Released: October 1, 2007
If you could listen to any record again for the first time, which one would you choose? It’s the sort of question that makes for a perfect icebreaker in a crowded room (remember those?) because of the variety of answers it’s sure to inspire. After all, few things evoke shades of nostalgia like the memory of your fifteen-year-old self discovering your soon-to-be favorite album.
More than a decade has passed since Oceansize released what many fans consider the band’s magnum opus, Frames. Combining their prog-tinged, alt-rock roots with a further exploration of their slow-burn post-rock dynamic, the album provided fans an enduring testament to the band’s creative abilities. Frames did little to change the Manchester group’s trajectory (Oceansize would soon break up), but whether the dusty jewel case is still sitting on your shelf or a wayward google search for Jane’s Addiction (more on that later) brought you to this page, it’s a certifiable masterpiece that warrants revisiting.
Now, to properly assess this or any release, it’s important to provide a little context. We can retrace the roots of Oceansize back to the late ’90s, where the core members met while attending school in Manchester. Following a relatively brief incubation period, a line-up soon coalesced under the name Oceansize—a not-so-subtle nod to one of the group’s biggest collective influences, Jane’s Addiction. While the story behind the band’s career could fill a novel, singer Mike Vennart, ever the wordsmith, offers this brilliantly concise summary: “Oceansize made 4 full albums, several lengthy EPs and toured the world for twelve long-ass, schizophrenic years, in the process owning their own studio and inspiring the Superball imprint of Inside Out Records. Critically acclaimed but commercially maligned, Oceansize won over the hearts and minds of dudes-in-bands the world over. Despite being rejected by the music business at large, they toured with artists as varied as Mclusky, Porcupine Tree, Faith No More, Smashing Pumpkins and Biffy Clyro.”
Despite Vennart’s unflinching assessment, Oceansize’s audience certainly consisted of more than just ‘dudes-in bands’—after all, most of those ‘dudes’ had girlfriends. Stateside, a feature on the uber-popular teen drama The O.C. exposed the band to the masses, and for the briefest of moments, Oceansize ‘crossed’ over. In the wake of a cresting wave of success surrounding their second album, “Everyone in Position,” few would have blamed Vennart and Co. if they’d decided to double down on the crowd-pleasing elements of their sound, but the band had other ideas.
As is the case with so many definitive albums, Oceansize wrote and recorded Frames during a turbulent period marked by the unexpected departure of founding bassist Jon Ellis and the search for a new record label. Rather than retreat to the comfort of the past, the band ventured into the unknown and delivered a record that’s as pensive as it is pummeling.
It becomes clear within seconds of the hypnotic album-opener, “Commemorative __ T-Shirt,” that Frames ‘sounds’ amazing (thanks in no small part to producer Chris Sheldon). Those citing Mark Heron as the backbone of the band finally had irrefutable evidence of the drummer’s prowess as his nuanced playing was placed front and center in the crystal-clear mix. The blistering follow-up track “Unfamiliar” just so happens to be the most ‘familiar’ sounding number on the album and highlights the band’s potent triple-guitar attack (rounded out by Steve Durose). Meanwhile, the piano-driven epic “Trail of Fire” displayed a newfound emphasis on Richard “Gambler” Ingram’s keyboard work.
From there, the record sets aside convention in favor of reinvention. There are orchestral treatments (“Savant”), simmer-to-a-boil dynamics (“Only Twin”), a shoegaze instrumental highlighting new bassist Steven Hodson (“An Old Friend of the Christies”), and even a good ol’ fashioned de-tuned math-rock monster (“Sleeping Dogs and Dead Lions”). It may sound like a jarring mashup of styles, but repeated listens ultimately reveal that Frames is a surprisingly cohesive listen, especially given the variety of ground it covers. Even the album cover, a stark, simple ink drawing (provided by Nine Inch Nails alum Robin Finck) cast against a blood-red canvas, seems to underscore the band’s desire for listeners to close their eyes and focus on the music.
For all of their instrumental prowess, it was Mike Vennart’s voice that often provided a much-needed sense of balance to the band’s music, imbuing the experimental tendencies and propensity for musical excess with a human touch. From a vocal standpoint, the singer never sounded more comfortable or confident than he does on Frames, all but shedding the ‘Mike Patton-isms’ that colored his singing on previous outings. Lyrically, Vennart pushed himself to new heights, augmenting his typically cryptic musings with some of his most candid, arresting prose of his career. Propelled by a ruminative refrain of “I am not the picture now, I am the frame,” the album-closing quasi-title track is a fitting reminder of Vennart’s poetic prowess.
Released on October 1st, 2007, Frames was greeted with fairly positive reviews but failed to reach the commercial heights of its predecessor. Four years and one album (2010’s Self Preserved…) later, the band would unceremoniously break up via social media, offering fans little in the way of an explanation. Over the years, various members have discussed the matter of reunions in the press, but the “irreconcilable differences” have proven insurmountable. While countless bands have proven that, for a price, any version of musical hell can be thawed, the various members of Oceansize seem content to let those sleeping dogs.
So, where are they now? Well, Mike Vennart, who’s spent much of the past decade playing live with Biffy Clyro, has quietly released a trio of highly recommended solo albums under the Vennart moniker. With appearances by former members Durose and Ingram, it’s about as close as fans can get to ‘classic’ Oceansize. The electronica-tinged British Theatre (featuring Vennart and Gambler) also bears mentioning, but the list of projects goes on and on for anyone so inclined.
Like a myriad of other bands (here’s looking at you, Failure) that seemed to arrive fifteen minutes early to their own proverbial party, Oceansize will probably never enjoy the critical reappraisal they deserve, but as anyone who was there from the beginning can attest, a quiet exile to the appendices of music history seems far more in line with what the band would prefer. Regardless, Frames is the rare example of a record that hardly sounds ‘of its time,’ a fact that only adds to its incredibly high replayability factor. Sure, every hardcore fan will have their own opinion as to which release serves as the high-water mark for Oceansize, and I’ll fully admit that a case can be made for any of their albums, but for my money, Frames is their peak.
So, if a thousand or so words haven’t already tipped my hand, I guess I’ll go ahead and share my answer: if I could choose one record again for the first time, I’d choose Frames. And to anyone lucky enough to stumble upon this Oceansize record for the first time, I envy you.