Lesser-Known Gem: Hydrotoxin – Oceans

Band: Hydrotoxin | Album:Oceans | Genre: Progressive metal | Year: 1996

From: Hanover, Germany | Label: Crystal Rock Syndicate

For fans of: Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Pain of Salvation, Queensrÿche

Listen

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Lesser-Known Gem. I’ve got no shortage of new music in my queue to cover, but I also love highlighting more obscure releases from the past. Today’s topic is one of my favorite albums of the 1990s. I have not been shy about my general indifference (often bordering on distaste) for a lot of prog from that decade, but Hydrotoxin’s one full-length release, Oceans, is one of the best distillations of the classic ‘90s prog metal sound.

I discovered this album when I was 18 or so and I searched “progressive metal” on YouTube. Somehow, the nine-and-a-half-minute title track was one of the top results. (It might have even been the top result.) Running that search now will yield primarily playlists and contemporary releases, which makes more sense. 2008 YouTube’s search function often left something to be desired, but in this quirkiness it was sometimes easier to find interesting oddities.

Very, very little information about this band can be found online. ProgArchives has the most information, but even that source is sparse and effectively limited to the band members’ names. Rate Your Music claims they put out an EP in 2007, Signal Denied, but I’m willing to bet that this is a mix-up with an identically-named band since neither Discogs nor ProgArchives lists this EP on the band’s page. (Note: I cannot find an easy way to legitimately acquire a digital copy of Oceans. CDs can be purchased through private sellers on Amazon UK and Discogs.)

“Infinite Ways” opens Oceans with tight, technical riffing and distinctive guitar tones, and it quickly resolves into a grand-sounding verse. The music and vocals are both strongly influenced by power metal, but it doesn’t feel as slick and polished as a lot of the schlock I dislike. The instrumentalism is impressive, but it isn’t masturbatory. It’s obvious that English is not the vocalist’s first language, but that’s not something I’m going to ding him for. I do know that it would likely distract some listeners, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Synthesizers are deployed generously, often with twinkling, sparkling textures that add a certain airiness to the music. Despite vocalist Jiotis Parchiridis’s wobbliness with the language, his voice is powerful, dramatic, and deeply effective. He skillfully flows between sweet, gentle passages and more intense moments. He’s like a better version of James LaBrie.

The final minutes of the opening track feature a searing synthesizer solo which channels many of the ‘70s prog giants. Rick Wakeman and Patrick Moraz are the most obvious influences. The transition out of this wonderful passage is a bit jarring, but it’s not a mortal sin. The shift into relatively gentle ‘90s power metal is simply a bit awkward.

The song, “Nexus”, opens with an aggressive chugging riff, while synthesizers add a vaguely Middle Eastern feel. The verses flow smoothly into the grand chorus, and the backing track is solid. The guitar part is majestic, and the bass part is impressive but not showy. There are multiple disparate elements to this song’s structure, but it all manages to tie together neatly.

“Labyrinth” keeps the intensity up with more chugging guitars and the addition of dramatic organ. The arrangement during the verses is relatively pared-back, but that only serves to highlight what is already present. The chorus is mellow without entering into full-on ballad territory. This song does feature some regrettable synth tones, but especially compared to certain artists (cough Rick Wakeman cough), it’s not that bad. Plus, the really bad synth brass is followed up by some fantastic tones in the solo not long after.

“Door to December” was the single off this album, and it’s obvious why. It’s one of only two songs to clock in at under seven minutes (and the other one is sub-two minutes). It’s a smooth, laid-back instrumental led by an enchanting guitar solo and supported with lush synths and solid rhythm work.

The title track follows. I don’t know what YouTube’s search algorithm was like back in the day that it allowed this song to be the top result when searching for progressive metal, but I’m glad it happened. The opening moments feature a haunting clean guitar and a strong vocal performance. The drumming is deft and jazzy, and the starry synth pads help keep the mood tense. The chorus sounds like it’s straight out of Operation: Mindcrime, and this epic manages to evolve in ways which feel natural. There’s a fantastic bass solo during the muted final minute. Nothing about this track feels forced, and its many surprises make it one of the best prog cuts of the ‘90s.

The closest this album gets to schlock is “Forest Rain”. It opens with sappy synth pads and overdramatic guitar, but once the rhythm section joins in, the song kicks into gear. It has an incessant, pulsing rhythm and some of the most intense moments on the whole record. This is the cut where the band goes the hardest, but the synths are severely dialed back throughout much of the first half of this song. The second half is more synth-forward and overall gentler, but it’s still a stellar piece of music.

Oceans ends on a brief little epilogue, “Aquasun”, which features wobbling, watery synthesizers and passionate vocals. This cut sounds somewhat like video game music at points, and I’m not sure I would have ended the album on this note, but I have no strong complaints here.

It’s a pity Hydrotoxin only ever put out this one album. Oceans is one of the pinnacles of ‘90s prog metal, alongside other melodic masterpieces such as Images and Words and Parallels. If you like that synth-heavy, clean, and majestic sound I cannot recommend this album enough. And even if you’re not normally a fan of that style, I’d still recommend giving Oceans a try.

Score: 96/100

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