Much celebrated mastermind Dan Britton has big plans for the future. The brain behind Cerebus Effect, Birds and Buildings and Deluge Grander has conceptualised a three-level, seven-album series, which was initiated with the 2014 release Heliotians. Oceanarium is the second instalment in this chronology and will most likely be immediately followed by Lunarians in 2018. The three albums are interlinked by thematic transformation, though unlike its predecessor and successor, Oceanarium remains purely instrumental. And rightfully so, considering the range of instrumentation at hand: cello, trumpet, bass clarinet, flute, saxophone, banjo, mandolin, to name only a few, join forces with a typical rock outfit to form a truly symphonic progressive rock orchestra.
Following the tracks of a “rat-man” explorer, Oceanarium is constructed as one continuous stream of themes, depicting different stages of the protagonists’ adventure. The compositions rarely take a moment to breathe – themes transitioning seamlessly from one to another in a broadly orchestrated bed of vintage and organic sounds.
The enigmaticallt titled opener, A Numbered Rat, a High Ledge, and a Maze of Horizons, doesn’t defer, but gets the trip started straight away. Much like a classical overture the piece introduces various themes over 12-minutes, the large number of instruments alternating in taking on the duty of the main voice. Mainly up-tempo, with the exception of a dynamic piano driven break halfway through, A Numbered Rat… explores many different moods and demonstrates Britton’s art of establishing complex conversations between guitar and the vast array of keyboard sounds. Acoustic guitar strokes constantly appear in the background, diffusing a cinematic feel throughout the song and the record as a whole, especially when joined by harmonica.
Drifting Inner Skyline Space sees the orchestra taking a break from franticly blurring lines and concentrates on a more atmospheric mood. The beginning finds a quiet acoustic guitar taking the lead, only to end up in a choir of psychedelic synthesizer layers accompanied by a slide guitar. Again Mr Britton shows off a large palette of keyboard sounds, not giving the listener the time to dwell on any one element as the movement in arrangement and melody is overwhelming. Framed to a close, the acoustic guitar recurs with bossa-nova chops.
Not unlike the opener, The Blunt Sun and the Hardened Moon gets straight to the point. A galloping 9/8 rhythm moves from riff to riff, crossing an 8/8 section on the way to another staggering guitar hook in 7/8. After 2 minutes a dynamic break softens the mood in order to deconstruct and further develop the themes introduced before. The quarter hour piece moves through darker and lighter passages, the darker parts accentuated by deep blowing wind instruments, lighter and more positive themes being left to guitars. Building on this contrasting interplay, moods never seem to settle but are constantly pushed away and replaced by their counterpart. The simulation of a sitar sound on electric guitar calling and returning a short chorus led by saxophone in accompaniment of acoustic guitar strumming makes for a good example of this aspect.
Finding a Valley in a Gray Area on a Map serves as a short intermezzo, following the protagonist’s observations of the various happenings in a small village, the banjo having a strangely strong presence in an otherwise more oriental vibe, before Finding a Shipwreck in a Valley in an Ocean sees ocean soundscapes imitated with many types of percussion. Once again there are not only one or two themes being developed here – the restlessness of ever changing harmonic and melodic progressions continues. A short arpeggiated break by the piano in the middle serves as a fine climax.
Tropical Detective Squadron is another long track, this time retelling the tales told so far. Fitting to the description found in the booklet (“Meanwhile, back at home, the story of his departure is dramatized but altered beyond recognition.”), this composition slows down toward the middle and stays in a dramatically slow groove, emphasized by Mellotron layers, the story telling then departing into, by now, typical ever-changing progressions.
Marooned and Torn Asunder is the first and only track of the album that doesn’t go everywhere. The guitar introduces the main hook and leads to a dramatic synthesizer progression. Britton is at his least ironic here, and gives space to breathtaking guitar work alternating with melancholic oboe lines – the guitar sound and technique being very reminiscent of Steve Howe.
Heavy piano chords in accompaniment of a full orchestra open the final chapter of this adventure, Water to Glass / The Ultimate Solution. Every instrument gets a final moment to shine in a mix of quieter interplays and more nervous passages. Harpsichord figurations appear throughout, emphasizing the heavy strokes of the other chordophones. The entire orchestra builds to a finale that still echoes long after reaching the end, which is partly due to the final progression ending with an interrupted cadence on the subdominant. No, this doesn’t sound like an end, there is definitely more to come…
When a regular person goes on an endeavor to discover the world he is already overwhelmed by the vastness of space, culture and topographic phenomena, but how must a ‘rat-man’ feel, his steps being so much smaller and his surrounding environment to him majestically bigger? Soundtracks to the adventures of men have been put to music on plenty of occasions and have known various thematic treatments – the universe to a smaller creature though seems much bigger, which results in the music needing more themes, more sequences and more colors, a la Oceanarium. Consequently, the listener is presented with densely packed musical ideas, which doesn’t make this an easy oeuvre to digest. Themes appear and disappear again in a matter of seconds and reappear in an altered form, framed in a different harmonic and rhythmic context. These musical aspects in combination with the complex and wide instrumentation triggers a certain nervousness and feels overwhelming at times, begging the question whether an exercise in restraint would have helped to achieve a more compact and homogeneous product.
On the other hand, this record just needs time to let it sink in. The wide spectrum of influences is uncanny. The similarities to the likes of King Crimson, as also found on the Birds and Buildings releases, are evident. The more dramatic episodes giving space to prolonged melodies are reminiscent of Yes. But there is also more straight-forward jazz fusion spread over the entire journey. In combination with the orchestral instruments these influences melt to become Britton’s very own signature sound, embedded in a dynamically analog production.
It remains to be seen how Dan Britton is going to further develop the ideas presented here on the successor, and how many new ones he plans on adding – the level of suspense created is surely high!
01. A Numbered Rat, a High Ledge, and a Maze of Horizons (11:32)
02. Drifting Inner Skyline Space (8:28)
03. The Blunt Sun and the Hardened Moon (15:25)
04. Finding a Valley in a Gray Area on a Map (3:24)
05. Finding a Shipwreck in a Valley in an Ocean (6:20)
06. Tropical Detective Squadron (14:10)
07. Marooned and Torn Asunder (8:06)
08. Water to Glass / The Ultimate Solution (12:31)
Total Time – 79:56
Dan Britton – Keyboards, Guitars, other instruments (tracks 1-8)
Dave Berggren – Electric & Compositional Contributions (track 6)
Neil Brown – Trumpet (track 8)
Steve Churchill – Oboe (tracks 1 & 7)
Brett d’Anon – Bass & Guitars (tracks 1-8)
Brian Falkowski – Saxophone (track 3), Flute (tracks 4 & 5) & Clarinet (track 8)
Patrick Gaffney – Compositional Contributions (tracks 1 & 6)
Denis Malloy – Bass Clarinet (tracks 1,2,3 & 8)
Corey Sansolo – Trombone (track 1)
Natalie Spehar – Cello (tracks 2,4,5 & 8)
Zack Stachowski – Violin (track 4 & 5)
Christopher West- Compositional Contributions (track 6 & 7)
Label: Emkog Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 15th November 2017
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