Title: Clean Head EP
Label: Rise Records
Release date: May 11, 2010
Review by: Alex Schelldorf
- Barracuda, Capital of the World
“The Rebirth of Oceana”
If there is one thing I have learned in life, it is this: the greatest gift that you can ever give someone is the gift of redemption and forgiveness. The opportunity for a second chance; to effectively attempt to erase any previous wrongdoings or abjections. To squelch out any lingering misconceptions or pretenses.
Redemption is sweet.
This same principle also holds true when applied to music. Many bands have sought their listeners’ redemption or forgiveness after a bad record. They return to their roots to make the kiddies happy again. Or, they forge ahead with a different direction entirely.
However, the problem with a band attempting to change or shift their sound in a major way is the inherent backlash from fans, naysayers, journalists and pundits alike. It is a sweeping and uproarious outcry, a deafening decry that drowns out even the most loyal of followers. It can effectively leave a band in shambles, reeling from their “mistake” (as said by those anonymous bloggers and haters hiding behind their computer screens).
More often than not, these particular reactions are borne out of a fear of change. There are an obscene number of music listeners and enjoyers out there that fear our favorite artists changing and maturing both as people and musicians, so much so that they become complacent, content with mundanity, as long as “Record B” sounds just like “Record A”. These “fans” live inside the so-called box. They are satisfied with carbon copies of their favorite albums, released ad nauseum. This works only to put a rather large boulder directly in the path of progress. But why should it?
Why should we ask metal bands for more sweeps?
Why should we ask hardcore bands for more bass drops?
Why should we ask indie bands for more emotional, passionate lyrics from good-looking boys?
The truth is, we really shouldn’t. Change is constant. It is the driving force behind the greatest albums of all time, as well as the music revolutionaries who, at some point in time, have certainly been viewed less as pioneers of a new genre or sound and more as “crazy”. Unfortunately, change has also created the worst albums of all time, but those are easier to ignore (just turn off your radio).
Change is both a blessing and a curse, but most of all it is a necessity.
Thus, take what you know about Oceana and trample it underfoot.
Blow it up with a tiny pipebomb.
Write any negative things you had to say about the band on a sheet of paper, then crumple it up and eat your words.
If you really want to get crazy, change their name on your iTunes to “Anaeco”. Before listening to Clean Head, do whatever you need to do to separate as far as you can the old, “archetypal Rise Records group” version of the band from the new, “actually employing their talents for good instead of generic hardcore” version.
I’ll admit, this one was difficult for me for a number of reasons.
I’ve spent quite a few decidedly unpleasant minutes (which felt like hours or decades) being forced to watch them open for other bands I actually wanted to see, so my personal stance on Oceana as a band (and to a lesser extent, as people; see below) was in dire disrepair. It was borderline on being a “total loss” as much so as, say, my opinion of Nicolas Cage, M. Night Shyamalan movies, ska music, mushrooms and garlic, eyebrow and labret piercings, and Tripp pants. My personal disdain for the band was quite nearly comical, with them becoming the punchline of some bad jokes about being ‘Underoath Lite’ or ‘Underoath Jr.’ I referred to The Tide as the first album from the Scott Stapp hardcore project. I unfairly judged and dismissed those unruly members in a crowd making my show experiences lousy as “typical Oceana fans”.
I’ve also had a handful of not-so-pleasant run-ins with the members of the band at shows and outside of shows, the most notable of which took place in a Hot Topic in the mall (the same store that is the exclusive retail carrier of the physical version of Clean Head). I, along with a female friend, was approached by a member of the band (who will remain nameless, because I genuinely don’t remember who it was) while we were standing in front of the t-shirt wall, noting that this particular Hot Topic was now carrying an Oceana shirt. Said gentleman had the dubious “tour laminate” on his carabinier, and made small talk with us about band shirts. After a minute or so of meaningless chatter, he said to us, and I quote, “Don’t you know who I am?” We did not. Baffled, he animatedly replied, “I’m in that band!” and pointed at the Oceana shirt. I can only hope this individual isn’t in the band anymore. Later, my friend and I laughed (a lot). We still laugh at this story. I’m laughing right now at this story.
However, after much prodding (note: to clarify, it was verbal prodding — I didn’t let it escalate to physical prodding with spears. Were this circa 2006 or 2007, those would have been my chosen instruments for throwing at Oceana) from a trusted friend, clearly in spite of them being a fan of Oceana’s discography, I decided to give “Woolgod”, the first single off Clean Head, as fair of a shake as I was capable of giving. Worst case scenario, if within 30 seconds I did not like the track as much as I was anticipating, I could either tell said friend that: 1) the Myspace player was being wonky and not working (as it has been known to do) or 2) I couldn’t stomach anymore of it and continue my Oceana hating ways.
Within the first minute, though, I can say that I’ve never felt so good about being so wrong.
I’m a pretty even-tempered guy. There have been few “shock” moments in my life that I can recall where my jaw has actually dropped. This was most assuredly one of them.
To say that the Clean Head EP is a fresh start from a “new” Oceana is a severe and gross understatement. Produced by the prolific and talented Matt Goldman (Copeland, Underoath), the EP is a release from a band that made the difficult decision to completely switch gears musically at the risk of losing its fans in favor of discovering new ones. The risk paid off.
The musical progression that Oceana has made since writing an entire album about abortion to now is perhaps the single largest, but much more importantly, successful leap I’ve seen of any band that has attempted to modify its signature sound in a big and meaningful way.
“Blue” kicks off the EP in fine fashion with the band’s first successful attempt at post-rock. The song’s changing time signatures will keep you intrigued throughout. However, it’s not so much what is included in that song that is noteworthy, as it is what is not featured in the song (as well as the rest of the songs on the release) that is most impressive. I once read that “creativity is subtraction”. If this adage holds true, then Oceana has adopted it as a band mantra of sorts, let alone having taken it to heart.
Gone is the screaming.
Gone is the double bass.
Gone is the muddy production.
Gone are the horror chugs.
Gone are the dark tones.
Gone are the angular guitars (for the most part, except where appropriate).
Replacing the screaming are Brennan Taulbee’s clean vocals, wavering and urgent, sounding a bit like a young Michael Stipe at times (really). They’ve replaced the prototypical double bass and previously boring bass lines with Denny Agosto and Kolby Cridder working together to create a solid, at some points downright dancey rhythm section. What’s more is the guitars; no longer do they sound like they’ve been thoroughly dragged through the muck and grime of a tar swamp. Jack Burns and Alex Schultz finally benefit from clean tones, and what a difference something seemingly so simple can make.
“Blue” smoothly gives way to “Barracuda, Capital of the World” (a quasi-meta reference to Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle), which is the highlight of the album in a number of ways. Musically, the tone has shifted away from the band’s previously dark themes to one that is much more refined and reflective.
It should be noted up front that this EP is sure to draw the obvious allusions and comparisons to As Cities Burn, both in the way the band nearly folded then reformed, and also its newfound sound. While this is a fair and accurate comparison on both accounts, I don’t think that “sounding like As Cities Burn” is a negative thing. Quite the opposite, really; it should instead be seen as high praise.
Oceana have retained enough of their sound from certain highlights of Birth.Eater (read: the few good ones) to still be reminiscent of that particular era of the band while positing a new and decidedly better overall release in the band’s small discography. I’d venture to say that the closest thing to the new version of Oceana on Birth.Eater is “The Family Disease”. If you’re familiar with that track, you’ll recognize Taulbee’s clean vocals and a glimpse into the future of post-rock guitar work for the band. What you won’t miss is the abrasiveness or the anthemic, moody undertones.
Instead, “Barracuda” sees Taulbee gaining confidence in his vocals, but also his lyrics. While the band has pointed out that they are not a “Christian” band per se, this release explores a number of faith-related topics such as doubt, spiritual fulfillment and most ironically, redemption.
In “Barracuda”, Taulbee croons with sincerity:
Connecting to your heart is when we finally see it.
The whole world never made this much sense.
And every inch of me is saying,
“The cost has diseases
My feet show that it’s all I did.”
Welcoming a clean bed.
Welcoming a clean head.
“Barracuda” also displays a surprising and almost scary good percussion/clapping section to close out the song. It is sure to catch you offguard.
The aforementioned “Woolgod” is the third track and by far its catchiest. Clocking in at just under three and a half minutes, it’s also the most radio-friendly. The guitars are once again squeaky clean and well-pronounced, a Stratocaster fan’s dream come true. Taulbee hooks, strong but calmly spoken, with “This is where god is, and this is where it stays. Oh God, I feel it, I feel it. No finer feeling exists.”
Lastly, there is the album’s closer, “Joy”. In spite of its 5+ minute runtime, the track doesn’t meander, though it does feel like two ideas woven together into a single track. The first portion of the song acts as the build up to the second part’s conclusion, with the first 2 minutes featuring more of Taulbee’s wavering but passionate vocals. The waning two minutes or so of the song can be viewed as the clearest example of the aural changes made by Oceana, and is a satisfying payoff, a fitting conclusion to Clean Head.
Have you yet heard the word “contemplative” or “thoughtful” to describe the band’s music? “Delicate”? “Ethereal”? “Beautiful“, even? All these descriptions are just and befitting. If you’re waiting to me to write “Just kidding!” or “April Fool’s”, etc., you won’t find any of that pulling your leg nonsense here. You must hear it to believe it. Your ears won’t lie to you.
The maturation of Oceana from vanilla hardcore to relevant, catchy post-rock is truly striking and one of the best stories I’ve seen in music in some time. If you were or still are a hater like I was, please give this band a chance at redemption. They deserve it. This second chance will not be in vain.
Overall: When speaking specifically of heavy music, there are certain limitations to its progression. Where is the wall? There will always be heavy bands, there’s no doubt about that. But at what point do we look at the big picture and finally say “Everything’s been done before”? I can’t recall the last time I heard a heavy band and thought “Man, I’ve never heard that before. It’s refreshing to hear a new take in a tired genre.” That’s not to say necessarily what I was listening to wasn’t good. But it seems like most hardcore/metal releases these days are a gradual (or, sometimes, hideous) mutation of previous iterations of their own band, or an amalgam of what every other popular band at that present time is doing — sometimes both. Where is the creativity in heavy music? And, if there is a proverbial “wall” to hit, what do bands do next? A ballads album? A record of 80s cover songs or hymns? Heavy bands should take note of what Oceana has done with Clean Head. Maybe they could learn a thing or two.
In short, I am truly encouraged by the direction that Oceana has chosen to go and I look forward to their future releases. All it took was 18 newly recorded, mellifluous minutes to count me in as a newly converted fan.
Recommended if you like: As Cities Burn, Mew, fresh starts, clean slates.