(Napalm Records, 2009)
By Noel Oxford
Do Ahab love whales, or do they hate them? It’s not easy to say. With The Divinity of Oceans, they complete a trifecta of whaling-disaster themed recordings begun with 2005’s Oath EP. Predictably, this ‘Nantucket Saga’ draws heavily for inspiration from Moby-Dick, the only Victorian fishing trip storybook anyone really needs. Not content to leave it at that, however, for this latest record Ahab have folded in themes from historical accounts of the Whaleship Essex, sunk in 1820 to utterly horrifying effect. Ahab are either painting whales to be complete sea-going bastards, or they’re telling us that, historically, whaling hasn’t been a career over-laden with prospects. You tell me.
Thematically,Divinty’s pretty heavyweight stuff, full of death, isolation, cannibalism and even nicotine withdrawal. The music provides one heck of an atmosphere to match. Not merely a grim sense of misgiving and doom, but the sort of skull-cracking ‘atmosphere’ one can best experience at 2,000 fathoms beneath the surface of the Pacific.
Riffs embark at a pace best described as deliberate, underpinning lead guitars that howl with haunting, melodic foreboding across epic songs no shorter than seven minutes. Drums are spare, while vocals that sound like a tombstone being dragged down the pavement blend into the overall soundscape. The listener bobs around, lost in this limitless aquatic desolation like a cork in a pedalo pool, staring helplessly up as the stars come out one by one, waiting for the sharks to circle.
Such abject dread is in the bones of O Father Sea, a tune that heaves between a placid, almost operatic vocal break and a churning, chugging section that might be the fastest drummer Cornelius Althammer has ever played – on an Ahab record at least. Gnawing Bones (Coffin’s Lot) boils down the emotional chaos that results from confronting the fact that survival can only come at the cost of of one’s soul.
Nickerson’s Theme is named for the Essex’s 14-year-old cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, and caps the album by foregrounding the quieter elements of Ahab’s sound, draping gently picked refrains around a lyrical skeleton that reiterates the whole thing, and which bespeaks the incredible weight of this teenager’s transformative experience. The album, and the song, both end on a note of dismal resolve, a clog-wearing riff wound around an arpeggiated lead. This final tune sums up the entire thrust of the album, and in the end, Ahab’s depiction of the sea’s deadly siren song might have you thinking twice about bathing, never mind taking a dip next time you visit Clacton.
You have to admire Ahab’s commitment to Divinity’s concept, and returning to the matter that inspired Herman Melville in the first place sets down a narrative framework that is somehow more gripping, oppressive and bleak than even Moby-Dick. So well does it lend itself to this stately march that it lifts the record far above its rather nichey genre roots, though you’ll likely need the lyric sheet to make much sense out of it.
The Divinity of Oceans is a solid album, as solid as they get. And as far as doom metal goes, Ahab aren’t just good; they’re ‘whaley’ good.
Shut up, it’s my best joke.