Monday, 24 September 2012

OceanLab - Sirens of the Sea (2008) Review

The dearth of proper bands complete with vocalists is something I consider to be a real issue for electronic dance music as an artform. While there are many excellent singer-songwriters who have created some amazing songs as a collaboration with other musicians and producers including some of my favourites, the over-reliance of these producers on collaborators can be a significant drawback for the coherence and integrity of album output. Therefore bands like OceanLab are always a pleasure to encounter, delivering top-notch artistry, professional production and a great voice in one package. Sirens of the Sea is the group's first, and only, album.

OceanLab formed well before this album's conception, as another alias of extremely high-flying trance group Above and Beyond dating back to 1999. Singer Justine Suissa joins A&B members Paavo Siljamaki, Jono Grant and Tony McGuinness in this project, and the early results were several club-oriented vocal anthems, including "Clear Blue Water", "Satellite" and "Beautiful Together", all of which performed very strongly but were packaged largely as one-offs amongst the other singles released by A&B and their other aliases, and Suissa was credited as a featured vocalist on these early singles. Suissa did not contribute to Above and Beyond's debut artist album Tri-State released in 2006, however after the release of that album the four began work on "Sirens of the Sea". Unusually for a trance album Sirens contains no featured vocalists and does not include the group's earlier hits, concentrating solely on original tracks led by Suissa's voice. These decisions may have been commercially brave but they were wise ones, as the songs we have here fit together beautifully and the sound of the producers has tightened considerably from the good but slightly wandering Tri-State, with the songwriting and vocals firmly to the fore, and the tracklist includes no examples of either album filler or fanbase pandering. This is a true rarity, a complete trance album that sounds good as a whole, is thematically and sonically coherent and contains genuinely good songs that go far beyond the all too common dreamy slush frequently found in this genre.

Although these songs vary somewhat in feel and composition, with not all having a 4x4 beat or even being tracks to dance to, I do not hesitate to call this trance because the ambient and downtempo tracks gel well with the dance tracks, fitting with the interpretation of the trance genre as a style to bliss out to and to stimulate the mind, not just the body. The quality of the Justine Suissa's voice and lyrics underpins this continuity. While her voice is not a world away from the breathy style popular in trance, she is a class above many others, with both soft, gentle and louder, stronger performances on this album having weight to them that cannot be dismissed. "Breaking Ties", one of the album's strongest songs and probably the best of the non-dance numbers, highlights this strength. Both the slightly raspy verses and the more present but still vulnerable-sounding choruses give this song the sad, longing but not depressing atmosphere that the music alone, with it's beautiful and bright melodic piano and acoustic guitar backed texture, would not have. This trend is carried through the other contemplative and emotion driven songs, including "Come Home", "On A Good Day" and "Lonely Girl". The first of those is another highlight, as on this uptempo dance number the club strengths of the producers are emphasised with a strong groove, epic pads and insistent percussion combining with even stronger longing and regret to make this a great example of a dance song with a story, that you could get down to and still feel slightly sad while doing it. "Lonely Girl" is a similar song, which while not quite as direct or powerful is still a well-written and effective song with a strong vocal performance.

The other dance tracks have that Above and Beyond style to them but all of them rein in the harder edge found on their singles and the earlier OceanLab ones to make room for the texture and soundscapes of the production, as well as the vocals. "Sirens of the Sea" brings the tempo and mood up after the gentle and ambient "Just Listen" very well with exquisite synthwork despite some of the slightly fluffier lyrics of the album and the pair together open the album with a good hint of what is to follow and "If I Could Fly" continues this before a comedown at "Breaking Ties". "On A Good Day" is the song to finally bring the mood back up again and is another beautiful track, with a very well placed piano line supporting the sidechained trance pads on this one.  "Ashes" and "I Am What I Am" take the album into more contemplative ambient territory again, in the case of the former with a very strong trance vibe while the latter is almost trip-hop with Suissa getting a little more raspy on this one to great effect but the song never breaks away from the vocal trance core that runs through the album and prevents it from sounding out of place.

"Secret" and "On The Beach" are the non-dance tracks that end the album after "Lonely Girl". The rhythm in "Secret" is carried by the singing of Suissa and her very melodic performance with the production providing mostly texture here, however the very thick synth pads and string arrangement in this song complement her perfectly and this is the sort of song that a lesser trance group would never be able to pull off without wandering into cheese territory and is a real mark of the high standards of this band. The final track is a very fitting closer as it's subject is explicitly the end of a holiday (probably in the Balearics) and the restrained downtempo music here would fit a blissed-out morning session. However looking beyond the obvious meaning of the lyrics here, the sound of Suissa's voice seems to imply more than just a summer of frivolity has ended, with the gentle sigh before "There's nothing like you and me" in the second chorus giving more away than the words do. This would a very fitting end to this album - far more than it would seem at first glance and seeing the three members of Above and Beyond plus a singer in the album sleeve.

However the real ending of "Sirens" is the "Flow Mix" of "Breaking Ties" that ends my copy of the album (and I believe all copies of it) which is not a mere filler track here. Often dance-oriented bands put club remixes of slower songs as bonus tracks, however this is not one - this version actually strips away the drums and percussion that existed on the main version of the song and while the atmosphere doesn't become that of a minimal song, with the pads, soft synth pluck and piano remaining, the vocals become an even greater centrepiece than previously. If the original was emotional, this is a song to chill and induce your hairs to stand on end - indeed, truly trance, without any need for a 4x4 kick drum or pulsing bassline. An astonishing conclusion.

This album gets a strong recommendation from me, as it is almost the only one of its kind. I prefer tight, listenable album experiences than just track collections and I can think of no other LP that explores the trance genre and variations on it while remaining a great piece of songwriting as well - there are no instrumentals here, it's a full band work - and contains no tracks that I can find anything beyond minor flaws with to my mind. For any trance music listener, and indeed fans of progressive house as well, for whom a constant 4x4 beat, intense bass and giant supersaw are not necessary conditions for getting into a state of trance, this is a must-buy. OceanLab have been fairly quiet since 2008, with A&B concentrating on their solo career and second album and Justine Suissa writing and performing with other producers. Considering this with Above and Beyond's other output, which is generally good but not consistently interesting, I feel that a follow up to "Sirens of the Sea" is long overdue as the three producers have arguably pulled out their best work on this album and Justine Suissa is the perfect complement for the sounds they seem to be fond of using and the techniques they employ best. There is no indication of a follow-up yet, but as both Above and Beyond and Justine remain very strong contenders in this scene and show little sign of fading away, I remain optimistic that one will eventually appear.

Stand out tracks from this disc are: Breaking Ties (both versions), Come Home, On A Good Day, and Secret.

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