Music Reviews
Ocean Roar

Mount Eerie Ocean Roar

(P.W. Elverum and Sun) Buy it from Insound Rating - 9/10

It’s difficult to approach Mount Eerie’s new album Ocean Roar without immediately placing it in the inevitable context as companion album to Clear Moon, the Mount Eerie record that preceded it earlier this year.  By Mount Eerie architect Phil Elverum’s own admission, the two records are inextricably linked, with Ocean Roar being the more chaotic, densely expressive album to Clear Moon’s more emotional internalizing tendencies.  There has been quite a lot of discussion concerning the appropriate way to approach these records.  Do we view them as independent statements from Elverum, despite his insistence on their interconnectivity, or do we see them as two facets of the same artist?   Why do we have a seeming resistance to reviewing them as a whole, as two halves of a single project? I think that we like to view records as somewhat insular. There is a beginning and an end. We have measurable ways to catalog and categorize records. When an artist tries something more expansive, we tend to get uncomfortable because it plays havoc with our preconceived notions of what an album is or can be.  And Ocean Roar certainly does that. What I find so remarkable about the album is how well it balances those ways in which someone can approach the album. Over the course of these eight tracks, Elverum makes the case that you can either view the album as the second half of an in-progress experiment or take it as a stand-alone release and you’ll not feel slighted regardless of your choice. It’s an album that revels in interpretation and grows larger and nearly overpowering in its ability to draw the listener into its dense layers of distortion, cascading dissonance, and fleeting moments of stunning clarity.

From the beginning of Pale Lights, the 10 minute opening song of Ocean Roar, Elverum has the listener firmly in his sights. The surging, cacophonous mass of instrumentation that slowly rises and comes to dominate the track wants to overwhelm you; it seems to have a conscious need to completely engulf the listener. This is aggressive music, though it never seems arbitrary. It feels chaotic, though never random. And as much as it might seem that someone just turned on all the instruments and cranked up the volume, there are too many specific musical cues and particular nuances that point to this being a determinedly purposeful use of distortion, as well as his maintaining an overarching sense of misplaced time. As the song washes over you, there is a tangible sense that time has less and less meaning.  You feel that it makes more sense to concentrate on what you’re hearing right now than on anything else that is occurring outside of your immediate frame of reference. The barrage is not constant however, though it does feel all invasive. As the waves of distortion ebb and flow around the quieter moments where Elverum’s fragile vocals play catch up, the song never feels disjointed or lacking in perspective. There is an unrelenting intensity that seems completely at ease in these surroundings. The tension that is created and sustained on this opening song seems unrelenting. 

The follow-up title track backs off a bit from the distortion and allows the listener a chance to get their bearings, such as they are at this point. It’s no less engaging than the opening song but it reveals a more hopeful though still cautious outlook. The intense dynamism of the first track has given way to a more introspective line of musical thought. In a recent interview regarding the nature of Ocean Roar, Elverum said of the loud/quiet dynamic: "I am trying to nestle an intimate thing inside a larger, crazier atmosphere. I think this is what the actual world feels like, a house in the weather." And that is exactly what this song feels like, a small respite after the ferocity of opening song Pale Lights. Elverum shows us that he knows precisely the way to seamlessly integrate these two disparate themes, despite the fact that these two tracks had every reason to sound noticeably mismatched when placed back-to-back. The album feels so well planned and thoughtfully sequenced that even the shorter tracks on Ocean Roar, like the deceptively simple Ancient Times or his cover of Popol Vuh’s Engel Der Luft, are more than just interstitial filler.  They have weight and are used to drive the album forward, never allowing the record to lose any of its well-earned momentum. 

One of the most strongly realized aspects of this record is how consequential everything feels. Even the two songs that are both called instrumental are not as devoid of personality as that ubiquitous title might lead you to believe.  In fact, these tracks are in some ways the structural keystones of the album.  They seem to represent the thematic core of what Elverum is trying to accomplish on Ocean Roar.  He seems to be saying that these two songs represent the rule when it comes to the context of the album and not the exception.  We may go further in terms of musical experimentation on the album and we also may hear other songs in simpler, less complex terms but it is always within the musical context of these two tracks.  In many ways, this album represents a finality of all that he began on Clear Moon and does so in a far larger and more intricate way.  As good as Clear Moon is—and it is astonishing—this album feels and sounds so much larger in scope.  It takes the progress made by that record and follows it though to its inevitable conclusion.  

At times, Ocean Roar seems almost purposefully unapproachable but I think this has less to do with any sort of intentional distancing from Elverum and more to do with how these songs affect the listener. Phil Elverum has surrounded these tracks with a dense haze that keeps us from seeing the emotional core around which these songs are built. We can feel it though. And with his firm direction and precise execution, these songs feel like a part of something grander, more labyrinthine in scope. We occasionally get glimpses of its inner workings on songs like Ocean Roar and I Walked Home Beholding but the overall feeling is one of obscured nostalgia, which seems to fit given that his initial observation regarding the album was to compare it to a “half-remembered dream of a midnight road trip to the ocean from 20 years ago.”  This is not an album that tolerates passive observation from the listener.  Elverum has created an album that demands your time and attention, not to mention any memories you may be willing to part with.