Finding Hope in the Prophetic Songwriting of Oceans Of Slumber

When 2020 dawned and we looked forward to the clean slate and fresh possibilities of a new decade, following one filled with mounting far-right presence, major political upheavals and yet more signs of climate change that continued to be ignored by the only people powerful enough to actually do anything about it, it’s fair to say that any plucky optimism we might have had proved to be misguided less than half a year into the 2020s. This year has thus far been defined by a global pandemic mismanaged by conservative governments around the world, the economic collapse that this has resulted in and of course the increasingly shameless problem of systemic racism and police brutality.

Art is never a replacement for direct action, but it can still be vital in these dire times. A great song, captivating book or stunning piece of art will never change the world on their own, but these things can help inspire a dejected population. At its most powerful art can offer us escapism, catharsis or even the mere hint of hope in dark times. On their new album, Oceans Of Slumber are nothing if not powerful, with a mournful tone that salutes the darkness and offers just a glimmer of hope.

The Texan six-piece have done more than enough to convince fans that their progressive and melodic songwriting is second-to-none with previous releases, most notably on 2016’s Winter and 2018’s The Banished Heart, but the band’s brand new self-titled fourth LP exceeds even their lofty standards. So how did they get here? Having formed just under a decade ago, the band have undergone substantial lineup changes since their formation, honing and refining their sound but truly kicking into gear after the addition of Cammie Gilbert in 2014, whose towering vocals have taken centre stage on every release thereafter. Gilbert will deservedly garner all the headlines, but some of the plaudits should also go to drummer, pianist and co-lead songwriter Dobber Beverly.

Beverly has been Oceans Of Slumber’s backbone since their formation, and as the sole remaining founding member, has overseen the band’s gradual progression from their promising early days to now, when they seem to be hitting the peak of their musical prowess. 

“When we started with our original vocalist Ronnie [Allen] we were kind of this eclectic mixture of weird things,” Beverly tells us on a cross-Atlantic Zoom call, his satisfyingly deep voice and slow, considered manner of speaking exuding an air of calm. “For [2013 debut album] Aetherial, the record worked, it had some really great songs on it, but it was just kind of an ‘everything goes’ attitude. Then we kinda started roping it in a little bit more with Winter. I wouldn’t say that the band was aligned, but I had a singular outlook on what the band was to be. So we kinda streamlined it, but at that point the band was fragmented, because one of the guys was a big fusion guy and that’s the kind of music that he wanted to play, and he just happened to be in this band.”

It’s clear that tough but necessary changes in personnel and mentality have led the band to a place where they’re more in sync than ever. You certainly can’t exactly argue with the results. “It’s unfortunate,” Beverly admits. “But we had to change. The band is ever-evolving, and by the time we got to this record, I had none of those older elements at play. Not that I wasn’t free to dictate over the last couple records, but there wasn’t a need or a want to showcase another artist, if that makes sense. And I’m not speaking negatively, but when you have the egos and other artists in a band, you walk a tightrope. If they wanna be seen, you have to find a way for them to be seen, or if they wanna be heard, meaning that they wanna write more, then you have to kind of bend to that. With this, I wrote the majority of this record, and the new guys fit in magically. Everything that they added, the music that they wrote, it’s interchangeable, and that’s something I feel very fortunate about.”

For Beverly, it’s clear what the band’s key ingredient is. “It’s knowing the band is centred around Cammie,” he says. “We have a singer of her calibre, and she’s gracing us with her presence, you know, let’s write music that showcases what she does.”

Doom metal has always been the domain of powerful vocalists, from the operatic cries of Messiah Marcolin and the versatile range of Mike Scheidt to the bewitching howls of Dorthia Cottrell and the eccentric wails of Ozzy Osbourne. Even amongst such esteemed company though, Gilbert’s triumphant cries put the singer in a league of her own. With her charismatic presence and soulful croons leading the charge, the band have crafted their most unique and creative album to date, stacked with what are undoubtedly the finest songs they have gifted us thus far.

For Beverly, knowing Gilbert is there is freeing for him as a songwriter – no matter how epic or ambitious a piece of music he writes, he knows he has a vocalist more than capable of keeping up. “That’s what an amazing working relationship is,” Beverly tells us. “I just write these big giant-ass songs, like huge cinematic apexes and then I just hand them to her and then whatever comes back is what comes back. The majority of the time, it’s pretty much finished the first time she sends it to me. Cammie is an instrument. A beautiful, talented instrument. So, what I see is that I am able to freely write whatever it is that I want to write, if it’s some Jerry Goldsmith-type piece over metal or something, or some ‘Willow Weep For Me’-era, ‘50s-style, Wizard Of Oz-type of thing, then I’m able to because I know that she’s going to knock it out of the park. I have no fear with whatever I’m writing.”

This sense of creative freedom has led to the band’s biggest and boldest effort to date, but crucially it’s also their most cohesive and undoubtedly their best. The band seemingly know this, making the album self-titled as a clear statement to the world that this is Oceans Of Slumber, and this is what they can do. Beverly even reveals that they initially planned to write a two-part song named after the band, which on the final product is now split into two tracks, ‘Pray For Fire’ and ‘A Return To The Earth Below’.

Despite the band now finding a cohesive, discernible sound, their place in the scene is still a mystery to some. “Sometimes the label doesn’t really understand these big artistic gestures because bands aren’t really actively doing this stuff anymore,” Beverly admits, referring to the album’s orchestral interlude ‘September’. “It’s usually independent bands that are still out there being all romanticised, and so when we start putting together layouts or ideas, you get a whole bunch of head scratching… Most people don’t know what the fuck this band is supposed to be, and we’ve suffered the wrath of that.

“I mean, Jesus Christ, this record’s doing incredibly well for us and so doesn’t that mean it’s in some acceptable genre? That it’s some acceptable form of art that’s come out? So it’s a constant second guessing of people around us, not our label, but everybody around us.”

In a sense, though, it’s this confusion about where exactly the band belongs that gives them the freedom to experiment. “For us, yeah, it’s whatever goes,” the drummer agrees. “You can be punished for not fitting into boxes because business and marketing dictates that it needs to fit into somewhere. If we become our own entity, like a bigger band, then that’s gonna hurt us. It already does hurt us. So until we find a way to market ourselves to the right people and get more people to understand who we are and what we do, our freedom to experiment and be artists is bad for us business-wise. For us as artists, it’s the lifeblood of what we do.”

Photo: Britanny Miles

Beverly’s big ideas about the next record seemingly already have him simultaneously excited as an artist and nervous when it comes to promoting it. “Our next record is gonna infuse more gospel and doom,” he promises. “It’s like, imagine The Cure playing B-tuned country music and gospel music with metal everywhere… you probably can’t just imagine that.

“I watched this documentary about Laurel Canyon where Crosby, Stills & Nash and Tom Petty and everybody come from. It’s incredible, and something that I enjoy so much about that era is their overwhelming use of cavernous reverb on guitar lines, and there was this incredible country-ish Americana sound to it, and on this record, there’s a lot more slide-work, there’s a lot more of these big clean chords underneath heavy parts. You can hear it on ‘The Adorned Fathomless Creation’ when it goes back into the main bridge part, there are these crystal clear twelve-string guitars that are underneath and are strumming through, and we used big clean bass hits with plate reverbs and multi-delays and shit on them. And it’s all to spawn an atmosphere. It’s like, that’s all I’m looking for. I want the record to do well, but I don’t care what everybody else thinks about what it is that I’m making. I need to care so that we can keep doing it at some status, but otherwise I really don’t need everybody to understand what it is that we’re doing. And that’s the hardest part, it’s like you simultaneously have to successfully run the business and also keep the integrity.”

That integrity certainly comes through, and it’s the reason that such a huge album still has a tangible humanity fuelling it even as the band delve into complex prog techniques. Hearing Beverly discuss the intricacies of certain tracks, it’s easy to assume that the writing process for such an epic release would be a laboured affair, but he describes the process as “rapid”. 

“I already had a few ideas and things written,” he explains. “But with that in mind we just kind of went fully into it. In about six weeks’ time we had the record completely written and finished. The guys came into town and stayed for a month and we tracked everything. The process for us is easy. The writing part is easy.”

It likely helps that Beverly records much of the band’s releases at his home studio, with only drums and Gilbert’s vocals being recorded elsewhere at Southwing Audio in Houston. “The only need for physical space is drums, if you need live drums, or vocal rooms, but otherwise, anything else can be tracked at home… If you wanna spend all of your money tracking in a studio because you want that experience, there’s that option, but you can get 98% of that magic at home too if you know what you’re doing.”

You have to wonder if being in their own space is what helps the band explore deeper and often quite revealing topics in their music too. Beverly and Gilbert collaborate on a lot of the lyrics, exploring themes close to them or that interest them. As is often the case with introspective writing, the lyrics reflect the common notion that “the personal is political”, exploring pertinent themes like mental health and self-worth, but also exploring the connections between personal experience and societal structures at large.

“I’m a huge history buff so I started digging through, like, World War II In Colour and all these military documentaries and kinda seeing disparities throughout time, especially modern times, with race, gender, class… you know, normal shit that if you look at it, it would depress you. We decided to just dig in. There’s personal things with depression and self-worth obviously too.”

The band then is a vessel to release these personal issues. The lyrics never fit a pre-described theme, rather they coexist naturally because they stem vaguely from the same source. “People have asked if it’s a concept record,” says Beverly. “It’s not not a concept record, but it wasn’t written with any kind of grand storyboard, it’s just that if we’re operating on the same parameters, then we’re not really gonna write a song about a fucking dog, and then write a song about depressive suicide. It’s not straws drawn at random, it’s all like a climate, and though we didn’t purposefully write these songs as a statement, we did write them in a state of mind.

“Cammie will sit down and write something for herself, or I write pieces of things or thoughts for myself and I give them over to her and she kinda translates them and works on them. It’s not like sitting down and writing a descriptive thing or some kind of fiction. It’s just internal thought, you know. It’s an amazing thing about writing, or reading somebody else’s writing. It’s the thought process inside another creative person’s head. It’s the most direct narration that you could get inside of Cammie’s or my head. It’s our ideas of life and the world around us and our personal outlooks and how we personally feel.”

This intimate way of writing can offer catharsis, but it comes with a drawback too. “Fortunately for the music it’s this way, and unfortunately for the artist it’s this way,” as Beverly puts it. “It’s like, maybe you shouldn’t be introspective… It’s cool, it’s a good release. The only problem is that when we put a record out and finish it, that window closes. Everything about making that record, what went into it, because it’s personal, is finished. And now it’s time to work on another record.”

The band couldn’t have known it when writing, but these themes would take on a greater meaning given everything that has happened throughout 2020. “I jokingly refer to it as mildly prophetic,” Beverly tells us. “A lot of the songs are about social strife, and internal dialogues, and now everybody will be having these internal dialogues, and the social strife is definitely very real on the record. I think it’s good for consuming [the record] – more people are listening whilst doing this stuff anyway. I think the timing of it is horrible for us but good as far as having the music heard and the filter that they’re looking through is like, ‘Ah wow this is a record for 2020’.”

Hopefully, then, this makes the new record one that will offer a light through this morbid year and beyond. “Yeah absolutely, and that’s the whole thing we were saying earlier,” Beverly agrees. “Getting inside the artist’s head and frame of mind, you feel what I feel, you feel what somebody else is feeling, it’s perfect for that actually.”

Oceans of Slumber is out now via Century Media Records. Order here.

Words: George Parr

Header photo: Darry Blampton