‘Ocean Roar’ lives up to its namesake
Low-fidelity production, so-called “lo-fi,” has been embraced by a diverse set of musicians and movements within the music industry. On the one hand, dreamy pop bands like Best Coast and Wavves use the “fuzz” associated with recording on low-quality tape to accentuate the feeling of hallucination or drifting the listener feels. On the other hand, black metal bands like Burzum enjoyed using low-fidelity production to add another layer of darkness and distortion onto their already tumultuous music.
Phil Elverum shares some affinity with both approaches, and has been creating music that amplifies loneliness and unsettling naturalism since the 1990s. His latest album under the name Mount Eerie, “Ocean Roar,” is the second to be released this year, after May’s “Clear Moon.” Fully living up to its name, the record pounds like surf in a storm but retains at times a majestic beauty.
The record is relatively short, finishing up at just under 39 minutes. Occasionally, the ideas underlying the songs can feel slight as well. Their emotional moods sound like they have been modeled on the natural ebb and flow of the titular body of water, but I find that a few of the songs lack an emotional impact despite some impressive composition. Phil Elverum’s work has often played with abstract song structures and extended periods of noise or even silence, but there is something indefinable missing here in many songs.
With that criticism reluctantly noted, there remains only the positives, of which there are many. The album begins on a strong note, with the alternately thunderous and serene “Pale Lights,” a 10-minute epic that is every bit as formless and wandering as the other songs. What it has that the others do not, of course, is length, and that tends to be an asset in this kind of music. That tendency proves true here, as “Pale Lights” is a true marvel, playing with dynamics, black-metal guitars and Elverum’s soft, trembly voice. It’s as good a song as he’s composed in his long career.
Throughout the whole album, sounds tend to congeal into walls of ambient noise, and when a voice or a recognizable instrument breaks through the murk the effect is striking. This can be seen best on two tracks both named “instrumental,” which make up for their lack of a capital letter in the title with some stunning guitar drones. Blanketing the track, they drown other sounds into incoherence, creating a genuinely immersing and creepy atmosphere. By contrast, “I Walked Home Beholding” builds its appeal around poetic lyrics, ambling forward with only a cymbal for percussion and a few synthesizers providing a warm contrast to the coldness of the rest of the album.
Despite some shortcomings and a few songs that end without ever feeling like they began, “Ocean Roar” is a mostly excellent follow-up to “Clear Moon,” taking Mount Eerie into heavier and more experimental territory. A perfect winter record, it oscillates between extremes of storm and placid calm, and while it’s nowhere near as vast as the ocean, it carries with it a bit of its free spirit.