Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ocean Rain - Echo & The Bunnymen

The fickle scales which balance talent against recognition treated Echo and The Bunnymen with an uncommon cruelty. Musically, they had it all but somehow never reached the commercial heights of the big hitters throughout the 1980s. 

The brand of guitar-driven post-punk they presented with their debut album Crocodiles, four years prior to Ocean Rain, carried a menace that by this album had been tempered by their growing mastery of melody and arrangement. Clearly their ears were wide open to the music of their 1960’s childhoods in Liverpool as well as David Bowie's finest moments of the 70's.  By the time they recorded this, their fourth studio album, the four piece had reached their pinnacle. 

Ocean Rain was released in May 1984 to claims of being the 'greatest album ever made'. Thankfully more thought went in to the album's music than its promotional strategy. Even hard core Bunnymen fans will acknowledge that there is some case of overselling to be answered, however it is the Bunnymen's best effort, and indeed one of the best albums of that decade. 

Crocodiles is also essential listening, though it doesn’t have the same poise or consideration in arrangement as this nine track masterpiece - nor being a debut release did it have the budget.

Orchestral strings feature heavily throughout this work, as they had done since The Cutter launched their Porcupine album the previous year. Crocodiles featured no strings whatsoever, while the vast majority of tracks on Ocean Rain carry a prominent string section (My Kingdom and Thorn Of Crowns the exceptions), making the contrast between the band's two most acclaimed albums all the more pronounced. Rather than aggressively driving every track, Will Sergeant's guitar now jangles and grinds its way between the melodic spaces allowed by the bowsmiths.

Sergeant is one of the master guitarists of his era. His playing throughout Ocean Rain frequently reveals a tasteful leaning towards eastern music, notably the guitar breaks of Silver, Killing Moon and Thorn of Crowns. His lead passages are invariably relevant, modest and effective.

There is a sense of epic cinema about the entire album. The strings in the album’s second track, Nocturnal Me wouldn’t be out of place in a remake of Lawrence of Arabia, while lyrically the album calls on imagery of seas, oceans, hurricanes and ‘My Kingdom’.

Admittedly many of Ian McCulloch’s lyrics though magnificently delivered, are inscrutable, with little continuity from verse to verse in several songs. The tone conjured by his choice of words is relentlessly brooding, dark and ominous, with precedence given to atmosphere and mood over narrative. 

Killing Moon is perhaps the best known track on the album and maybe even the best known of all the Bunnymen's catalogue. It reached number nine in the UK charts and still gets occasional mainstream - and plenty of indie - airplay. It is a solemn and mysterious tune, the scene of unease set within Sergeant's first few picked notes. McCulloch's dark lyrics alluding to a romantic sacrifice could have been penned by Edgar Allen Poe. It is a gothic triumph, eerily punctuated with atmospheric shrieks and scrapes from the cellos and dissonant piano. 

The track which gives the album its name is probably the most considered recording the band ever produced. Its delicate treatment and beautifully controlled escalation throughout its five minutes shows a group at the very top of their game. Starting with slow pendular bass notes, McCulloch's deep, reverberating vocal sounds as if its being delivered from the fragile rowboat slowly navigating the otherworldly cavelake on the album cover.  

A brilliant moment comes as the song moves in to its fourth minute. The rich string arrangement is starting to move through the gears towards its climax as the refrain begins again "I'm at sea again, and now my hurricanes have brought down this ocean rain". The strings - for the only time in the song - ring out a falling slide that makes the feeling of resignation in torrential rain magically vivid. A magnificent closer to a monumental album.

Track Listing:
  1. Silver
  2. Nocturnal Me
  3. Crystal Days
  4. The Yo Yo Man
  5. Thorn of Crowns 
  6. The Killing Moon
  7. Seven Seas
  8. My Kingdom
  9. Ocean Rain
Vocals: Ian McCulloch
Guitar: Will Sergeant
Bass: Les Pattinson
Drums: Pete De Frietas
Producers: Gil Norton, Henri Lonstan and Echo & The Bunnymen
Orchestral Arrangements: Adam Peters


  1. Disagree entirely. This album, which heralded the Bunnymens attempted entrance to main stream pop, alienated many fans upon its release. Gone is the edge, anger and energy of previous albums to be replaced with an over indulgence of sickly orchestrations. Seven Seas is a decent pop song, The Killing Moon is good, if you can live with the 10 minute fade out. I heard Thorn of Crowns played live before the albums release and loved it but the version presented on the album is lacklustre in comparison.

    Patrick Star

  2. ''Alienated many fans upon its release'' Did it reallY? I'm genuinely suprised to hear this. I used to devour the music press and saw the band quite a few times after its release and can remember nothing negative at all. Whilst Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, and Porcupine had some stand out tracks it was only after Ocean Rain was released that I (as a Bunnymen fan) started to believe that they could actually be a great great band. It has a couple of weak tracks (Thorn of Crowns, as you say, never worked on vinyl)and the Yo Yo Man is not great but the rest of the album was just fantastic.

  3. Track for track, I think this is the best bunnymen album. As close to pefection as it gets, its definitely amongst my top 5 favourite albums. Each album they make is different from the last and I think Ocean Rain provides a nice contrast to Porcupine - whereas its predecessor was dark and pesimistic (and inaccesible on its first few listens), Ocean Rain is a bit lighter and optimistic.

    I think the first 4 Bunnymen albums are all fantastic. Heaven Up Here would be the best album if it had a true killer track/single, such as The Killing Moon, the Cutter or Nothing Lasts Forever.