Assumedly with the help of a breathing apparatus, we’ve watched nu metal cling to life for the past decade. That, or we thought it was dead one moment before it reappeared the next to remind us it’s still here. If you recall Gordon Lightfoot’s reemergence on late night television a few years back following rumors of his demise, it’s been kind of like that.
You can thank (or not thank) a few bands for that, but most recently, an Australian group named Ocean Grove.
Australia is known for its flourishing metal scene, which — unlike its mostly underground status in the U.S. and elsewhere — has risen to high popularity nationwide. Parkway Drive, Northlane, and I Killed the Prom Queen are a few of the handful of successful metal bands from Down Under. In an interview I did with Northlane a few years ago, I mentioned that their album Node peaked at number one on their homeland’s music charts. It’s something I never could imagine happening in the U.S. to any metal band, let alone Northlane. But Australia has been scouring the depths of its populace for the best music there is, and a lot of it is coming from the heavier genres.
Take one listen to Ocean Grove, who just released their debut full-length on Rise Records this months, and you’d think they had recently emerged from the California coast (and perhaps a Pacific beach surf). That’s mostly because their sound reeks of nu metal — and not in a bad way, either. The genre that had its fun in the sun in ‘90s America is somehow still breathing, and that’s due to the artistic hand of a variety of bands who grew up listening to Cali natives Korn and Linkin Park. But unlike My Ticket Home and Of Mice & Men, two U.S. acts who turned to nu metal tendencies in recent albums, Ocean Grove is Australian born and bred.
The six piece comes from Melbourne, a southern city that requires a 90-minute drive around the Port Phillip Bay to their namesake of Ocean Grove (a.k.a. the members’ shortest trek to the Indian Ocean). It’s easy as an American to confuse it with the New Jersey community of the same name, but we’re talking about a throwback to ‘90s metal, not ‘90s emo. It also might also be easy to confuse their new album with a DJ Clue mix, considering it’s called Rhapsody Tapes and opens with a track called “What I Love About a Natural Woman”.
By the time you get your head on straight and give it a legitimate listen, though, you’ll realize this is something more. With a brand of modern metalcore doused in old school nu metal leanings, their rookie release is a vivid and stylish product of its inspirations, as well as that 90 minute journey around the bay.
For the most part, too, it’s done right. It’s tough to say whether it’s as good as My Ticket Home’s raucous 2013 Strangers Only, an LP that showcased a band obviously tired of their typical generic metalcore formula and wanting to change things up a bit. Of course, that all depends on how it holds up, and MTH’s most recent release has to a high degree (the fans who threw down to “Spit Not Chewed” on their tour with Beartooth last year can attest to this).
What Ocean Grove succeeds at where so many other bands have failed in recent years is establishing a fresh vibe. Of Mice & Men’s nu metal approach came off as tired and bland on Restoring Force, and frontman Austin Carlile drawing comparisons to Nickelback leading up to its release didn’t help whet the appetites of their eager fanbase. Yet, even compared to Bring Me the Horizon and The Plot in You, there’s something a tad more special about Ocean Grove’s execution on their debut.
Take a gander at “These Boys Light Fires”, another song that makes you think it was accidentally lifted from an R&B playlist, for an understanding of what I mean. The two guitars blend aggressive hardcore and squealing groove metal, and — especially thanks to extremely sharp production — the track shines above most other nu metal revival efforts in recent memory. The vocals create a similar duality, with Luke Holmes’ harsh fry screams contrasting with Dale Tanner’s echoing cleans. The description probably makes you think Carlile and Shayley Bourget. But luckily, this isn’t an Of Mice & Men ripoff — and especially not 2014 Of Mice & Men, as the world would not be ready for that.
Once the firestorm of flashy, hyper-layered instrumentation comes to an end, “When You’re This High You Can Say What You Like” follows up the seventh track with a ghastly party metal affair of the highest grade. An ominous backing atmosphere does the song a lot of justice, or else the combination of juicy riffs and “la la la”s may have sounded like Blink-182. The dark ambiance coating the record — from its graffiti-laden cover to its eerie electronics and background noises — gives it some much-needed personality and standout ability in a contemporary metalcore genre needing more of both.
The tone is also notable in “Intimate Alien”, where semi-rapped spoken word falls somewhere between engrossing and offputting (even if it surpasses the awkwardness of Parkway Drive’s from last year). The attempts at divergence aren’t always successful, but the efforts are welcome in a genre mired by consistency to the point of mediocrity.
Rap-rock vocals have been a cringeworthy nu metal element ever since Disturbed’s The Sickness, or maybe (okay, likely) even before that. Linkin Park stood apart by providing the two styles without blending them for the most part. Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda transitioned between rapping or singing, but never left their comfort zone with either. The implementation of what they did so well ultimately helped heighten the genre to an imminent 2003 collapse following the success of Meteora and touring with the likes of Metallica. The decline was set in stone when Minutes to Midnight later turned the band from nu metal to alternative rock — even if Godsmack and Staind failed to lengthen its existence by telling 2009 it’s still 2001.
But the heavy influence of the genre in modern bands doesn’t always come across well, either. Most of the time, it’s seen as a shallow and trendy effort to revitalize the metalcore genre. Take a listen to most of the recent Rise Records signees who have played some sort of metallic style with industrial and hip-hop influence, and I bet you’re more likely to play Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” than ever giving any of it a second chance.
On the other hand, where Ocean Grove and My Ticket Home have succeeded is their unfiltered attitude of “anything goes.” The genre needs risk-takers, even if it means the execution isn’t always perfect. That’s the aspect of nu metal that made it so attractive — for better or worse — to heavy music fans in the late ‘90s. It’s weird, angry, and sometimes even disgusting, but it’s never half-assed. Plus, it has personality. Why else would MTH coin the term “puke rock” to describe the sound they captured on their 2013 release?
By the time the genre had made it to the mainstream in the early 2000s, a lot of that vibe was lost in the shadow of sold-out stadiums. As commercially sound as Hybrid Theory and P.O.D.’s Satellite were, it established a precedent that nu metal needed to focus first on shiny melodies and big hooks. Most of the ability to take risks had disappeared, as industry leaders tend to dictate stability over chance. Heavy music saw an inevitable departure from its unique underground dynamic when it hit the mainstream in the 2000s, which then let to an inevitable decline in its popularity once too many bands began doing the same thing.
Believe it or not, people — even the shallowest of music fans — eventually venture to something different. It’s what brought metal and punk to MTV in the first place, but unfortunately, the ability to forecast the future is too difficult for music experts to prevent at least some saturation in the present.
2010s metalcore has been suffering from the same problem for several years, just without major labels and radio play coming into question. Amid the complacency of the Of Mice & Mens and Memphis May Fires of the current scene, who will step up and create the next iteration of Korn’s wacky beatboxing or Disturbed’s throaty screeching?
The Ongoing Concept, Silent Planet, and letlive. have all been uncompromising in their sonic pursuits, and I can’t help but feel Ocean Grove deserves recognition as well. At the very least, they have high potential. What they do on The Rhapsody Tapes doesn’t always work, but it’s far more interesting to listen to something different that 60% works than something the same that 90% works. The weird electronic/trip-hop interludes mimic Enter Shikari but fit like square pegs in a circle hole of an album. Fortunately, they merely bridge the gaps between metalcore bangers and pack a little experimentation into the disc’s runtime.
The band tries so many different things on their debut that it’s admirable in its own right. They’ve proven that nu metal is still alive, regardless of whether it rose from life support or the dead. That thought alone may frustrate heavy music fans, especially the ones who hated nu metal back in the day and still hate it today. But the ones willing to give it a chance may realize this isn’t an orthodox mix of old school and modern metal. Rather, it’s got enough meat to warrant an entire editorial about it.
Ocean Grove does what so many other bands need to do: honor to your influences, and do so by using them to make your sound your own. Metalcore, if this is a sign of change, I’m buckled in and ready for the ride.