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Can you be guilty of cultural appropriation when you’re five English white dudes who play in a metalcore band that’s used Samurai mythology, Japanese song titles and traditional Japanese instrumentation for your latest album? No, I don’t think so, but then again, I’m just a white male on the Internet so what the fuck would I know, right?
Anyway! As previously stated, Oceans Ate Alaska’s new album ‘Hikari‘ – which in English, means ‘light’ – sees the band’s heavy, tech-based metalcore sound take on a wondrous Japanese theme. Across this album, the quintet has littered throughout and layered in melodically rich and beautiful sounding Japanese instruments; from your kokyu’s, your Koto’s, your hotchiku flute’s, your junanagen’s, your handpan’s, and so on. (Just don’t expect anything as traditional as this, however). I found that a good rule of thumb for these 11 songs is if they don’t start or end with such instrumentation, then you can sure as shit bet that the middle eight sections will have ’em.
In the PR for ‘Hikari‘, the band’s ludicrously tight and marathon-like drummer Chris Turner (seriously, his prolonged gravity snare roll during ‘Sarin‘ is fuckin’ gnarly), stated that “We have a huge amount of respect for Japanese culture, especially their music. These unique and beautiful instruments have inspired us to create something brand new, and we are beyond proud of the end result!” And you know what? Turner’s actually right!
As far as this up and coming English group’s sound – and the sound of their many peers are concerned – their second album is a bold move and shows what solid results can be achieved when you take a dime-a-dozen sound and give it a whole new musical perspective. That, and the fact that Oceans Ate Alaska’s moulding of traditional Japanese music with the usual Western metalcore style does indeed feel earnest and genuine, rather than just a band cheaply using a cultural gimmick for selfish and cynical gains.
So yes, unlike their 2015 debut album, ‘Lost Isles‘, ‘Hikari‘ isn’t just a balls-to-the-walls metalcore record that whittles away at your ear endurance levels over the course of 30 minutes. Instead, ‘Hikari‘ shows actual musical innovation and displays a real sense of flowing dynamic too – both in the individual songs and as a full body of work. It’s a listening experience of stark light and dark musical contrast (see: the groovy riffs and stop-start breakdowns meeting Japanese bowed-instruments on ‘Escapist‘ or the acoustic guitar outro heard on ‘Covert‘), and it also features what is easily the most musically interesting material Oceans Ate Alaska have ever written.
Alongside trying to embrace a much larger sonic palette, however, this album also marks the debut of the band’s new vocalist, Jake Noakes, who is more than a solid replacement for James Harrison. (Even if old mate was the better screamer of the two). So really, ‘Hikari‘ is a record of firsts for Oceans Ate Alaska. But goddamn, it’s just a bit of a shame about all of the metalcore present here.
My personal caveat is that as Oceans Ate Alaska are a metalcore band on Fearless Records, they need to, you know, hit their metalcore quota. And that means cramming in as many quick blast beats, lightning fast double kicks and grid-rigid breakdowns with all of your expected snare ghost notes as they possibly could. It means shoe-horning in as many low-tuned, heavily gated guitar chugs, fiddly-widdly leads and tapped parts that their two guitarists could manage. And it means adhering to the trite dual vocal approach of slipping in out of low gutturals and mid-range screams in the verses and clean singing in the choruses. (You gotta have something for all of core kids, I suppose) Which is all fine and dandy – Oceans Ate Alaska work hard and are far more instrumentally adept than the average, bottom of the barrel bands that litter this genre – but it all comes at the cost of the sublime Japanese aesthetic and musical theme here sadly taking a back seat when it should be front and centre.
We see this right out of the gate with decent opener, ‘Benzaiten‘, named after the Japanese Buddhist Goddess and which features Alex Teyen from Black Tongue. (And yes, his part is just as fuck-off heavy as you think it is). What starts off as an engaging traditional piece soon explodes into the kind of intense, tightly structured, sub-booming metalcore foray that characterised their debut LP to utter death. As far as their metalcore sound goes, Oceans Ate Alaska arguably do it better than most and I can appreciate that fact as well as their innovation here. That being said, sometimes the metal moments just aren’t as interesting as their non-heavy counterparts are, and at times, they do falter. Like the odd, short-lived nu-metal section on ‘Entrapment‘ – which sounds like these guys straight up copied their mates in The One Hundred – that comes out of nowhere and is never or heard from seen again. Then there are those 2008-sounding, pre-breakdown gang vocals on ‘Covert‘, which just feel so dated and cliche nowadays. And that’s just two examples to be had.
Adding further proof that the best parts of ‘Hikari‘ are when OAA aren’t showing off their heavier tendencies, the dynamic and almost-jazzy beginning of the titular track is just so melodically uplifting and aesthetically pleasing. It’s almost like you’re listening to a whole other band and shows off a wonderfully delicate side of Oceans Ate Alaska that we haven’t really seen before. Which is why as the song morphs into this saccharine metalcore tune do I feel that I’ve been gravely cheated out of something so much more glorious. When the five-piece focuses on the melodious Japanese parts, that’s where their newest record is at its full peak. When they merge such parts with their go-to metalcore approach or just say “fuck it” and go outright heavy (like they do on the mid-album slog, ‘Deadweight‘), it’s not at all bad; it just doesn’t quite reach the high peaks the music sat at prior.
The same applies to the serene instrumental reprieve of ‘Verdical‘ (which is just a fancy way of saying “truthful”). This piece is actually what the rest of album originally stemmed from according to the band, and it’s lo-fi drums and Eastern melodies nicely break up the record’s flow. Well, that is until this once gorgeous interlude gets slammed by Turner’s crazed yet busy drumming and jagged guitar riffs completely override the genuinely interesting elements of the song. Admittedly, from a dynamic and diverse standpoint, I do prefer this mixture overall than just their aggressive, tech-metal sound (i.e. ‘Lost Isles‘) but I can’t help but feel that if they’d let ‘Verdical‘ fully blossom with the Japanese instruments and timbres, it would’ve been for the better.
The opposite of this does occur towards the end of ‘Hikari‘, with the stellar late-game stand out of ‘Ukiyo‘ (meaning “floating world” and relates to Edo-era of Japanese history). Unlike ‘Verdical‘, this is a short song that actually stays well within the band’s new-found sound and influence. And it’s just amazing, so much so that I wish it went for longer its mere 80-seconds. If there was ever proof that Oceans Ate Alaska could make it as a solely instrumental band, then this is the best evidence for that! However, ‘Ukiyo‘ also sadly shows what greater heights could have been in store for this record, had the Japanese idea and inspiration been fleshed out further across the album.
The one album that Oceans Ate Alaska’s ‘Hikari’ made me think of the most while listening to it was August Burns Red’s ‘Found In Far Away Places’; arguably that band’s strongest, most varied and most accomplished record. While I don’t think that ‘Hikari’ is anywhere close to being on the same immense level that ‘Found In Far Away Places’ was and still is, Oceans Ate Alaska have created their most musically interesting and diverse material to date with this second album. When the band embraces this Japanese musical theme and sonic traits fully, that’s when ‘Hikari’ at its very best. While their metalcore and heavier moments don’t ruin the album, they do pull it down off from its high perch. Definitely not to the depraved extent of Upon A Burning Body’s last album, but just enough to sour the overall impact and genuine innovation that ‘Hikari’ displays.
Hopefully, Oceans Ate Alaska continues to experiment their metalcore sound with other genres, traditions and ideas. Becuase eventually, they will strike gold with one such musical combination, and I honestly cannot wait for that day to come!
‘Hikari’ is out Friday, July 28th via Fearless Records. Also, did you notice just how many times I said ‘metalcore’ in this review? Spoiler: it’s a lot.