Blue Ocean Project – ‘Lunar’ review: Ambitious, jazzy delights undermined by immature concept

Bandung five-piece combine jazz, classical, pop and indie influences into a memorable, if flawed, debut

To say that ‘Lunar’ is a surprise would be an understatement. Released to little fanfare and barely any promotion, it’s the debut of Bandung-based quintet Blue Ocean Project. Formed in 2014 by pianist Ditra Prasista and drummer Rio Abror – and operating under the radar since then – Blue Ocean Project have debuted with a surprisingly confident and ambitious set of songs that’s unfortunately hobbled by an underdeveloped narrative framework.

‘Lunar’ is a nine-track concept built around the tale of “a schizophrenic girl named Stephangie and her imaginary friend Lunar,” to quote the band. To this end, the five-piece – drums, piano, vocals, bass, and flute – flesh out their sonic palette with a 13-person choir section, a string trio, two brass players, and a clarinetist.

Blue Ocean Project certainly aren’t gingerly dipping their toes into the pool on ‘Lunar,’ and accordingly, opener ‘Overture’ doesn’t mess around. The band’s classical music influences are most evident here, with its rousing choirs and motet-inspired call-and-response vocals. Blue Ocean Project bookend these neo-classical stylings with scene-setting piano jazz, and bridge the gaps between the two genres effortlessly, making for an impressive first song.

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The whole album is suffused with classical music influences, but it’s definitely modern, fusion-leaning jazz that most strongly influences the compositions on ‘Lunar’. Keith Jarrett’s work for labels like ECM is a definite antecedent, but the closest pop-culture link is likely – stay with me here – American composer Jerry Martin’s work for Maxis video games SimCity 3000 and The Sims.

‘Lunar Appearance’ and title track ‘Lunar’ showcase Blue Ocean Project’s urbane, upbeat jazz, shot through with a vibrant sense of whimsy and optimism (something that ‘Lunar’ shares with Martin’s soundtrack work). Admirably, the band manages to steer clear of anodyne pop-jazz, too, and the music’s always compelling no matter how smooth it gets. Things do get poppy, but tracks like the fiery piano, drum, and bass jazz workout ‘The House’ and four-minute drum solo ‘Trouble Odyssey Part II’ prove that ‘Lunar’ isn’t a ‘pop-jazz’ album in the slightest.

Another critical element to ‘Lunar’ is a noticeable – and undeniably twee – indie rock influence. At times, ‘Lunar’ harkens back to the heady mid-2000s “orchestral indie” days of Owen Pallett/Final Fantasy, Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens. Songs ‘Tree’ and ‘A House, A Tree and A Person’ wear this influence on their sleeves with their sing-song melodies and lush, orchestral instrumentation. It makes for some surprisingly catchy music.

While the music itself is a cut above the norm, Stephangie’s tale, as told through the lyrics and in the accompanying booklet, is disappointing. The schizophrenia narrative is shallow and lacks nuance, failing to rise above clichés and facile depictions of mental illness. The spoken-word narration of ‘Troubled Odyssey Part I’, where Stephangie argues with herself/Lunar, ostensibly after meeting a “Doctor Mostafa Liu” who offers her some “colourful pills” (in other words, antipsychotic medication), is particularly grating.

Though their hearts are in the right place, Blue Ocean Project’s take on schizophrenia feels quite naïve. They try to cast a sympathetic light on Stephangie and her struggles, but it’s compromised by a shallow narrative and awkward writing. There’s a deceased father, a bad mother (who tells Stephangie “you must hear my voice rather than that glass you always talk to”), and a throwaway reference to poor self-esteem, all presented in a very touch-and-go manner that fails to lend any depth to her character.

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Fortunately, while the narrative gets in the way on occasion, those moments are the exception rather than the rule. It’s relatively easy to ignore the story and just enjoy the musical delights on offer. There’s a lot to like on ‘Lunar’, even if it’s hard to shake a feeling of disappointment in the album’s theme and narrative. That said, nothing’s stopping Blue Ocean Project from working on their writing skills, and they’ve at least got the music part of the equation down pat. A band to watch.

Details

Blue Ocean Project Bandung album review Lunar
  • Release date: January 22
  • Record label: Independent
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