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Oceans Of Slumber - Starlight And Ash: "long live the new Southern Gothic"

Texan prog metallers dial back the extreme in favour of idiosyncrasy.

Oceans Of Slumber
(Image: © Century Media)

With the release of their self-titled fourth album in 2020, it felt like Oceans Of Slumber had reached the outer limits of what progressive death metal could do for them. It’s a niche they had lived in for years, though it increasingly seemed at odds with what their acolytes actually wanted.

When the Houston six-piece debuted with 2013’s Aetherial – featuring singer Ronnie Gates – they were prog metal all the way. Their expansive songs, intricate guitars and growled vocals positioned them between Mastodon and Opeth. However, it wasn’t until Gates was replaced by Cammie Gilbert, whose heart-wrenching pipes marked a move to more emotive prog/death/doom soundscapes on 2016’s Winter, that people started paying attention. Although the downtrodden maximalism of 2018’s Banished Heart won critical acclaim, by the time of Oceans Of Slumber the band’s affinity for meandering songwriting were distracting from their true selling points – specifically forlorn melodies and Gilbert’s mesmerising singing.

Starlight And Ash proves that even Oceans Of Slumber were pondering this. Where its predecessor was crammed with seven-minute epics, here, the scope’s been reeled back, and what it’s made for is an album that’s progressive in a different way. Gilbert has referred to this album as “the new Southern Gothic”. There’s little showy technicality, no mammoth suites or fast-fingered solos. It’s barely metal either, eschewing screams and hulking guitars. Much more intrinsic to the album are its experiments with genre.

It commences with The Waters Rising, a tight yet increasingly dramatic rocker. Synths and drums are gradually joined by keys and acoustic and electric guitars, as Gilbert wails with soul and strength. Across the whole album, Oceans Of Slumber fold different genre cues into their gloomy yet gorgeous canon. The Lighthouse coerces country and African-American spirituals together, acoustic note twanging over scraping percussion. The Spring Of ’21 is three minutes of piano pageantry that could fit on the Amadeus soundtrack, while Star Altar is the sole metal song of the entire affair, its riffs rumbling with the strength and low roar of an earthquake. By the time they serve up a haunting take on House Of The Rising Sun, we’re getting new American folk songs backed by naught but pianos and cellos.

Antiquarians might lambast Starlight… for ditching prog’s complexities, but what’s lost has been made up for 10 times over in beauty and eclecticism. This is Oceans Of Slumber’s self-actualisation. Long live the new Southern Gothic.

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Matt Mills
Matt Mills

Louder’s resident Cult Of Luna obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.