Album review: Eloy – Ocean

Sometimes beautiful, sometimes ludicrous, never to be mistaken for anything else.

Genre: Progressive rock
Country: Germany
Release date: December 1977
Label: EMI/Harvest
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: 1C 064-32 596

Frank Bornemann – lead vocals, guitars
Klaus-Peter Matziol – bass
Detlev Schmidtchen – keyboards
Jürgen Rosenthal – narration, drums


Poseidon’s Creation



Incarnation of the Logos



Decay of Logos



Atlantis’ Agony at June 5th, 8498, 13 PM Gregorian Earthtime


Total running time:


A mass of contradictions, this album. A deliberately weird and obtuse style of keyboard-driven prog rock at the moment punk was spearheading a radical simplification of rock music, deadly serious but impossible to take entirely seriously, unflinchingly ambitious despite the relatively modest chops of the performers, and aspiring to mythological importance in a language nobody in the band can speak very well (more on that later, I assure you). By all logic, logos even, nothing about this album should work. I normally hate the word “pretentious”, but I have to admit this is probably some of the most pretentious music ever made. Atlantis was already one of the most tired stories ever told by 1977, and it hasn’t gotten any fresher with forty years of New Age books, “History” Channel “documentaries”, and Stargate spinoffs. Yes, it is pretentious, yes, Eloy vastly overextend themselves, and, yes, Frank Bornemann’s singing sounds like Ian Anderson auditioning as a Nazi soldier in Return to Castle Wolfenstein while suffering from a severe case of nasal congestion. Ocean is a completely overblown and ludicrous pile of nonsense and I don’t care, because there is some really cool music in here and a way of approaching progressive rock that no one else has ever tried.

German art-rock and experimental bands typically followed one of three major archetypes: repetitive, hypnotic psychedelic jam and noise bands like Ash Ra Tempel, Can, Neu!, etc. (whose style was given a slick electronic polish by Kraftwerk to become their infamous “motorik” beat), lush synthesizer-driven “Berlin School” ambient groups and musicians like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, and Popol Vuh, and more standard progressive rock bands that generally followed the British model and had more conventional rock instrumentation and songwriting. Eloy started firmly within the third camp as a jammy but rather standard heavy-prog band built around Frank Bornemann’s guitar, but after the original band collapsed in the mid-1970s, Bornemann took complete control and completely changed the band’s sound, downplaying his own guitar and centering new keyboardist Detlev Schmidtchen and bassist Klaus-Peter Matziol, and merging the layered soundscapes of the Berlin school with more traditional prog rock, with funk-inspired bass grooves as the glue holding the style together. After a pleasant but somewhat noncommittal transitional effort in 1976’s Dawn, Ocean shows Eloy’s new sound fully established.

Eloy are a proudly, openly, unrepentantly weird and unfashionable band; they’re not so much uncool as anti-cool, a fearless and defiant negation of the qualities the mainstream expects from a rock band. Frank Bornemann and his collaborators have been plugging away at it off and on since 1971, and while they make superficial changes to the production and the keyboard sounds over time, and vary the length and complication of their song structures, the basic aesthetic of the band has remained roughly the same since Ocean, with lots of analog synthesizer, retro-futuristic arrangements, cover art, lyrics, and well, everything, and significant influence from central and eastern European classical music from the Romantic period—nowhere near as sophisticated as the Romantic composers, of course, since it’s a four-piece rock band and not a 110-piece symphony orchestra, but it’s a distinctly different melodic sensibility from the Anglocentric stylings of British and American art rock bands. There is not a lot of middle ground with Eloy—either their sound speaks to you or it does not, and though they’ve had a following in Germany and later the UK for decades, they never had a chance of mainstream recognition. On the black side of rock influences, Eloy clearly favor jazz and R&B over blues, with the way they like to float their lead guitar and keyboard melodies over a bass groove instead of have the guitar fill both roles at once with riffs and licks, and the drummer’s preference for cymbals and (roto)toms over the bass drum.

I have always been a fan of vintage analog synthesizers; modern synths are generally either cheap-sounding imitations of physical instruments, bass synths for dance music, or sound effects, but in no cases do they have the quirks, inconsistencies, and mannerisms that makes a well-designed acoustic or electric instrument so beautiful and fascinating. Old analog synths like the Moog and early ARP models, however, are both continuously variable and slightly imprecise in their synthesis, and, like traditional instruments, have their own characteristic timbres and registers. Eloy uses these qualities to incredible effect, with no attempt made to make the synth “sound like” this or that instrument, but instead exploiting and highlighting the unusual sonic signatures of these machines. Detlev Schmidtchen’s playing is pretty simple and unadorned compared to the more florid style of his successor Hannes Folberth from the band’s early-’80s output, but he does his job as a provider of harmony and texture and he does it very well, especially when he goes into full-bore Berlin School soundscaping on “Atlantis’ Agony at June 5th 8498, 13 PM Gregorian Earthtime” (yes, that’s what it’s called; if your album is going to be this absurd in its concept, you might as well be utterly brazen about it).

Anchoring these kosmische Musik textures is the excellent bass playing of Klaus-Peter Matziol who is by a considerable margin the most capable musician in this ensemble and remains Eloy’s rhythmic backbone to this day. Ocean’s music is almost uniformly in a range of slowish mid-paced tempos that are difficult to keep interesting for extended periods, as evidenced by hundreds of disposable ‘90s metal bands whose distortion rose in inverse proportion to the number of interesting riffs, but Matziol has a very deft sense of time and, freed of the obligation to support a riffing rhythm guitar with Bornemann having entirely forsaken rock and blues riffs, gets to lock in with Detlev Schmidtchen’s melodic leads instead and create a “pocket” that the other musicians fall comfortably into so the energy level stays high. He’s further bolstered by the excellent production courtesy of EMI (as strange and “out there” as Eloy seem now, they were quite popular in Germany and serious money and engineering talent went into this record), which gives him this extremely full, wide sound, especially when he uses the fretless bass. With a lesser bass player, this album would completely fall apart, especially since his supposed fellow rhythm section musician Jürgen Rosenthal appears only vaguely aware of the music he’s supposed to be drumming on (perhaps caused by the same drugs that inspired him to write the lyrics), and keeps wandering from the beat to play with his roto-toms. He can sweep over them awfully fast—his Rush records must have been almost completely worn out from studying Neil Peart’s fills—but they completely disrupt any sort of synchronization with the bass, especially since Rosenthal doesn’t seem particularly fond of the bass drum. He’s just up there on his roto-toms, rattling away, sort of like Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy, but Portnoy has a much broader arsenal of tricks and gimmicks and manages to be more entertaining. Portnoy also hits a lot harder, while Rosenthal just kind of taps on his drums, making his performance sound wishy-washy—if you’re going to showboat like this, at least dare to commit to it. The ambient elements from the Berlin School help mitigate this since there is simply less need of a powerful drum presence than in more “normal” rock music, but Rosenthal was a liability to the band, plain and simple.

With the massive reduction in rhythm guitar parts compared to previous album, Frank Bornemann serves largely as a composer on Ocean. His most prominent contributions to the musicianship are his solos, especially in “Poseidon’s Creation”, where he even layers multiple lines atop one another with overdubs to create the impression of polyphony (which was made manifest in later live renditions with a second guitarist). The most obvious point of comparison is David Gilmour; he’s got a similar sort of reverby, spaced-out tone to early Pink Floyd recordings with Gilmour, but he’s less bluesy and a bit more inspired by classical music in his approach, and somewhat nimbler with his fingers as well. Not that nimble, mind you; he’s no shredder, but he has a quite nice sense of phrasing that manages to make actual melodies out of his ornamental noodling and make his solos stick in the memory banks. His voice, on the other hand, is also memorable, but for entirely the wrong reasons. He has a minuscule range and a weak voice that’s further hampered by a somewhat shy, hesitant delivery (his confidence would improve on later albums, his actual voice not so much), and during the recitative sections in the first three songs he doesn’t so much sing a melody as kind of give an impression of one. This is combined with an extremely thick German accent that leads to hilarious butcheries like “princely wirgin of clearness [sic] and love” and “daughter of Urse” (“Earth”, not “arse”) to undercut any dramatic intentions of the lyrics.

Greetinks, Urse humans. Ve brink you goot vibrations und terrible Englisch!

Not that they needed any help undercutting their own intentions; they’re written by Jürgen Rosenthal, whose command of English is even worse than Bornemann’s. Some lyric passages devolve into complete nonsense, especially “Decay of Logos”, which seems desperate to pack in as many long Latinate words as it can to sound philosophical but seems unsure as to the actual meaning of many of them. One wonders if they would have been better off with German lyrics; while it might have alienated the international audience, Eloy didn’t really have one until the unexpected success of Colours, Planets, and Time to Turn in the early 1980s in the UK and the rest of western Europe. While it wouldn’t have made the Atlantis story less trite, it would have at least made the telling more cogent, and made Frank Bornemann’s pronunciation no longer a problem.

But who listens to music like this for the lyrics? This is an album that relies almost wholly on its instrumental content, and what it has is very good, if a little sparse—once they get going on a particular theme they stay at it for quite some time, and only “Atlantis’ Agony” has more than three or four primary musical ideas. They develop them fairly well so it’s not too much of a problem. However, while the music is often kind of simple, it is never really straightforward. There are no obvious chord progressions or easy singalong choruses here; everything is esoteric enough to be strange and interesting without being just weird for weirdness’ sake; there is a clear logic holding together these compositions even if it’s not that of traditional rock music. This is actually a much better way of doing prog rock than all the modern prog rock and prog metal bands that simply throw in of meter changes, solos, and long instrumental sections over standard rock songwriting. Eloy accomplish more with a basic synthesizer riff than many prog bands do with a five-minute guitar solo because it’s not obvious.

The clear standout track on this album is the opener “Poseidon’s Creation”, which also appears to be the favorite of their entire career among many fans and is a staple of all of their concerts and compilations. Its Romantic influences clearly show in its long dynamic buildups and breakdowns (which probably would have been even more impressive with modern recording technology to adjust the levels and tones of the instruments on the fly) and three-movement structure. The opening is handled very well with a slow crescendo that adds pieces of the band one by one and alternates consonance and dissonance to give a feeling of rising tension, but the middle section of the song dampens the momentum a bit by having to work around Bornemann’s awkward vocal lines, so the arrangements are stripped down to mostly keyboard atmospherics, which are nice enough, but a bit static on their own. However, Bornemann eventually shuts up and the song moves to its absolutely sublime final movement with some absolutely phenomenal bass grooves from Matziol underneath alternating keyboard and guitar leads. It’s propulsive and energetic and I’d be surprised if “Poseidon’s Creation” has never been sampled by a ‘90s hip-hop song somewhere.

Another great track is “Atlantis’ Agony”, but only if you can get past the speech that Jürgen Rosenthal delivers at the beginning—completely unaccompanied, this bumbling oaf, with an even worse accent than Bornemann, drones out an incoherent and absolutely hilarious stream of prophetic mystical bullshit that mixes mythologies with no explanation (apparently Zeus has a hotline to call up the Egyptian gods because Ra and Hathor are dispatched to destroy Atlantis for…some reason). He speaks in the deepest voice he can muster, even if it’s clearly uncomfortable for him, and his halting delivery and egregious pronunciation make something that should be spiritual and transcendent (if it had anything spiritual and transcendent to say, anyway; it does not) a complete farce. Once the organ starts up though, it’s all good, but this is prog that is on the verge of leaving rock music behind altogether, so if you want stomping, aggressive fun, this isn’t it. The music is a mixture of Berlin School soundscaping and classical dirge with Matziol’s bass trudging forward with the inevitability of death. It feels less like a sudden catastrophe as the fall of Atlantis is usually imagined than a slow slide into decay and ultimately ruin, culminating in a beautiful and chilling analog synth solo pregnant with fear and despair and Bornemann’s lament of “we are a particle in the ocean” which is the most emotionally resonant he ever gets with his singing, not least because this time the music continues unabated instead of contorting itself to fit his attempt at a leading melody. The ending is very curious; it starts to speed up and get more and more frantic as if building towards some “The Gates of Delirium” instrumental extravaganza where they pull out all the guns and break into a frantic flurry of rapid-fire ideas and twiddly solos but it just kind of peters out right where you would expect it to really blow up. I’m all for not doing the obvious thing, but this of all moments should be when you fulfill the audience’s anticipation instead of subverting it.

Overall, I love this album sentimentally, but I cannot recommend it in general terms. You will either “get” Eloy and their aesthetic or you won’t, and this album lacks the musicianship, complexity, and polish to really stand up to critical scrutiny. It’s ambitious and sweeping but also slipshod in a way that whether it is endearing or annoying depends on the individual listener. If you are interested, I recommend smoking a lot of weed (because you better believe Eloy themselves did) and listening to “Poseidon’s Creation” and making your decision based on that. If you like it, this album will probably be your bag, but if not, Eloy—any Eloy—will probably not appeal to you at all. It’s a weird, flawed, rough album that happens to speak to me on some primal level I can’t fully articulate, and whatever quality that does so also speaks to enough people to have sustained Eloy’s career for over 45 years without the benefit of major media exposure or canonization by rock critics. And that’s no small accomplishment.

Rating: 70%

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