June 17, 2012

Album Review: The Smashing Pumpkins' Oceania

You'll be hard-pressed to find many whose support for the current incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins remains undying and devoted. Billy Corgan, the band's polarizing founder and last remaining original member, hasn't quite made it easy to love him since breaking up the band in 2000. First it was his attempts at new endeavors with the short-lived indie rock supergroup ZWAN followed by his first and only solo run, an effort which ultimately got swept under the rug the day that it arrived after Corgan took out full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times announcing he wanted the Pumpkins back. What we got was he and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain recording the band's half-decent 2007 comeback Zeitgeist on their own while a couple of fresh-faced placeholders in the band were there for show. A lukewarm sales response of the LP had Corgan declaring the death of the traditional album format and later on, a 20th anniversary tour would grab more headlines for being a bust. Since 2009, the Pumpkins' ongoing long-form singles series Teargarden By Kaleidyscope has garnered mixed feelings from listeners as it wears on. Surprise, surprise -- In typical Corgan fashion, the charisma-challenged frontman has done some soul searching and retracted his latter intention with Oceania, a self-professed "album within an album" that's part of the Teargarden project, but very much stands proudly on its own as this year's most surprising alt-rock return-to-forms.

At this point, Smashing Pumpkins and Billy Corgan may as well be synonymous, as his projects overlap stylistically and see him puppeteer the songwriting. You're best looking at "Smashing Pumpkins" as a brand name that's two parts Pumpkins, one part Zwan and the rest up in the air more so than expecting a return to fuzzy-riffed 120 Minutes-era arena rockers (although, there are some glimmers of that here on Oceania.) New recruits Nicole Fiorentino, Mike Byrne and Jeff Schroeder were supposedly let into the studio on this go (signs of artistic maturity on the part of Corgan?) but don't be naive: It's still just about Billy and his songs. Fortunately for him, Oceania proves that the alternative icon's talents haven't been squandered by rash decisions when decides he'd like to play nice. In 13 tracks and an hour in length, Corgan and Pumpkins v.4.0 careen their way through meticulously-crafted sections of their leaders' schizophrenic songwriting styles. "Quasar" and "Panopticon" may furiously usher Oceania into the stereo with technically proficient heavy metal guitars guns ablazin', but it isn't very long until a bulk of the LP finds itself guided by acoustic pop rock melodies and synth loops in the vein of the Pumpkins's dark-spirited Adore and Machina days, all while Corgan muses romantic lyrical dalliances that are sometimes tough to swallow considering all of the awful things he's said in the press about past band mates and fellow rock stars (Hearing the cueball-headed character nasally assert, "I'm always on your side..." on "One Diamond, One Heart" has to be the epitome of irony, no?)

Give credit where credit is due, however. "The Celestials," "Violet Rays" and "Glissandra" are among the most radio-friendly tracks Billy Corgan has written with the help of any ensemble cast in recent memory while the Siamese Dream-homaging "Inkless" is as good as anything found on the Smashing Pumpkins' acclaimed seminal album. As for everything in between, it's hardly filler, as even the 10-minute title track "Pale Horse" will have you hanging on each delicate six-string plucked by Corgan's pasty hand. An hour later (and a few more minutes to take in the initial surprise,) you have to wonder where he and Pumpkins go from here. Let's hope Oceania isn't just an obligatory "formal album" project to keep the Smashing Pumpkins' brand name in the spotlight before he goes off the deep end again, because if Billy Corgan has shown the world anything here, it's that he can be just as good as most of us remember, just as long as he wants to be.

The Smashing Pumpkins' Oceania will be released June 19, 2012 on EMI Records.

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