On the evening of August 25, 2017, America braced as Hurricane Harvey made US landfall in Texas. The storm had spent several days intensifying over the Caribbea Sea, and by the time it reached the state coastline at 11pm, it had whipped itself up into a Category 4 behemoth with wind speeds of 130mph, the first hurricane to make landfall since Wilma 12 years before.
Oceans Of Slumber, who were recording their third album, 2018’s The Banished Heart, in Houston, watched in horror as the storm ravaged their home city, leaving mass destruction and flooding in its wake. “[Our] house took on four feet of water,” remembers vocalist Cammie Gilbert of the home she had shared with drummer and partner, Dobber Beverley. “It made things very difficult regarding the recording process and morale.”
The sessions were put on hold while the band picked up the pieces, ultimately delaying the release of the album. But, as Gilbert explains, the stress of the situation further exposed an already fractured internal dynamic. Tensions that had been forming since the band had started to debut a more progressive sound on 2016 album Winter were now boiling over.
“It was literal and figurative. When the real hurricane hit so did the emotional hurricane between us,” Gilbert recalls. “It wasn’t meshing. There wasn’t an enthusiasm for the direction we wanted to go in. But each album was always going to evolve. We can’t just write crazy, sporadic, super-techy stuff and still think we can host these melodic lines
In November 2018, founding guitarists Sean Gary and Anthony Contreras announced their departure, followed three months later by bassist Keegan Kelly. Over the next few months, new bandmates Jessie Santos and Alexander Lucian, plus bassist Semir Özerkan, were welcomed into the fold. Gilbert insists the seismic shake-up was needed to ensure the band’s survival. “They’ve brought such a life, enthusiasm and excitement to the project. It feels so much healthier and more cohesive than it felt before.”
Despite its setbacks, The Banished Heart was a triumph; a grandiose statement of dark majesty and enthralling fragility that solidified Oceans Of Slumber as a truly special band. But new album Oceans Of Slumber is the result of six adventurous brains pulling in the same direction; it finally drops an anchor on their expansive sound. Amid death and black metal dynamics, Gilbert’s soulful vocals are intertwined with gothic romanticism, creating melodic structures that feel like light peeking through black lace. As always, though, the singer’s lyrics have provided the emotional heft. And although the record touches on Gilbert’s personal struggles with grief and depression, topics she has discussed before, this time round she’s cast her net wider. At its heart, the band’s fourth record is an exploration of human tendency to repeat toxic cycles of harm, hatred and violence.
“When Dobber and I were writing the album, you had all these instances of black people getting killed. These things have always bothered me, they’ve made me outspoken and angry,” she says. “Dobber was like, ‘Well, talk about them. We’ll put them in the new album.’”
Oceans Of Slumber was written and recorded last year, but its release comes at a pivotal time: at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the death of George Floyd while in police custody, and amid the subsequent outpouring of shock and revolt. Until now, Gilbert says racism in America has been perpetuated by a “sad, sick, broken cycle… Oppression, protest, reform. We never quite get to the point of fixing it; we just let it transform and it becomes something else. We think we do good for a while, then it falls apart.”
Through the tracks Pray For Fire and The Adorned Fathomless Creation, the singer has also opened up about her own experiences of racism and prejudice. “As a child I had people harass us with their big Confederate flag when we were driving from a theme park,” she remembers. “There’s been guys that are like, ‘I would never date a black woman.’ It becomes so everyday, you don’t think about how bad it is, until it cracks. Then you have George Floyd and you’re like, ‘That’s too much’, but all this other stuff is too much, too.”
In May, just two weeks before Floyd’s death, the band released a cover of Strange Fruit, the visceral anti-racism anthem written by Abel Meeropol and popularised by Billie Holiday. “It’s timely, and it’s unfortunate it’s so timely, but I feel like it’s very much needed,” says Gilbert. “I grew up with that song, and liked it for the sorrow and history that it held. Those words were supposed to be a sentiment of old and you see that it’s not.”
To accompany the release, the band wanted a set of images that conveyed the tragedy of the lyrics: ‘Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.’ Gilbert’s Instagram shows the singer in a delicate white dress, lying next to a noose.
“The noose is so strong and so iconic in the black community,” she says. “You don’t see it and think Halloween or the medieval ages. You see it and you think of Southern lynchings. I wanted this juxtaposition of the tenderness that I’m showing towards it, and the harshness that it’s shown towards me and my race. People in the US would make postcards with pictures of black people lynched, with the town stood there smiling. Postcards you could buy in gas stations and shops.”
That willingness to look pain in the eye has made Gilbert a point of emotional refuge for fans, who’ve found solace in her songwriting. The end game for all artists is to connect with their audience, to create something that other people can identify with, but Gilbert admits that sometimes, that burden of responsibility is a heavy weight. “When it comes to performing and seeing the sadness in people’s eyes, or seeing the emotional grip that the songs have… to be the one that antagonises those feelings doesn’t make me feel good.”
That vulnerability has led to some difficult but beautiful encounters with fans. “There was a woman who’d lost her father and she hadn’t been to that venue since he died. She was going to sit in the car and just come in for [swansong] No Color, No Light, because that song had helped her to make this step, but she didn’t know if she could make it though the whole show.” Gilbert goes silent, emotion palpable. “I had a door for her sidestage and she cried the whole time. And I cried. That’s just one of many stories.”
Looking back now, Gilbert describes The Banished Heart as a “purge”. Touching on loss and turbulent relationships, it was unflinchingly raw. “I don’t like listening to it. It’s too much for me,” she says; there have been nights on tour where the band have removed the title track from their setlist. “Touring can be hard and I wanted to not dig myself too much into an emotional hole.”
The lyrical content of Oceans Of Slumber is just as weighty, but this time the vocalist says the songs have brought peace, empowerment and strength, describing the writing process as therapy. “I don’t find it as emotionally heavy to wade through,” she says thoughtfully. “You have to couple action with your hope. That turns into change. I feel like I’m taking up arms for a charge outside of myself.”
This article originally appeared in issue 113 of Prog Magazine.