Concept albums are still, for some ludicrous reason, sneered at by many people – presumably the same sort of people who think that novels are a waste of space and that all books should just consist of short stories, or who think that ongoing stories in TV series are the height of pretension. Why a sense of ambition and story telling (or simply thematic coherency) is seen as such a threat to rock music is anyone’s guess, but there it is – concept albums (and the accompanying progressive rock movement) was scoffed at by punk in 1977 and so must be scoffed at forever more.
Of course, that isn’t to say that all conceptual rock has validity. As with any other art forms, there will the good, the bad, the downright ridiculous and the heroic failure. I’m not quite sure which of the latter two categories Floating Worlds’ Battleship Oceania quite belongs to.
Some background. Floating Worlds are a Greek metal band who have, rather astonishingly, been around for twenty one years with one line-up or another, which is a long time to not make any sort of impact. I might be selling them short – for all I know, they are huge in their home country. Battleship Oceania is their third album, after previous efforts in 2007 and 2012, so we can hardly say that they are inclined to churn stuff out. The concept here is a play on the ‘ghost ship’ concept, perhaps a twist on the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which will become more significant in a moment, so bear with me): the titular Battleship is sent on a mission to destroy a passenger ship that is allegedly full of terrorists, but in fact is only carrying civilians. The Gods of the Sea are angered by this massacre and damn the ship and its crew to eternal life and indestructibility – which seems a curious way of stopping them from carrying out more destruction, but what do I know? But hope for salvation beckons when it is discovered that someone on board knows more about the massacre than they have revealed…
This plot is laid out in a pretty straightforward manner – some concept albums need a plot synopsis just to work out what the hell the story is, but you will pick up the story here from the lyrics, that leave no room for ambiguity. This is good and bad – good because there’s nothing wrong in a coherent narrative, bad because it leaves little room for interpretation. Musically, it’s unapologetic symphonic metal, the emphasis on the epic, which it manages to achieve only sporadically to be fair. Jon Soti’s vocals seem to lack the authority that the material demands, and – I’m aware that this is a bit of an unfair criticism, but it has to be said – the lyrics and pronunciations sometimes suffer from that whole ‘not in their first language’ problem, which makes the often literal lyrical explanation of the story a bit cumbersome and clunky. And frankly, the story feels a bit thin by the time it has played out.
I found myself reminded of Iron Maiden’s Empire of the Clouds – their epic retelling of the story of the R101 – while listening tho this album, but that doesn’t work to Floating Worlds’ benefit. There is a similar mix of the orchestral and epic, the historical drama and the on-the-nose lyrics, but Maiden pull this off with aplomb while Floating Worlds seem to flounder – perhaps because they take over 70 minutes to tell this story as opposed to Maiden’s eighteen minute story. Notably, of course, Maiden also managed to squeeze their reworking of Rime of the Ancient Mariner into an impressive sixteen minute piece. Less is definitely more in this case.
It might seem that I’m being overly harsh on this ambitious project, and in truth there’s some solid power metal at work here – instrumental opener Oceania is a solid slice of riff-laden rock that sets things up nicely, and I can’t help but wish that the band had decided to tell this story simply as a soundtrack – tracks like Retribution are rather excellent until and beyond the point where the vocals and voluminous lyrics kick in, but only The Last Goodbye seems to match the pomp and the circumstance together to full effect, though this too manages to throw it all away in the last couple of minutes. Ironically, the best track might be the operatic and atmospheric Divine Love, which features guest lead vocals by Zinovia Deliiganni and soprano vocals from Athina Kamariti – having the atypical track as the stand out is perhaps not the intention. The band are unquestionably musically accomplished, but there’s more to music than mere technical ability. The simple fact is that this album can’t quite match the ambition of the concept. A pity really, because there is obviously a great deal of passion involved here and it’s always nice to see bands trying to stretch beyond the tyranny of the three minute single. That the band are unable to pull it off is a shame. But there it is.