In Brief: The all-instrumental Oceans completes a musical suite that began during the Yearbook days. While nothing here sounds radically out-of-bounds for Sleeping at Last, it is nice to hear two of my favorite tracks from that earlier collection reprised along with three more in a similar vein, each attempting to capture the “personality” of our planet’s vast seas.
A dark, rainy evening seems like the perfect backdrop to review Sleeping at Last‘s new Oceans EP, the sixth entry in the Atlas series, and the last segment of “Year 1”, which in actuality took Ryan O’Neal more like a year and a half to complete. I can’t fault him for being slightly behind schedule, since this series has given us roughly three albums’ worth of new material since the beginning of 2013. While the last entry, Land, was a bit short and under-baked compared to his usual, I did have high expectations of the companion piece, Oceans, his first all-instrumental release. Two of the Yearbook EPs released in 2011 featured instrumental pieces dedicated to two of our planet’s oceans – first “Pacific” on the March EP, and then “Atlantic” on June. They ranked among the most beautiful and memorable pieces in that entire 36-track collection, and I found myself wondering why the remaining months hadn’t followed up on the theme. Three years later, Ryan has finally completed the suite, which might have made Oceans an easy way to make up for lost time, since he only really had to compose and record three new pieces for this one. That’s not a complaint, since I certainly don’t mind hearing those two original pieces again (and “Atlantic” was slightly reworked to fit the all-instrumental framework). The three that follow them – aptly named “Indian”, “Southern”, and “Arctic” – each hint at themes of adventure and discovery, and while none may possess melodies as lofty as the first two, each is lovely in its own way. Ryan quickly decided that the piano was the instrument that best fit the sometimes still and sometimes tumultuous motion of the waves, and so you’re going to hear far more of that than his usual ukulele and acoustic guitar, though those do make appearances. Oceans is a calming, fitting end to the first act of a series that’s been intriguing, albeit not quite as solid as Yearbook, thus far. As always, I’m quite curious to see where Ryan goes with this open-ended project next.
This delicate piece felt like more of an abbreviated intro than an attraction unto itself when it first appeared on Yearbook, but I rapidly grew to love the way its slow, stately piano rhythm gradually melts into uneven torrents of rolling notes as a cello cries out like a flock of birds flying overhead. Listening to this one still brings back strong memories of a romantic retreat spent along the Southern California coast, a trip that was partially inspired by the covert art of the March EP (which depicts the yearly return of swallows to the mission in San Juan Capistrano). The recording has been left untouched here, save for some very faint ambient ocean sounds heard in the background as it fades out, a device used to bridge the gaps between all five pieces on this EP.
The full title of this piece, my absolute favorite in the entire Yearbook series, was “Atlantic, the Sea of Atlas”. It was split into two tracks at the time, one an instrumental intro and the other a full-fledged song that built off of its melodic refrain. This version brings the two together as one unbroken track, but with the vocals from the second part edited out, and the gap left behind is supplemented by some extra bits of piano and strings, but with nothing to noticeably replicate the vocal melody. This emphasizes the counter-melodies played by the other instruments, and while it sounds odd to me, someone unfamiliar with the vocal version might not realize that something was missing, aside from the fact that the second half of this track has drums and ukulele and more of a conventional folk/rock or baroque pop arrangement. Either way, I still can’t hear this achingly gorgeous cello melody without getting a bit misty-eyed – the entire piece rings out with a sort of longing, as if it were the cry of two lovers separated by thousands of miles of water. While this tune has never actually been featured in a film or TV soundtrack like several of Ryan’s other songs have, it would be a perfect fit for a dramatic finale in which a sailor returns home after a long time out fighting a dangerous war or something like that. Its ending does seem a bit abrupt without the final words to sum things up, but I’m actually relieved that this one wasn’t re-worked in some sort of way that paled in comparison to the grandeur of the original.
The first of the new compositions is a deliberate contrast between a gentle, syncopated piano melody and more of a rigid, regal percussive rhythm – it’s here that the temperament of the ocean, with its gentle surface unexpectedly turning into a maelstrom of troughs and waves, is best represented. The clickety-clack of the drums and some bits of backmasked piano remind me a great deal of “Segue”, a non-ocean-themed instrumental also from the Yearbook project, and the way that this piece effortlessly flows between several strikingly different moods and musical motifs, with Ryan’s wordless cooing riding atop the various layers of sound, reminds me a bit of “Jupiter” from the Space 2 EP. At four minutes, this piece feels like it needed a bit more time to avoid feeling rushed, what with all of the ground (er, water?) that it tries to cover. So while its climax comes and goes a bit hastily, it’s still the most striking of the new pieces heard here.
A little bit of the electronic influence heard on past tunes like “Wires” and some of the Space suite resurfaces (heh) on this track, which deftly mixes cold machinery and sonar pings with another bright-eyed piano melody, which is nicely paired with the plucking of Ryan’s banjo, a move reminiscent of “Atlantic” but with more of a “swaying” rhythm to it. Exploration and fascination are the theme here, as the world’s most misunderstood ocean (one which some cartographers insist isn’t even a separate ocean to begin with) becomes the scene where inhospitable depths reveal their wonderful mysteries to the intrepid travelers daring to plumb their depths. The only real flaw in this one is that by the time you’ve heard the “verse” and “chorus” once through (hard to call it that without lyrics, but there are obvious quiet sections and climactic sections that are repeated), there’s not much of anything different to hear the second time through, except that it repeats more and gets louder and denser. So this one doesn’t quite make the leap from “pretty” to “essential listening”.
The final piece is the second-longest, at nearly five minutes (only “Atlantic” tops it at six and a half, but technically that’s two tracks fused together – SAL doesn’t do long songs very often, is what I’m saying here). Ryan aimed for a “cold and distant” mood here, appropriately enough, and the stark piano and cello crying out in tandem definitely seem to have a sense of reserved morning to them. Some light metallic percussive elements chime in, almost giving this one a similar feel to Space 1‘s “Mercury”. But then there’s this weird, whistling sound that sounds like it’s somewhere in between a radio trying to pick up a signal, and exotic birds heralding a sailor’s arrival at a fabled tropical land beyond the polar icecaps. (Maybe I just get Josh Ritter‘s “Another New World” stuck in my head when I think of songs about this far-off region of the planet.) The primary melodic motif doesn’t really vary here, though by the time the track comes to its stunning conclusion, you’ve heard a lot of dense layers of noise welling up beneath it, and in general, I think SAL does “wall of sound” quite well. Still, I might have liked some sort of a bridge section or something to build up drama and tension before returning triumphantly to that main melody before we hit the climax – otherwise it sort of feels like we’re hearing the coda to a much longer piece whose earlier sections have been lost. The final sound heard on this track are of deep significance to Ryan – it’s the heartbeat of his still-unborn first child, which gives a beautiful sense of closure to the first “year” of Atlas while also making it one heck of a personal time capsule for the guy. The birth of the universe was one of the first themes explored on the Darkness EP at the beginning of 2013, and the theme of life emerging from a place where we might not expect to find it is likely one that will be further fleshed out on the first entry in Atlas Year 2, aptly titled Life.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
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