The Smashing Pumpkins’ seventh “official” studio full-length, Oceania, is an “album within an album,” as it has been placed in the middle of the band’s ongoing 44-song long Teargarden by Kaleidyscope concept album project that started in 2009.
After a tepid response to the one-song-at-a-time approach of this ambitious album project and the death of good friend and collaborator Mark Tulin (of the legendary psychedelic group Electric Prunes) in early 2011, head Pumpkin Billy Corgan got inspired to commit himself and his bandmates to making a proper album once again. After a year’s worth of writing and recording in Arizona and his home state of Illinois (between 2010 and 2011), it was just a matter of time before the highly anticipated album was finally released after having been initially slated for an early September 2011 date. That day finally arrived on June 19.
Corgan, ace guitarist Jeff Schroeder, and drummer Mike Byrne waste no time getting aggressive on the first two (Drop-D-tuned) rock jams, “Quasar” and “Panopticon.” The numerous solo flourishes and slight delay effect-aided electric guitars make the former track stand out, along with some spiritual lyrics like “Yod He Va Hey Om,” which could’ve been influenced by Corgan’s time spent with psychedelic rock pals Ya Ho Wah 13 about four years ago. The latter track features more radio-friendly choruses, and highly musical bass lines, courtesy of Nicole Fiorentino (ex-Veruca Salt, Light FM).
The cool, summery vintage synths of “Violet Rays” recall Yes, but with its theme of loneliness and distorted ballad-like guitar strums, it all makes for a rather new sound for the band. Similarly, the synths and strings of “One Diamond, One Heart” show this to be the happier cousin of “Violet Rays.” But when first listening to “One’s” opening beats, one might recall the Adore era, and the start of that album’s soft rocking storytelling gem, “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete” in particular.
Aside from the pleasantly heavy “The Chimera,” which has traces of “Frail & Bedazzled” from 1994’s Pisces Iscariot (one of the greatest compilation albums of all time), and the aforementioned first two cuts, other tracks that can be construed as rockers include “My Love Is Winter” and “Glissandra.” “My Love” is a real treat and is a much improved version than the live version from a few years back; it’s longer and really allows Schroeder to shine and wail away.
The true winner of the album is the nearly 10-minute, three-part title track, which sees the subject trying to redeem his love. It starts with almost gothic, lonely synths and melodic ’80s-like sounds when the full band comes in. Then the heartaching breakdown that constitutes part two (the “Try the way on me” part), and the high-end guitar riffs near the end of part three make for one of the most memorable long jams Corgan has written since “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” from Mellon Collie.
Speaking of ’80s vibes, the opening guitar riffs to the bright, electronic sounds-aided “Pinwheels” evoke New Order, and the beat to “Pale Horse” could easily be tracked back to that decade as well. At the same time, these songs (and the title track) don’t sound like ’80s songs for long. Perhaps that has something to do with Bjorn Thorsrud (Monster Magnet, Bruce Dickinson, Dandy Warhols), who has worked on every single official SP release going back to 1998’s underrated Adore record. He and Corgan co-produced the new full-length, and made sure to make its overall sound live in the present, with loud, roaring guitars where they need to be, and quieter textures (vintage synths or other sounds) mixed in to give it depth and balance.
One of the other gems on Oceania is its first single, “The Celestials,” with its easygoing acoustic strummed chords alongside orchestral touches, followed by Fiorentino’s very pronounced and expressive bass lines and U2-ish guitar lines.
When you get done listening to this album, you will no doubt realize Corgan still has the ability to write great albums. But you should without question realize that his new bandmates like Byrne and Fiorentino (along with Schroeder, the lone holdover from the Zeitgeist era) have helped him get the most out of his music, more so than any other previous group of bandmates. The only true collaborator for any length of time, Jimmy Chamberlin, is long gone and with new group Skysaw, but Byrne, the new kid on the block, is every bit as thunderous and dynamic behind the kit as he was. And Byrne is just 22 years old and barely three years into his time with SP.
Fiorentino is clearly the best bassist Corgan’s ever recorded with (as I still think Melissa Auf der Maur was the best bassist he played with live, brief as that time was in the year SP initially called it quits in 2000). On all previous SP albums, D’Arcy Wretzky too often couldn’t record her bass lines well; the same was true of ex-rhythm guitarist James Iha of his parts, so Corgan was forced to do them himself. Thus, when so-called fans wish Corgan would get the band to sound like it did when James and D’Arcy were on board during the Gish and Siamese Dream eras, they have no idea what they are talking about. Sorry but it’s true. The only albums they really contributed to were Mellon Collie, Adore and some of Machina… (but even then, Corgan still wrote about 99% of the material).
What it all comes down to is that Oceania is the most consistently good Smashing Pumpkins album since Machina… and the best since Adore. With the exception of final so-so track “Wildflower” (which ends the album on a little bit of a whimper like “Pomp and Circumstances” did on 2007’s Zeitgeist, which was a few tracks away from being a truly great comeback record), the album is full of winners. It may take some time getting used to the new Pumpkins sound—which actually isn’t so radically new if you paid attention to and count very good, uplifting Teargarden songs like “Freak” and “Owata.” But then again, that’s what fans had to do regarding the band’s first four albums (from Gish to Adore), all of which were different from their predecessors and all of which are now, more or less regarded as classics. Add this to that list.
Photo credit for Fiorentino and Corgan image: Thrash Hits.