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Album Review: Oceania by Smashing Pumpkins

Pumpkins are back. But are they still smashing?
by Gelo Gonzales | Jun 21, 2012
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Dubbed by front man Billy Corgan as ‘an album within an album (er, meta-album?),’ Oceania is a sub-collection of 13 tracks released in the middle of a 44-song project called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope.

It opens with "Quasar" and "Panopticon," an aggressive welcome of thundering drums and tight strumming hinted with the similar birr of old songs like "Zero" and "Silverfuck."

As if proving a point, Corgan made sure to showcase the new members’ musicianship in these tracks.

"The Celestials" is a lyrically unattractive song that breaks the concrete sound with a soft hum of acoustic guitars, violin, and lines like “I may seem unafraid/ and I may seem unashamed/ But I will be special K.”

We wonder if this is a Placebo reference or if Corgan just likes a certain brand of cereal.

"My Love Is Winter" has a contagious intro that pulls the listener into a whirlpool of guitar layers; it could have been less perplexing without the overkill of keys and synth. With its misplaced electronic and cheesy pop song-feel, "One Diamond, One Heart" showed an unsettling transformation.

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The same goes for the "Cupid De Locke" re-attempt in "Pinwheels." It begins in absorbing keys and waveforms, sliding through an atmospheric funnel of wrenched guitars and a baffling acoustic mellow down.

Thankfully, the second half of Oceania is an epiphany. The latter six songs prove that Billy Corgan is the only Pumpkin needed to re-construct the band’s backbone. No matter how arrogant or experimental his visions are, Corgan still knows the kinds of songs that can tug hearts and make wistful memories fleet.

"Inkless" opens with swerving guitars and the familiar vocal execution that will automatically shift the listener to the illustrious Siamese Dream-Mellon Collie era. Fans like to be reminded why their emotions respond to the band with a swift charge from the past, and this song does this well. "Glissandra" and "Wildflower" have the same feel, thanks to that acquainted distortion stitched to the band’s blanket of sound. 

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"Pale Horse" is a refreshing construction of resonances spanned by a main chord that had the tuneful characteristics of the organ and guitar parts in Elbow’s "With Love." Punched with keys and an exalted greeting of reverb and distortion, "Wildflower" is a slow-moving last track that sums up the collective sound of the album: hazy and dicey but still compelling.

New bassist Nicole Fiorentino’s heavy plucking in the glorious 9-minute title track says she’s in it for the respect and a spot in the elite hot female bassist club. Not a stranger to nineties rock, Fiorentino played and toured with Veruca Salt and Spinerettes (Brody Dalle’s side project) before joining Corgan in 2010. Most of her chord play and backing vocals in the album will remind fans of Paz Lenchantin’s stint in Zwan, but it doesn’t mean Fiorentino can’t fill the post left by the likes of Wretzky and Auf Der Maur.

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Although effective and skillful, new guitarist Jeff Schroeder must have gotten used to performing James Iha’s EBow-heavy riffs and solos during live sets because clearly, he hasn’t offered anything new for Oceania.  Schroeder is officially a member, but all we’re hearing are the chops of a skilled squash mimicking the brightness and taste of the Pumpkin that has left the garden.

If there’s anything that’s deserves all the praise in this album, it’s the electrifying drumming of Mike Byrne. It’s tough enough to inherit Jimmy Chamberlain’s throne, let alone be able to overthrow the remnants of his legacy. But the prodigious 22-year-old did his best to unearth the kind of drum energy present in Gish until Machina: nostalgic but totally fresh, dexterous and sharp. His slick-yet-subtle sensibility is magnified in the "Tristessa"-ish "The Chimera"—the album’s brightest gem that offered a different sound perspective while bringing the melodic vitality of ‘the old Pumpkins’ into the picture.

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