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Devin Townsend - Ocean Machine - Biomech CD (album) cover

OCEAN MACHINE - BIOMECH

Devin Townsend

 

Experimental/Post Metal

4.01 | 352 ratings

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lukretio
4 stars Ocean Machine: Biomech is the first solo release by prog metal wizard Devin Townsend (the second if you consider Punky Br'ster's 1996 album Cooked on Phonics to be the first official release in Devin Townsend's solo career, as some do). Curiously, Ocean Machine: Biomech was not released under Townsend's name initially, but under the artist name 'Ocean Machine', with the album titled 'Biomech'. Subsequent releases of the album used instead 'Devin Townsend' as the artist's name and the name of the album became 'Ocean Machine: Biomech'. The album was first released in 1997. Much of the material was actually written a couple of years prior, but problems with recording and production significantly delayed the record's final release. On Ocean Machine, Townsend plays guitar, keyboards and sings and is accompanied by Marty Chapman on drums and JR Harder (who had also played on the Punky Br'ster's record) on bass.

Although the music on Ocean Machine is considerably lighter and more accessible than many of Townsend's later releases, the trademark elements of his sound are all already here. The songs revolve around groovy riffs of distorted, layered guitars that are repeated obsessively throughout each composition. Keyboards and sound effects are layered on top of the guitars to create a wall of sound that envelopes the listener and transports them into a parallel sonic universe. Bass and drums do not do much more than keeping a steady tempo, but that's all the compositions need, really. Most songs stretch past the 4 minutes mark, and some are 8, 10 and 12 minutes long. Despite their length, the structure of most songs is actually quite simple, with only a handful of riffs being played throughout each song. The simple, stretched song structures and the layered arrangements bring to mind krautrock, space rock, as well as the most experimental stuff by Pink Floyd ' all music that plays on mood and atmosphere, rather than on technical show-off.

The thick, immersive musical background sets an ideal stage for Devin's vocal melodies. His voice weaves in and out of the instrumental background and sometimes is nearly buried underneath it, but it is always arresting, also thanks to the passion and energy Devin injects into his varied delivery, using clean voice, falsetto and screamed vocals. It is Devin's versatile and emotional voice that makes songs like 'Seventh Wave', 'Night', 'Funeral', 'Bastard' and 'The Death of Music' unforgettable moments of the album.

The album contains some spectacular compositions, like those I just mentioned, but I am not convinced it is the masterpiece that some think it is. To these ears, about a third of the material on this record is pretty weak. The production could also be better, as the album sounds a tad too loud, muddy and 'dirty' (but maybe that was the intention). Moreover, the structure of the LP is far from optimal, with all the best material appearing at the end of the record, after a rather dull stream of mediocre songs.

The album can be roughly divided into three parts. The first consists of the first four songs, from 'Seventh Wave' to 'Hide Nowhere'. These tracks are of medium length and are perhaps the most straightforward material of the album, relying on standard verse/chorus structures and melodies that are accessible and even catchy ('Life'). 'Seventh Wave' and 'Night' are good songs, packed with strong vocal melodies and punchy riffs. I am less enthusiastic about 'Life', whose pop ambitions make it a tad too bland, and 'Hide Nowhere', which I find rather forgettable.

The record then transitions to a second section comprised of shorter, more varied material, from 'Sisters' to 'Regulator'. This is the part of the album that I find weakest. It is too fragmented, with songs like 'Sisters', '3 A.M.' and 'Greetings' being little more than sparse interludes that, somewhat inexplicably, have been all put close to one another. 'Voices in the Fan' is quite weak melodically and again passes by without leaving any strong impression. 'Regulator' is much better, it has a hard edge in the guitar riff and the vocals that livens things up and manages to catch back my attention just in time, as I often find myself drifting off during the preceding four tracks.

The last part of the album, the 30 minutes of 'Funeral', 'Bastard' and 'The Death of Music', are simply magnificent. In fact, if the album had only consisted of these three songs, I would have perhaps given it full marks. Those 30 minutes of music come close to a religious experience for me. The repetitiveness of the riffs, the layers of sound, the gorgeous vocal melodies, and the poignant lyrics, all combine to create an immersive and emotionally-charged atmosphere that leaves the listener almost in a trance state. 'Funeral' is gentle, with a semi-acoustic feel but it swells in volume and intensity towards the end. 'Bastard' is an absolute masterpiece and is divided in two parts, the first epic and desperate, the second mellower and more peaceful. 'The Death of Music' is a weird, experimental song that is sustained by the same, minimal sequence of drum beats for all its 12 minutes. It starts with background noise and voices, before Devin comes in with one of the most beautiful vocal melodies of the entire album. Eerie yet incredibly emotional, this is a song that does indeed feel 'like when death becomes musical', as Devin sings on the refrain.

Ocean Machine: Biomech is a strong artistic statement from one of the most unique voices in the progressive metal universe. All the trademark elements of Townsend's sound are already present here, which is impressive for a debut album. Moreover, the record has a youthful exuberance and recklessness that are endearing and have surely contributed to the creation of authentic masterpieces like 'Bastard' and 'The Death of Music'. On the other hand, this youthful inexperience is probably also responsible for the suboptimal album structure and the unfortunate inclusion of songs that are not as well developed or strong as the rest of the material. Despite the mixed bag of impressive and mediocre, Ocean Machine is a great album that I recommend to anyone interested in exploring the music of Devin Townsend.

lukretio | 4/5 |

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