Ocean On Ocean
2LP HMS 023
Back in 2010, this unusual shoegaze/drone duo released a truly mesmerizing CDr on Seattle's small Debacle Records label. Sadly, not very many people noticed. Fortunately, one of the few people who did notice was Barn Owl's Jon Porras, which eventually led to the requisite James Plotkin-remastering job, a high profile vinyl reissue, and a well-deserved second chance to share their dreamy choral gloom with the world.
Most people were first exposed to The Slaves earlier this year when Digitalis released Spirits of the Sun, but this earlier effort is quite a bit different than that one. The basic building blocks are the same (Barbara Kinzle's reverb-drenched, sacred-sounding vocals and some minimal, organ-like synthesizer), but The Slaves were a bit less doom-influenced back in 2010. That is not necessarily better or worse, but Ocean on Ocean feels noticeably less dark and less harsh than its successor. It is markedly less varied too, but that relatively narrow scope works surprisingly in its favor. In fact, I do not think anyone else could make an album like this and make it work. I am not sure if that means that Kinzle and Birch Cooper are brilliant or merely very lucky, but the extreme similarity of these six pieces results in a wonderfully hypnotic and immersive whole. That goes deeper than just "this is an intelligently constructed and thematically coherent album" though: this is the kind of album that can be played in a constant loop for hours without ever growing annoying or boring. There are not many albums like that. There are, of course, some noticeable differences between the songs, but it is not hyperbole to state that all six adhere to the same glacial flow or that the actual chord progressions are both interchangeable and irrelevant. The differences, when they appear, are almost exclusively textural and pertain to Cooper's guitar work. The most notable example is probably the seagull-like feedback swooping above the opening "Seventeen," but his subtle escalations of density and distortion are both omnipresent and essential dynamically. His restraint is quite singular, actually, as he regularly manages to evoke roiling, controlled chaos without ever quite breaking Kinzle's warmly hallucinatory spell. The aesthetic of Ocean on Ocean can be perfectly summarized as a "variations on a theme," with the theme being "incredibly slow-moving and hazy swells of warmth over distant snarls of noise." There is literally nobody else that sounds quite like this, but this album does share a lot of common stylistic ground with This Mortal Coil and The Hope Blister, albeit not at all in a predictable way (no Big Star covers, for example). Rather, The Slaves offer a slowed-down, stretched-out, and blurrily indistinct vision of that sound, like how ...Smiles OK might sound under the influence of a heroic dose of heroin or cough syrup. Which, as it turns out, is quite beautiful. -- Anthony D'Amico