and Circles (to name just a few). It’ll be a different kind of set than we’re used to seeing from the outfit, thanks in no short part to the recent induction of keyboardist Peter Voigtmann. Though Staps has been at the forefront of The Ocean’s synthesised wizardry on records past, Voigtmann took over with an analogue-driven spate of sharp, cerebral atmospherics.
“He was our lighting guy for a long time and I knew he was a very good sound designer as well,” Staps explains. “He had this solo project I really liked, which was doing this kind of dark, electronic stuff in the vein of Subheim or something like that. I invited him to contribute some sounds to this record, so he sent along some things that he created in my absence. It was working out great so we asked him for more, and in the end, he ended up playing over pretty much every part of every track on the record. And that’s when we decided that he needed to be onstage with us. This last tour was the first time we’ve done that, and I think it brings something special to the live show that I can’t even describe.”
Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic is out now on Metal Blade Records/Wild Thing Records. The Ocean are touring Australia in January as part of the Progfest lineup.