The Smashing Pumpkins has gone through as much turbulence in the past two decades as almost any major band other than Guns N Roses. Like Guns N Roses, The Smashing Pumpkins has suffered through numerous breakups and lineup reshuffles, as well the struggles of a charismatic control freak lead singer/songwriter to realize their vision. Unlike Guns N Roses, The Smashing Pumpkins have actually come out with some strong results – Oceania, a new “album within an album” that is part of a larger 44-song project called “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope.”
For purposes of this review, I will only focus on “Oceania” as a standalone work. In that context, it serves as a clear link to the original early-to-mid-1990s glory days of The Smashing Pumpkins, recalling both the swirling psychedelia of the band’s breakout album Siamese Dream as well as the more textured songwriting of its followup, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The new CD would have fit right as a continuation of the Pumpkins’ grunge-era sound in the later 1990s, rather than the electronica-themed Adore which marked the end of the original lineup in 1998, and whether or not that sounds promising to you as a listener pretty much determines whether or not you will like Oceania.
Lead singer/rhythm guitarist/tortured artistic genius Billy Corgan is the only member left from the early days, but since he pretty much has always dictated the sound of The Smashing Pumpkins and at least according to popular belief plays most of the instruments in the studio, this is enough to recreate the sonic texture of that era.
Oceania begins quietly with the opening to “Quasar,” a song that starts with a slowly building drumbeat and quiet guitar strumming that quickly evolves into squealing chords and a pounding rhythm and plaintive vocals that echo the Pumpkins’ first song to receive mainstream airplay, 1993’s “Cherub Rock.” The phrase “Let’s Ride On is repeated several times throughout the song, and it’s a perfect message for this album that bridges yesteryear with today.
The second song, “Panopticon,” features an ominous clipped riff and shows off the melodic side of Corgan’s vocal abilities before hitting a floaty bridge. “Run through the fields I’ve denied, and stroll upon the years I’m alive,” Corgan declares, concluding the song by telling listeners “There’s a sun that shines in me,” which offers a surprising amount of optimism from the notoriously gloomy frontman.
Meanwhile “The Celestials,” with its lush synthesizer, gentle acoustic chords, and generally mellower sound that recalls mid-1980s alt rock (when alternative music was genuinely “alternative”), would fit in perfectly on “Mellon Collie.” And “Violet Rays” goes even deeper into synth wizardry, conjuring the spirit of 1970s prog rockers such as Yes or ELO.
Appropriately, the song that best sums up Oceania is the title track, a nearly ten minute opus that begins with a distorted riff that somehow sounds like it fit into one of the background instrumentals from the Oliver Stone/Al Pacino classic Scarface, and then progresses through a dizzying array of tempos, instruments and moods. Much like the album Oceania, the song “Oceania” includes elements of acid rock, heavy metal, folky acoustic rock, punk, New Wave, progressive, and some other stuff that can only be classified as “Pumpkins.”
While the song itself can be a bit jarring, spread over a whole album all the different sounds and concepts blend nicely and ultimately make sense. For a period of time The Smashing Pumpkins looked like they had the potential to be the next U2; Corgan shares Bono’s gift for creating over-the-top anthems that hit their mark, although the lyrical content is dark and mysterious instead of straightforward and earnest. For a variety of reasons The Smashing Pumpkins imploded before this could happen, and at this point it most likely never will, but Oceania is a strong return to form for a band that could do wonders to help revive a struggling rock n roll scene.