By Andrew Bansal
German progressive metal band The Ocean released a 2-part concept album series, comprising of ‘Heliocentric’ and ‘Anthropocentric’ in 2010 and followed that up with endless touring around the world. Straight after the tour, guitarist and mastermind Robin Staps began work on the next album, the next chapter in The Ocean’s impressive career. Even after such a massive effort with the ‘Centric’ albums, he has managed to come up with something quite special, because the new album ‘Pelagial’ is a masterpiece in the truest sense. It comes out on April 30th in North America via Metal Blade Records. The band is leaving for a Europe tour on Friday, and will be on this year’s Summer Slaughter tour in America. Last night, I spoke to Robin to discuss the album in detail. Part 1 of the interview can be read below, and part 2 will be posted soon on GuitarWorld.com.
First of all, I’ve got to say that the new album sounds fantastic! I honestly was not expecting that you’d be able to outdo Heliocentric and Anthoropcentric, but you have. Why did you decide to write ‘Pelagial’ as a single 53-minute piece?
Well, it was the only thing that made sense with the whole idea behind it, I guess. It was something that was clear to me from the beginning, once I knew what I wanted to do with this album. The only approach could be to write it as one piece of music. I’ve never really done it like that. We’ve always had these thematic ties between our albums, like with the ‘Centrics’ it was the whole religion topic. ‘Precambrian’ was a concept album as well. But the music part was all written song by song for these albums, then the songs were kind of loosely put together in the end and what held them together were the lyrics, mainly, and the conceptual side of it. But this album was really written from the beginning to the end as one piece of music, and that was something new to me. I’ve been wanting to do such a thing for a while, and with this idea to do an album that’s a journey from the surface to the bottom of the sea, it was the perfect chance to do try that!
Did you actually record it as a single piece as well, or was it done in smaller parts?
No, it was cut into pieces. We haven’t recorded it live. We recorded all the instruments separately, and the first thing we recorded was drums about a year ago here in Bikini Test, the venue in La Chaux-de-Fonds where I’m right now rehearsing too, and that was done in just five days with Luc playing the drums. I recorded the guitars over the summer, and the bass parts were recorded in the fall, and then the vocals. So we didn’t record it live and we couldn’t record it in one piece, but we mixed it that way. So, it was conceptualized, written and mixed like that, but not actually recorded.
When you play this album in the shows coming up, obviously it will be the focal point because it takes up 53 minutes.
That’s right! We really want to play it as one piece. I’m not sure if we will do that all the time. We’re coming back to the US this summer, and we will not have a 53-minute set, I know that much. So we will have to compromise at one point and play only like a section of the album, or parts of the album. But that’s a huge compromise (laughs), because we want to play it as one piece all the time. We have this tour coming up with Cult Of Luna in Europe, and we are going to play it from the beginning to the end there. We won’t play any old material just to be able to play the new album, basically. That’s cool for us, as we’re getting really tired of the Centrics’ songs because we played them so many times. So it really feels good to do something completely new, kind of like start from scratch now with the whole rehearsals, the light show and everything. It’s like breaking the routines of the past to come up with something new, and that always feels good.
Even with the writing of the album, did you feel like you were starting from scratch after such a massive double concept album was done with?
Totally, totally. And I didn’t want to continue with the Centrics, not because I’m thinking that everything has been said on the subject matter. We could probably do three or four more albums talking about that kind of stuff and it still interests me a lot. But I just really wanted to start something completely new, both musically as well as with regards to the conceptual ideas behind it, and the upcoming touring cycle. So it was like that. I basically wrote the album in the summer of 2011, and that was after four or five months of touring. So we were all really tired from playing those songs and it felt great to come up with new material that didn’t really connect to the previous stuff we’ve done.
One thing I was wondering, if this is meant to be such a single-piece kind of album, why are there 11 tracks, and why didn’t you just go for a one-track album, like Sleep’s ‘Dopesmoker’ for example?
We were considering that, and in the end decided against it for a number of reasons, mainly for convenience reasons. We really wanted to have certain sections of the album accessible. If you vinyl version, then you can do without all the track marks. So people have a choice depending on which format they buy, but if you listen to it on your iPod or whatever, we wanted to make certain sections available. The track marks were not set until the day before the mastering though, so it was a couple of weeks ago, basically. They are a bit random, but the first four tracks are one song, really. That’s how we’re going to always play it live and it doesn’t make sense to split that up. It’s been written as one continuous piece, then there are certain songs in the mid-section of the album that you can isolate from the rest of the album and play as single songs. We’re also going to do two video clips for songs of the album. So, you can take sections out and listen to them on their own. That works for certain sections, but it’s all been designed to be listened to at once, and so the question regarding the track marks is legitimate (laughs). We just felt it was more convenient if you could access that last section of the record separately on your CD player. That’s the main reason, and another reason is that on iTunes you get paid less money if your album has less than 11 tracks. I didn’t really want to give iTunes any of my money for free (laughs), so we decided to set track marks. It’s just a stupid system, really. It’s not based on album length, but on the number of tracks. So were like, fair enough, fuck it then. We will just set the track marks and make sure that we don’t give any of our cash to Apple, because they have enough of that (laughs).
So, would they have actually paid you something like $1 per track if you did a single 53-minute track?
It’s something like that! It’s not that extreme, but you do get a lot less royalties when it’s less than 11 tracks. It doesn’t make a difference if you have 6,7,8, or 9 tracks. You’ll get paid less in those cases, and if you have 12 or 13, you’ll get paid more. That doesn’t make any sense at all to me, but it’s a bit of a statement from us just to say, fuck it! We’ll throw in 11 track marks and put them in the middle of nowhere if that’s the only way to do it (laughs).
And also with the track marks, I think it will help when you’re playing in the US where you’re not going to be playing the whole album. At least people will know what you played.
Yeah, exactly. It’s going to be difficult as always, to figure out with the song titles, the double title system and all that. We do like to create some confusion (laughs).
Would you actually recommend people who have turntables to listen to the album on vinyl, because there are no breaks and no track marks?
Well, it doesn’t make a difference if you listen to it on vinyl or on CD. There are no breaks on the CD either. That would have been a huge compromise that I would not have wanted to accept, really. If you listen to it on CD, it plays all the way through. Unless you have a really old CD player. But the fact is, the track marks don’t mean that there are pauses. It does play through in one go both on CD and on vinyl. I’m not sure how it is on iTunes. There are short breaks, probably.
I don’t think so. I was given the mp3 download link by Metal Blade and I was listening to it on iTunes. If that’s the same thing as the iTunes download, there are no breaks but you can obviously see the track titles and you know when the track is changing.
Yeah, exactly. So you see it’s jumping to the next track but you can’t hear a pause. That’s how we had it in mind.
When I started writing the album, I wanted to have that kind of claustrophobic atmosphere of old submarine movies. I’m a big fan of that genre and I kind of discovered my passion for that while working on this album, I have to say. There are so many movies. One of the most famous ones are Das Boot, the German classic, but there are like 40-50 movies that are really cool. They all play with the same elements of claustrophobia and there’s always the same plot happening, basically the submarine diving a little deeper than they’re allowed to, all the creeking and crackling and the water coming in and leaking into the submarine shell. The water bumps and people are sitting there in tension and hoping not to get hit. This kind of atmosphere was something I really wanted to create with this album for the deeper parts of the journey, so to speak. It was only an obvious step to decide to use those original samples to underline and enhance the atmosphere. It worked out pretty cool. There is a lot of bubbling, lots of background underwater sounds that are partially taken from movies and partially from other sources. It’s very subliminal. You’ll hear it more on the instrumental version because there’s no vocals to distract you, and some of those sounds are a bit louder. But I think it really contributes to the whole feel of this album.
Are you going to release both versions of the album, with vocals and without?
Yes. You will not be able to buy them separately, actually, even on iTunes. You will get both versions, and on CD and vinyl it’s the same. So everything has both versions because they are both equal to us. The album was originally intended to be an instrumental record. We got so used to that instrumental version that the vocals are something new for us, you know. I personally really like them. I think Loïc really lifts it to another level of intensity by adding these vocals to it. But we’re very much still attached to the instrumental version as well, and we’ll play it live like that too. On some tours we’ll play instrumental and on some tours we’ll play the vocal version. For the upcoming tours that we have planned, we’ll have Loïc with us. But we’re not so sure how his health is going to develop too. That was also part of the reason we decided to have it instrumental originally. And so, if at one point his voice starts suffering again and he needs to take a break during a tour, this time we’re prepared! We can just play instrumental shows or we can play half the set as instrumental if we want to, and that’s something that was not really possible before because every time we had a problem with Loïc’s voice and we wanted to play instrumental sets, we weren’t really prepared. We couldn’t play any Fogdiver songs because we hadn’t rehearsed them, and playing Heliocentric songs without vocals doesn’t make sense. Even the audiences wouldn’t have wanted that because they probably pay 80 per cent of their attention to the vocals. That’s just how we are conditioned and our listening habits are trained. So the instrumental version really makes you hear things that you wouldn’t be hearing otherwise, just because your attention is focused on different things, and also because we approached the mix differently. We had to lower certain sounds and samples on the vocal version because they were competing with the vocals, and on the instrumental version we could bring them up. So there’s stuff you will get to hear, some underwater sounds and strings that are not even audible so much on the vocal version. So it’s two really different listening experiences, and they both have their pros and cons.
Right, and it’s very interesting because if you keep playing both versions of the song, you’ll end up discovering which of them go better in the live situation.
That is also something I’m really looking forward to finding out. Right now we are rehearsing all the songs with vocals and I guess live it’s also a matter of stage presence. When we decided to have this album instrumental, that was in April-May last year when Loïc had told us he was really sick and that he wasn’t sure he would be able to tour with us. We were like, fair enough, we have an album here that works instrumentally. The tracks are all written to be like that, and also lyrically at first we really didn’t know how to approach it because we didn’t want to sing about sperm whales fighting giant squids (laughs), so we were like, it’s going to work out fine as an instrumental record. But then over the next couple of months I really realized that Loïc is very important for the band live. We have established him as the lead vocalist of this band, and he carries the energy that we unleash on stage into the crowd. If he was not there, for me personally something would be missing, and I think for a lot of our fans as well. So these were some of the reasons that made us reconsider in the end and start thinking about a vocal version. Live it’s a totally different experience if you have Loïc on stage, as compared to not having him. We still have to figure out how it’s going to work without him. That’s an experiment and may be it’s like you said, some songs will work even better without vocals live because they will get a different level of intensity. And may be with all of the songs we will feel something is missing when there are no vocals. These are all things we don’t really know yet, and it’s just stuff we have to try and figure out.
You mentioned the water samples. So when you equate this album to a musical journey, would you say it’s almost like a sinking submarine when the listener gets deep into it?
Yeah, absolutely! The listener gets immersed in the album somehow, and that’s what we wanted to do. I don’t think you have to know much about pelagial depth zones or anything like that. That’s all just like a frame to the whole thing. I think it’s very intuitive and you can feel that it’s going down. You can feel with every song on the album how it’s evolving. It’s getting lower, the music is getting slower and the pressure is increasing. It’s getting darker, obviously, as you progress towards the depths and you can feel that. It’s not some detached conceptual idea. It’s actually something that you can really experience. That was important to me with this album. It’s written to auralize this whole idea, basically.
Part 2 coming soon on GuitarWorld.com …